The Brain (1992)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: April 30th, 2019
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
80s horror is sometimes dismissed as the era of the Dead Teenager movie, a distinction thatís probably more fair than most of us would like to admit. However, itís also true that some of the decadeís horror fare was occasionally sympathetic towards its nubile victims. The best of them--letís say something like A Nightmare on Elm Street--even function as an allegory for teenage anxieties, their horrors a direct reflection of the metaphorical boogeymen that haunt adolescence. And then thereís something like The Brain, which tries to pull this kind of thing off but winds up feeling like public access Cronenberg. Weíve seen teens in peril trying to convince adults about an insidious conspiracy before, but this is the only way to see it with a big-ass, rubbery brain monster.
Jim Majelewski (Tom Bresnahan) is a pretty recognizable troubled teen: heís the type of kid whoís brilliant but canít stay out of trouble, probably because heís so bored with the system, man. To get his kicks at school, he drops sodium bombs into the toilet, soaking teachers and administrators with sewer water. It turns out that this is the red line, though: if Jim wants to graduate, heís going to have to agree to therapy sessions with Anthony Blakely (David Gale), an enigmatic psychologist so renowned for his work that he has his own television show. Ironically named Independent Thinkers, the broadcast actually carries a signal to control his audienceís minds with the help of the giant, sentient brain lurking in the bowels of his facility. During his examination, Jim rejects the mind control, causing him to hallucinate before he learns the truth about Blakelyís sinister plot. Branded a psychotic murderer after his escape, Jim has to hit the road with his girlfriend Janet (Cynthia Preston) to clear his name and foil the mad doctorís plan.
The Brain hails from the waning days of the Canuxploitationís golden age, so thereís a sense of faded glory lingering about the whole thing. Non-Canuck Ed Hunt--perhaps best known for slasher freakout Bloody Birthday--seems to be conjuring the conspiratorial vibes of early Cronenberg, crafting something that feels like the mutant offspring of Scanners, Videodrome, and 50s creature features. Thereís a lightness and silliness to The Brain that puts it into the company of the latter especially. Itís basically The Blob, only A.) it features a big fuckiní brain and b.) itís got that distinct, late-80s Canuxploitation pallor going on that makes it seem much more gritty and somber than it really is.
Because, and I canít stress this enough, we are dealing with a big, man-eating brain here. Its origins are non-existent, nor is there really any attempt to build a mystery. Thereís just a big brain hooked up in Blakelyís lab--maybe itís something heís concocted himself, maybe itís some creature he discovered. Either way, itís bad news for Blakelyís audience and patients since this thing is capable of doing pretty much whatever it wants. Itís capable of seeing across tremendous distances and changing its size and shape at will; it can apparently even teleport to a targetís location, which leaves you wondering why Blakely doesnít just rely exclusively on this ability. Instead, he dispatches a lab assistant goon (George Buza) with an axe to track down Jim and Janet, which leads to one of my favorite moments in the movie. After hacking up an innocent cop, the goon insists that Jim has claimed yet another victim, pointing the back-up squad car in the teenís direction, all while brandishing his still bloody axe. I donít think we can trust this townís police work.
This and other assorted nonsense (full body brain-chomping, a crazy-glue-to-the-ass gag, visions of topless nurses, to name a few) make it hard to take The Brain too seriously, even when itís trying to capture some of that teenage angst. To be frank, Jim and Janet donít have a lot going on in the way of personality, and the biggest drama in their lives (well, besides the vast conspiracy thatís put them in the crosshairs of a killer mutant brain) is whether theyíre going to bone before they go off to college. Far from a throwaway bit of dialogue, this forms an entire subplot that climaxes exactly as you think it would: with the raging hormones taking the wheel at the most inopportune but laughably entertaining time. Jim and Janetís logic is pretty sound: they might not survive this ordeal, and who wants to go out a virgin? Who among us wouldnít do the same when confronting a mad scientist and his plot to control the world with a living brain monster? Kudos to Jim and Janet for recognizing their right to be horny under duress.
In a lot of movies from this era, itíd also be a death sentence, but not with The Brain, which remains content to be a silly monster movie. Admittedly, it does stumble upon some pointed satire, as Dr. Blakely represents the sort of self-help, New Age gurus and televangelists that came into prominence during this time. No matter the background, the messaging was often the same: ďsalvationĒ was yours for just the right price or mindset (but mostly price), leading to a hivemind conformity that was often skewered in 80s genre works. The Brain would have you believe that its titular monster isnít the real monster of the story: itís actually Blakelyís monster, thank you very much, making the mad doctor the storyís true villain. But Frankenstein this ainít, not when the big climax here finds Jim having to fend off and destroy the overgrown (and increasingly unconvincing) creature without a hint of introspection about what all the chaos and carnage means. For all we know, this brain is a twisted creation, one thatís been warped into doing its masterís sinister bidding. Weíll never know for sure, though, because Hunt and company have to pay off that early sodium bomb gag somehow. And if you think they condone such behavior, I refer you to one of the greatest end titles disclaimers of all-time:
The Brain was one of those trapped-in-VHS obscurities until Scream Factory finally released it last year with a nice little Blu-ray edition. Boasting a sparkling 2k restoration and a surprisingly lively 5.1 DTS-MA track, the film looks and sounds terrific. Scream outfitted the disc with an abundance of extras, too, including three feature commentary tracks: one with Hunt himself, another with composer Paul Zaza, and a third with Bresnahan. Four separate and eclectic interviews allow fans to hear from Preston and Buza, both of whom recount their lives and careers before discussing their contributions to The Brain. First assistant director Michael Borthwick also discusses his lifelong fascination with horror and how stoked he was to work on a production like The Brain. Perhaps the most interesting interview subject is John Campopiano, a film archivist and Brain superfan who intently researched the film and opened a correspondence with Hunt himself. His story should serve as an inspiration for all obsessives: dwell on a film enough to become that guy (or gal!), and maybe you, too, can one day be an interview subject for a Blu-ray release. (On that note, I would like to let Scream Factory know that I am available if they ever do a Freddy vs. Jason collectorís edition.)
Campopianoís lifelong fascination with The Brain started in a familiar location: the video store, where its box art was too enticing to resist. Noting that in his interview seems perfect because you almost have to consider that to be The Brainís natural habitat. It belongs to that more innocent time when all you really needed was cool art for a movie thatís content to be low-rent Cronenberg before briefly transforming into low-rent Stuart Gordon with its outlandish, over-the-top gore effects and an absurdist streak that canít be denied. No, itís not the first movie youíd pick for this sort of thing, and maybe not even the second or third; however, if all your other go-to options were checked out and this one was still on the shelf? Thatíll do, brain. Thatíll do.
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