A Very Tape Raider Christmas
THE BRAIN is a 1988 sci-fi horror movie that takes place around Christmas time. That’s not an important part of the plot, but there are Christmas decorations at the beginning, “Jingle Bells” plays (and then ominously slows down) on a car radio, a pot of poinsettias gets shot by police during a chase scene, I noticed a sign in the school for a dance or something with the theme “Cosmic Christmas,” and there’s some snow on the ground. Also the movie itself is kind of a Christmas gift to me because it’s pretty good and its weird vibe and gooey special effects warmed my heart like I imagine a yule log would if I had ever experienced a yule log in person.
First and most important order of business is to assure you that the title and cover art are not misleading. Though it was made during the height of slasher sequels and shows a strong A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET influence, it is indeed a movie about, as the hero calls it, “that brain monster thing that’s killing everyone.” And they show it right at the beginning – a big slimy pulsating brain with a tentacle/spine hanging out like a tail, hooked up to some machines in a lab at the Psychological Research Institute (PRI). I think it was wise to establish that we’re dealing with arguably a goofy ’50s drive-in movie throwback before the first big scare sequence and not after. Pull that Band-Aid right off.
I mentioned ELM STREET because of some great set pieces that are very reminiscent of Wes Craven’s nightmare scenes. An angsty teenage girl named Becky (Susannah Hoffmann, PAY THE GHOST) is in her bedroom when her teddy bear starts bleeding a black substance. A monster arm busts out of her TV screen and grabs her. Then another one tears through the door. The whole room starts shaking and the walls start moving closer together. I kept expecting her to wake up, but it’s not a dream, it’s some kind of hallucination. And she does snap out of it in time for her mom to come upstairs to see why she’s screaming… only to have a tentacle grab her! And Becky starts chopping at the tentacle, splattering green goop. But the tentacle is not really there, and in fact she’s stabbing her mom and then she falls through the window. A murder-suicide as far as anybody will ever know.
(Before we move on, I want to note that in addition to a unicorn poster, Becky has one of a bunch of shirtless muscle dudes on a beach. I thought that was good since we usually see bikini lady posters in ’80s teen movies.)
There’s some almost Cronenbergy shit going on in this town. Many parents are fanatically dedicated to a local TV show called Independent Thinkers, with your host Dr. Blakely (David Gale, RE-ANIMATOR), broadcast live from a studio inside PRI. His fans are so proud to be Independent Thinkers who tune in to learn about independent thinking and file in like drones to join the studio audience. There’s an element of the troubled teen reprogramming scams of the era, with Dr. Blakely treating youths who act out, which really means hooking their brains to wires so his friend the brain monster can read their brainwaves and give them the hallucinations, which turn them murderous, and then he talks about the murders on his show in order to promote his treatments that would supposedly prevent them. It kinda seems like he really believes he’s doing some kind of important work, but really it’s a horrible cycle of death.
Our hero is Jim Majelewski (Tom Breznahan, TWICE DEAD, MIRROR MIRROR, SKI SCHOOL, ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS), a smart kid with good grades but despised by the teachers and vice principles because of his crazy pranks. He even kinda looks like Charlie Schlatter, who replaced Mahoney in POLICE ACADEMY: MISSION TO MOSCOW, and he’s that same kind of smarmy dude who thinks it’s hilarious to 1) blow up a toilet 2) squirt glue on his teacher’s chair. One of these things you figure out pretty early on was foreshadowing, but it’s still kind of a laughable way to set up a cool hero, and that characterization is the main thing holding this back from classic status. If he was a really likable outsider, like a punk or a heavy metal dude, the parents just don’t understand themes would be much stronger.
But Jim is the guy who gets sent to the clinic, so he’ll have to do. The treatment shows us what’s on his mind, so the cool blond doctor (Bernice Quiggan, SKULLDUGGERY) appears topless to him. He has a girlfriend, though. Poor Janet (Cynthia Preston, PROM NIGHT III, THE ULTIMATE WEAPON, Eleanor Snell in the 2013 version of CARRIE, voice of Princess Zelda in various cartoons) has to go through all this with him. Two weird moments in their relationship:
1) they have sex not knowing that the brain is watching them on a TV monitor, and then a skeleton comes to life
2) she’s chained up in a meat freezer surrounded by dead bodies and watching Jim bumrush Independent Thinkers on a TV monitor. It even has sound.
Most of the time the brain just sits in that lab sending out hallucinations or controlling people. Just like the doctor he’s broadcasting influential programming. Jim sees little flashes of the brain’s face when weird shit is happening. Yes, the brain curls open and reveals a face with sharp teeth, and stays that way for the rest of the movie. World’s largest Madball.
And if you’re wondering how Dr. Blakely feels about his specimen having a face, here is his reaction:
A favorite moment is when Jim is driving and his steering wheel breaks off and a tentacle comes out of the shaft and then he imagines the brain flying at him, but it’s inside a black triangle.
Thinking about it afterwards I decided that they probly had planned to composite it the normal way but then realized the shot was in too much shadow for it to look right so they came up with the triangle. Or maybe they just didn’t have time to matte around it. At any rate it makes it much more bizarre, and I love that. I wonder if Panos Cosmatos has seen this one.
Then every once in a while the brain moves around the building and attacks people. The size is not always consistent, but when it tries to chomp our heroes (it’s kind of like an evil Pac-Man, isn’t it?) it’s an impressively huge animatronic.
And that’s not the only threat. Adults keep blaming their murders on Jim, so he’s always running from the cops, who seem perfectly willing to shoot him when he’s unarmed and running away. Worse, Dr. Blakely has an assistant (George Buza) that goes after him like the T-1000. He chops a cop’s head off with an ax. He has a scary look and I immediately recognized him but had to look it up to remember it was from a much more recent Christmas horror movie: he was the killer Santa in A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY. He also played regular Santas in THE CASE FOR CHRISTMAS and ELLIOT THE LITTLEST REINDEER.
Also a guy gets stabbed in the dick with a chainsaw. Good scene.
I have been spoiling so much of the movie already, but I got one more big one. There’s a great moment where, maybe by accident, Jim solves a huge part of the problem in the simplest, dumbest way. He runs onto the set of Independent Thinkers and punches Dr. Blakely in the face. I don’t think he knows it’s gonna cause his head to fly off and explode into a pile of green slime so that all the studio audience and viewers at home realize they’ve been brainwashed by an alien. One punch knockout.
As far as b-movies go this has pretty impressive production value. The monster effects are cool and pretty frequent. There’s some good gore and hallucinations. They dropped a car off a cliff.
It’s filmed in Toronto, but takes place in the U.S. according to one line of dialogue. One sign that it’s Canadian: composer Paul Zaza is the guy who scored all the PROM NIGHTs, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, and most of Bob Clark’s movies (even KARATE DOG).
Another sign: the use of the word “washroom” in the pre-end-credits disclaimer their lawyer must’ve sold them on.
See also: THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT end credits.
In the very last scene a little bit of time seems to have passed since they killed the brain (spoiler), and a Christmas tree is laying in front of the house waiting to be picked up with the trash. By this I think we can deduce that December 25th happened in the interim and that they were all able to enjoy the holiday without brain monster thing troubles hanging over their heads.
Director Ed Hunt’s other science fictional works include STARSHIP INVASIONS (1977), PLAGUE (1979), the documentary UFO’S ARE REAL (1979) and ALIEN WARRIOR (1986), but I know him for the nutty killer-kids movie BLOODY BIRTHDAY (1981). His only post-THE-BRAIN credits are the 1995 interactive short THE JUNGLE BOOK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF MOWGLI and HALLOWEEN HELL (2014), “a biting, satirical horror movie” about reality TV, with Eric Roberts as Dracula. Screenwriter Barry Pearson wrote a couple of those, including BLOODY BIRTHDAY, as well as PAPERBACK HERO and FIREBIRD 2015 A.D.
THE BRAIN is one of those movies that I look at the VHS cover and realize I’ve seen that thing sitting on shelves since the ’80s. But it took the book Yuletide Terror listing it as a movie that takes place at Christmas time to get me to finally rent it. According to Blu-Ray.com, it has been released on DVD in the U.K. and Spain. No U.S. version and no Blu-Ray. Your move, Scream Factory or Arrow.
And merry Christmas, friends! Don’t watch any weird doctors on TV.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.