Pop culture is currently experiencing a boom of 1980s nostalgia. From Stranger Things on Netflix to Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism, science fiction and horror are squeezing every last drop of neon-soaked nostalgia from their audience. Before this, the 1980s experienced its own longing for 1950s culture. Back to the Future (1985) is perhaps the best example of this, but a crop of horror movies – including direct remakes of The Fly (1958 and 1986) and The Blob (1958 and 1988) – made the most of contemporary audiences’ desire to relive and re-evaluate past culture. Edward Hunt’s The Brain (1988) combines 1950s creature feature antics with 1980s aesthetics and an attempt at Cronenberg/Carpenter social commentary. It is the perfect addition to 101 Films’ Black Label series, which has previously released Brain Dead (1990) and Tammy and the T-Rex (1994).
It’s Christmastime in Meadowvale, and teenage troublemaker James Majelewski (Tom Bresnahan) has finally pushed his parents too far. At the urging of the school faculty, they send Jim to the Psychological Research Institute where the enigmatic, urbane Dr. Blake (David Gale) attempts to correct his behaviour. “Dr. Blake wouldn’t be on TV if he wasn’t good,” Jim’s mother says, unaware of what exactly the Institute means to do. Jim resists their attempts to brainwash him and escapes, soon realising that he may be the town’s only hope against the combined hypnotic power of Dr. Blake and the titular Brain.
It may seem odd to criticise the protagonist of a film whose main draw is the creature effects, but it must be noted that it is very hard to like Jim. An attempt at the 1980s formula – a jerk you can’t help but love – he spends much of his time causing trouble and coercing his girlfriend into sex. Bresnahan cannot be blamed for Barry Pearson’s script, and in fact, gives a great performance; his compassion for a mentally ill patient at the institute (a character so criminally underused one wonders if most of his scenes ended up on the cutting room floor), combined with his palpable terror during intense hallucinations, add great depth to a character who is, mostly, not particularly sympathetic. Much of the film is comprised of Jim running from one side of the screen to the other: a series of chase sequences that bog down an otherwise fun experience.
On a more positive note, Paul Zaza’s score is a nostalgic ‘80s fan’s dream. Both composed and performed by Zaza, the drum- and synth-heavy music drives the action. It fits perfectly alongside the visuals, captured by Gilles Corbeil. The Institute drips with ‘80s style, recalling at times Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), and the incongruous restroom from Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). There are many visual Easter eggs for film fans, with perhaps the most surprising being a reference to the use of monitors in The Manchurian Candidate’s (1962) press conference scene. At its core, The Brain is commenting on our attachment to screens, as Videodrome (1983) did before it. Dr. Blake’s TV show ‘Independent Thinking’ is quite literally a hypnotic conduit, an ironic comment on the audience’s inability to think any other way than Blake dictates. (APPLAUD MORE SMILE MORE request the flashing signs beneath the show’s logo.) It would be foolish to argue that satire takes precedence over monster movie fun, but the commentary is more than serviceable, and adds depth to what might have been a shallow creature feature.
Of course, the star of the show is the Brain itself, but we would be remiss not to mention some technical issues. Almost immediately noticeable is the sound mixing. Footsteps echo in every setting, while chains and pulleys lifting heavy metal doors whisper. Much of the dialogue is lost beneath the music, or simply the background noise. While an audience is not in danger of missing some crucial revelation, it would be nice to hear what the characters are saying. This reviewer switched on the subtitles, which were sometimes inaccurate, but provided sublime descriptions of the monster’s ‘squishy chewing’ that undeniably enhanced the viewing experience. David Nicholson’s editing also detracts from the fun. Scenes feel either too long or unfinished, with heavy cuts confusing continuity.
Thankfully, Mark Williams’ creature effects are great fun. The cold open – featuring a teenage girl, tentacles, and a teddy bear – sets the tone perfectly. The Brain itself evolves over the course of the film, spending much of the runtime in one room. Operated by Chris Thiesenhausen and Phillip M. Good, and enhanced by Larry Chase’s computer animation (which is noticeable, though perhaps unnecessary), the Brain is a delightful monster. Admirably, the film treats this otherworldly villain as a real threat: a squishy, oozing, unfathomable creature. Jim’s first hallucination is preceded by flashes of the Brain’s face in the dark – a sequence reminiscent of Pazuzu’s subliminal appearances in The Exorcist (1973).
Despite some great effects and fun kills (we are treated to deaths by chainsaw, axe, and teeth), The Brain never quite comes into its own. It is almost fun, but stretches of silence and unimaginative chases preclude this. It is almost horrific, with an appearance of the brain in the climax is beautifully choreographed. However, the film falls short constantly. It is hard to root for Jim, and Blake’s villainy is too restrained to invite true animosity. There are moments of brilliance here, even if most are lifted from other (better) films, but it makes a compelling case for a special edition release, and 101 Films has done a fabulous job.
- Limited edition booklet: Includes ‘Ed Trauma’ by Andrew Graves and ‘Thoughts for Food: TV Terrors and other prevalent anxieties in The Brain’ by Liam Hathaway (NEW)
- Sounds of the Mind: Paul Zaza on the Brain (NEW)
- 2k scan of the original negative
- Commentary with director Ed Hunt
- Commentary with composer Paul Zaza
- Commentary with actor Tom Bresnahan
- Canada on the Mind – An interview with actress Cynthia Preston
- From Monster Kid to Monster Man – An interview with actor George Buza
- Brain Art – An interview with assistant art director Michael Borthwick
- Food for Thought: A Love Letter to the Brain
- Still gallery
The Brain releases on August 1st and is available to pre-order now. Grimoire of Horror thanks 101 Films for providing a copy of the film in exchange for an honest review.
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Isabelle is a writer from the UK who enjoys alternative manga and horror films. When not writing, you can probably find Isabelle buying books or obsessing over Martin and Lewis.