In April 1988, horror audiences received their first dose of Frank Henenlotter’s psychotronic head-trip film Brain Damage. While not initially a success during its first theatrical run, over time, the low-budget sleazefest developed a cult status through its campy comedy and memorably grotesque kills. After becoming the host of an ancient phallic parasite known as “Aylmer” (John Zacherle), a young man named Brian (Rick Hearst) falls into a downward spiral after getting hooked on the psychedelic highs the creature injects into his brain through his “juice.” Forming a Faustian deal, Brian can continue to have his fix in exchange for providing Aylmer his favorite food, fresh human brains.
Although drug addiction is the most commonly cited metaphor, Henenlotter and the film seem bored with such a simplistic analysis. With the sleaze auteur dismissing it as a “very narrow reading” and Brian denying his girlfriend’s accusation that he is on drugs by saying it is “Nothing that simple,” this calls into question how else the film could otherwise be interpreted. Given the potent homoerotic imagery and language in the film, acknowledged and purposefully emphasized by the crew itself, Brain Damage can just as easily be read as a metaphor for gay repression as it can be substance abuse.
Starting the film in a loving relationship with his girlfriend Barbara (Jennifer Lowry) and a close bond with his brother Mike (Gordon MacDonald), Brian sequesters himself away from his heterosexual family unit to indulge himself fully in the orgasmic pleasures a phallic creature gives him, fittingly, through penetrating him from behind. Aylmer’s injection causes Brian to flutter and roll his eyes, blissfully moan, and tilt his head back, strikingly similar to a sexual climax. If that wasn’t enough, the way Brian articulates the sensations Aylmer’s fluid gives him often echoes the way many people describe the otherworldly ecstasy of a particularly powerful orgasm, with quotes such as “Sometimes everything glows with a different kind of light” sounding remarkably close to the experience of afterglow. To top it all off, where does Brian experience his first time with Alymer? That’s right, in Brian’s bed.
During a date discussing the state of their relationship, Brian explains to Barbara that he’s been going through some “pretty intense changes,” describing how he sees the world differently now with the same passion as someone who has newly fallen in love. When Barbara assumes he is seeing someone else, “Sort of” is Brian’s response. His open answer speaks volumes after he quickly abandons their date and gets an injection from Aylmer in a nearby alley. Despite this scene making an undeniable parallel between a homeless man’s drinking and Brian getting his fix, this does not take away from the scene’s sexual subtext. The image of Brian getting pushed up against a wall and sensually groaning as Aylmer fills him with his juice feels akin to a quickie back alley gay hookup.
Aylmer’s phallic design is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence to support a queer reading and was an intentional choice on behalf of the filmmakers, with Henenlotter defining Aylmer as a “surrogate penis” in the film’s original commentary. This is made explicit during the film’s infamous brain-sucking blowjob kill, wherein Aylmer is a literal stand-in for Brian’s penis. In the 2007 documentary Listen to the Light: The Making of Brain Damage, SFX artist Gabriel Bartalos reveals that further phallic imagery can be found sculpted into the brain-like mass of the Aylmer puppets themselves, a choice actively encouraged by Henenlotter — talk about men thinking with their dicks.
In an interview with Fangoria in 1988, Henenlotter claimed that the film’s original script depicted Aylmer as being “so sexual in nature that it was dangerous,” an element that, while allegedly diminished in the script’s final draft, still very much carries over in the film. This is made most apparent when Brian attempts to go cold turkey off of Aylmer’s juice in a scene ripe with bizarre sadomasochistic tension. Upon realizing that Aylmer has been using Brian to kill people in order to eat their brains, Brian vows to stay locked away in a flop house until he is back in control of his body and life.
The dialogue of this scene has deeply sexual undertones, with Aylmer saying in regards to one of their victims that he “sucked him dry in a junkyard” and Brian frustratedly stating that he will continue to stay isolated “till I get your goddamn fluid out of my system.” While Brian goes through the grueling pain of withdrawal, the penile parasite taunts him, serenading him with his rendition of “Elmer’s Tune,” a whimsically campy 1940s love song made even campier through Aylmer’s old queen voice. As Brian reaches his breaking point, close to succumbing to his depraved queer desires, the phallic creature sadistically utters the most sexually charged line of the film: “Ready to beg for it, Brian? Ready to crawl across the floor and plead for my juice?”
Needing to fulfill his end of the bargain for Aylmer to give him the pleasure he’s begged for, Brian begins to cruise around the flop house to find Aylmer’s next victim. “Cruise” is the appropriate term here, as Brian walks in on a muscular beefcake lathering up in the showers, an image you’d find in your average gay porno. According to Henenlotter, bodybuilder Joseph Gonzalez’s inclusion in the film was meant to create a “homoerotic feel,” a feeling all the more enhanced as the camera lingers on white soap trailing down his chiseled nude form as Brian stares at him hungrily. As Brian conceals Aylmer under his towel in this scene, one wonders if Gonzalez’s character is thinking, “Is that an Aylmer in your towel, or are you just happy to see me?”
Male nudity is practically a motif of Brain Damage, far surpassing female nudity in a rare cinematic feat. Packed to the brim with gorgeous male eye candy, handsome men can be seen lounging around in tank tops and underwear encased in dreamy blue lighting, changing out of their sticky underwear in alleys, and washing themselves such as the aforementioned brawny hunk cleaning every crevice of his shredded form in the shower. According to trivia on the movie, Brian was given a split lip in order to distract from him looking, in Henenlotter’s words, “too fucking pretty.” The attractiveness of Brian and Mike as characters make it all the more interesting that the pair were originally intended to just be roommates and not brothers, according to Henenlotter in the film’s commentary. This revision to their relationship makes it hard not to wonder if this decision was partially inspired by the already potent homoeroticism of the film and not wanting to exacerbate it further by having two men live together without family ties to one another. Despite this change, moments such as Brian hallucinating a threesome between himself, Mike, and Barbara still works to plant the seeds of gay repression in the narrative, albeit in a strange incestual way.
In the same way that 1980s America saw a harshening of the war on drugs that increased narcotics abuse-related fear-mongering (best exemplified in Nancy Reagan’s infamous “Just Say No” campaign), the LGBTQ+ community faced increasing homophobic vitriol during the height of the AIDS crisis (the disease being dubbed the “gay plague” by journalists very early on). As both the crack and the AIDS epidemic were primarily centered in Brain Damage’s setting of New York City, it would be silly to suggest that these coexisting issues did not influence Henenlotter while penning the script. Ultimately, what Henenlotter is thematically trying to say regarding both substance abuse and homosexuality seems less important to him compared to exploring their imagery and relishing in his patented perverted humor and style.
While the interpretation of Brian and Aylmer’s toxic codependency as a metaphor for drug abuse often overshadows other readings of the film, it is clear that the queer nature of Brain Damage was an open secret since its inception. Speaking to Fangoria at the time of the film’s release, Henenlotter made his feelings on the matter of Brain Damage’s homoeroticism clear, musing, “One of the guys at the lab was saying, ‘Oh my God, you’re making some kind of weird statement here — you’ve got a monster that looks phallic, talking about his juice!’ What can I say? It’s obviously there.” Standing out as a unique oddity in 80s horror history, Brain Damage is seedy, perverse, and undeniably queer in both senses of the word.
Raine Petrie is a film graduate, artist, and writer from "Cronenberg" Canada. Assigned 80s video store clerk at birth, Raine explores horror and oddball cinema through a gay, trans, and autistic lens.