The Brain (1988)
Canadian horror gets a bad rap. It’s easy to say horror movies from Canada consist of David Cronenberg films...and the rest. Sure, I’ll go on record as saying Cronenberg is the master, no question about it, but ignoring the wide variety of non-Cronenbergian offerings from our friendly neighbors up north would be doing them a major disservice, eh? Thanks to the tax breaks and places like Toronto which can stand in for major American cities, thousands of films have been shot in Canada, both horror and not. For the towering The Changeling (1980, Peter Medak), it doesn’t matter that it was filmed in Canada, it’s just nice to know. The same goes for the underrated Rituals (1977, Peter Carter), My Bloody Valentine (1981, George Mihalka), Deranged (1974, Alan Ormsby/David Gillen), Happy Birthday to Me (1981, J. Lee Thompson) etc.. Other filmmakers like Vinenzo Natali (Cube, Splice), Paul Lynch (Prom Night), John Fawcett (Ginger Snaps), Bruce McDonald (Pontypool), and Guy Maddin (technically only Dracula, but his work has horror elements) are Canadian directors through and through.
Of course, no discussion about Canadian horror would be complete without the late, great Bob Clark, whose wildly diverse career began with Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, Dead of Night, and the undisputed classic that is Black Christmas. Then there’s Sandor Stern’s Pin (1988). Stern, who gained immediate street cred as the scribe on The Amityville Horror (1979), directed this strange but eerie effort and although I hold it in high regard, I also find that it’s indicative of most mid-to-lower tier Canadian horror. Pin has certain hallmarks of Canadian horror: very little blood, some nudity, a quiet, even relaxed tone, and a peculiar feel. Made in the same year, The Brain (1988) is nowhere near the movie Pin is but has these same thematic elements. In fact, The Brain looks as though it was shot years before since it lacks Pin’s sheen. Still, as a genre flick, it’s worth a look.
Director Edward Hunt and writer/frequent collaborator Barry Pearson (Plague, Alien Warrior, Bloody Birthday) certainly cook up a fantastic opening. Although only a major “metropolitan area” is mentioned, we’re led to believe this story takes place in a country with stripes on its flag, not a maple leaf. Still, it’s got that Canadian flare that no one can stifle. Dr. Anthony Blakely (David Gale) hosts a show called “Independent Thinking,” a self-help-style program whose lettering looks very much like The Stuff (1985) packaging.
David Gale scored a late career success with the classic Re-Animator (1985) and would only live until 1991 to enjoy it. Gale often portrayed the perfect combination of respectability, creepy charm, and smarmy evil. Here, he practically comes off as a televangelist; spouting off psychological mumbo-jumbo to gullible viewers. A mother watches TV as one of Dr. Blakely’s patients, her daughter Becky, goes to her room. Becky is played by Susannah Hoffmann, a Canadian actress, so you know very well she was definitely in Anne of Avonlea (1987) as I believe most of Canada was. A white teddy bear begins to bleed, dark red claws and tentacles smash through the wall and television set, and her room starts to close in. Her mother comes up to find out what the rhubarb is. Another tentacle grabs her mom. Stabbing it repeatedly, Becky comes out of her hallucination and sees that she’s stabbed her own mother to death. A giant brain-like creature smashes through her mirror, wraps itself around her neck, and she’s either flung or throws herself out the second story window and onto the pavement, dead.
Many horror fans complain when films have a DVD cover with a fantastic-looking creature and the movie either doesn’t deliver or keeps the monster in shadows for most of the running time. Hunt has great confidence in the monster effects provided by Mark Williams, a Larry Cohen favorite who worked on It’s Alive III, Wicked Stepmother, Invaders from Mars, and Aliens, so we see it quite a bit.
It's Christmas in Canada as our hero drives his cherry red Ford LTD to school. The unfortunately named Jim Majelewski (Tom Bresnahan) is a bit of an asshole and the Canadian version of an angry teen in that he’s super smart, won’t do his school work, and pulls a bunch of pranks. He drops ‘pure sodium’ into a toilet but happens to walk right into an administrator, Mr. Woods (Kenneth McGregor), just as the toilets and water fountains explode. Woods threatens Jim with suspension which would result in him not graduating. This last part gets Jim’s attention and all of a sudden, he cares. Not to sound like an old man, but Jim is a prick and it’s not like he didn’t know what would happen. He should be suspended and punished for what he’s done. Instead, they decide to send him to Dr. Blakely. His parents agree, prompting his mother to assure him: “Dr. Blake wouldn’t be on TV if he wasn’t good.” The parents and teachers stand up, awkwardly and silently staring at each other as Jim squirts super glue on Mr. Woods’ chair.
He makes out with his girlfriend Janet (Cynthia Preston) in his car later that night. Jim and Janet? Yeecchhh… The scene is mostly pointless, save for a seemingly innocuous detail that Janet won’t ‘go all the way’ until she’s in college. As Chef once said, “There’s a time and a place for everything. And it’s called college.” Preston would do a bit of horror here and there, including the female lead in Pin, as well as her brief but memorable walk-on role in the classic Kids in the Hall sketch “He’s Hip, He’s Cool, He’s 45.” Her biggest break would come years later with a wildly popular role on General Hospital.
Jim arrives at PRI (Psychological Research Institute), which seems to be run by one security guard, a couple nurses, and Dr. Blakely. The impatient security guard tells him to follow the white line and Jim is immediately turned on by the doctor’s assistant, Vivian (Christine Kossak). He’s a dirty little horn dog and checks her out as she leaves. They pop some standard ‘scientific’ pads on his temple and show him a video of Vivian holding an apple. The monster brain is on the other side of the two-way mirror and seems to be testing Jim as the apple changes to a baseball. He starts hallucinating that Vivian is topless and standing in front of him. The movie uses basic in-camera techniques to give a surreal feel to the scene. Jim gets pissed and leaves while Vivian criticizes Dr. Blakely, to which he replies quite directly, “Your mediocre mind cannot begin to comprehend the importance of my work. I suggest you look into your own neurotic behavior. Then perhaps you will understand your continuing negativity.” Before she can look into her own neurotic behavior and maybe question why Blakely sounds like an alien, the brain decides to have a snack and swallows her whole.
Jim’s car won’t brake and a red tentacle pokes through the steering wheel. We get constant quick cuts to the brain, who’s seemingly controlling all of this. He crashes in a fiery wreck which he walks away from with a couple of scrapes. Stumbling into a burger joint where Janet and her fellow employees are forced to wear awful red neckerchiefs, he hides away in the back room. Since the movie is about hallucinations, this gives Hunt the opportunity to employ wild effects with very little context needed. CO2 tanks spurt blood and the tentacles return to attack Jim. He flails and fights the invisible beasties all the way into the dining area, where relaxing Canadians were previously enjoying their moose burgers in peace. The only other nurse from the institute, Verna (big, beefy character actor George Buza) gives Jim an injection and lugs him back to PRI. Jim wakes up in a padded room, but for no reason at all, a weirdo patient he met earlier springs him.
At the exact same time, Janet and her friend Willie (Bret Pearson) arrive at the institute. Rather than trying to get some information first, they bring bolt cutters and break in through the smallest boiler room door in history. Maybe that’s just how they do it in Canada. While Jim sneaks around, he spies the titular brain but is caught in the act. He just happens to make his way down to the boiler room and damn if he’s the luckiest son of a bitch this side of Montreal! He runs smack dab into Janet and Willie. Amazing timing! Unfortunately, Willie’s luck isn’t so great and he’s devoured by the brain. They get out of the building and the lucky streak continues since Willie had the keys but he keeps a spare IN the car. I used to use that magnet under the car for a spare key, but now I just take my chances and leave my spare car key at home. Willie literally has his other key in the glove box. Meh, as Bowling for Columbine taught us, nobody locks their doors in Canada anyways.
They get away but the only on-duty cop in Canada, Officer Marks (Harry Booker), pulls them over. I’m no expert on police procedure, but I’d assume it’s best to holster your weapon while you handcuff suspects. He haphazardly holds his revolver while trying to cuff the kids and it’s a wonder nobody gets shot. Nurse Verna shows up and we’re not quite sure what’s about to happen. In a real crowd-pleaser moment, Verna produces a huge axe and chops Marks’ head off. It’s fabulous, unexpected, and unfortunately one of the only gonzo moments in the entire movie.
Jim and Janet make their escape but soon realize that the “Independent Thinking” program, along with the brain, is controlling its viewers. The film does work as a relatively subtle commentary on television's ability to turn us all into mindless zombies, but there’s an added bonus. TV and the brain can also take over your mind, so it forces Mr. Woods’ wife to disembowel him with a chainsaw. Jim gets blamed for the murders through some simple throwaway lines. Displaying what borders on psychic forethought, Jim happens to have made duplicate keys to the high school in metal shop. They let themselves in and immediately separate. Janet stupidly calls her father but doesn’t tell him where they are. She decides to have sex with Jim now because staying a virgin is for hosers, amirite?
The cops show up the next morning and take precaution before entering the school. It’s unclear whether Janet’s dad called them even though he didn’t know her whereabouts. They know he’s in there already? Or are they just checking out the school? That would make sense except that they warn each other about how dangerous Jim is. Janet takes a looksie at Dr. Blakeley’s TV show and as quick as you can say MTV VeeJay, she’s hooked. Brainwashed and hypnotized, she rejects Jim and accuses him of murder while the cops (I wish they were Mounties) shoot to kill without so much as a warning. There’s a real missed opportunity here since the brain can control people and it would be a cost-effective obstacle for Jim to deal with if random people tried to kill him.
This high school is an embarrassment of riches since he finds a car in the shop that, despite missing a hood, runs just fine. In fact, much faster than the cop cars chasing him. The chase lasts too long and is frankly, a bore. Jim runs the car off the road and fakes his own death, which would work unless they actually decided to check the wreckage, but how likely is that to happen? There’s an amateurish fade to black and now it’s night. Time for the finale. One of the film’s key flaws is the establishment of the connection between Jim and the brain. We’re never sure what their deal is. Jim has a very high IQ, that‘s certain, but is the brain simply trying to kill him or does he need him for sustenance? Maybe he needs a human host to carry out his plans for world domination? Either way, it’s fuzzy. Although there’s the Becky death in the opening, I’d have liked to see it established that everyone who participates in the test either goes crazy or dies and Jim was the first one who passed, making him special. That would have made more sense.
The banner for the big event where Dr. Blakeley’s brainwashing infomercial goes nationwide looks a little on the cheap side. You’d think he’d maybe throw a little money at Kinkos and go for the nice signage. The brain can communicate through a red-hued computer screen, informing the doc and Verna that Jim is in the building, having snuck in with the studio audience and donned some slick 80’s shades. Where he got those glasses, I have no idea. It states: “I WANT ACTION!!” If the brain is able to sense Jim’s presence, why can’t he tell them where he is? Instead, Verna goes searching. Remember, this institute is huge but has limited staff. Jim's mother, hypnotized, points him out as the notorious murderer. Everyone’s reaction is indicative of Canadian emotions: pretty relaxed. Some security guards finally give chase.
Jim wanders onto the set and knocks Dr. Blakeley’s block off. Like in Re-Animator, Gale’s head lands on the ground, but this time, green entrails protrude from his neck hole. He was an alien, I guess? We’re then treated to a VERY poorly-written monologue about what’s going on from Jim. It repeats itself and sounds far too simple for someone with a sophisticated mind like his. Vivien is tied up in the basement because they apparently captured her. Would’ve been nice to have that information. There’s a lot of running up and down stairs and Verna is eaten by the brain. In general, it’s fine that the brain eats its victims, but I’d prefer something a bit nastier, like the brain bug in Starship Troopers (1997) sucking the goo out of people's skulls. A decent jump scare occurs when Jim opens the garage door and the brain, now huge, roars into frame. Warnings about ‘sodium’ have been posted all over the place, so you know what’s coming. He shoves a big heaping tank full of the stuff into the brain’s mouth and KABLOOEY! Everything is back to normal and he was apparently absolved of those pesky murders since he’s accepted to Princeton, among other prestigious schools. He drives off with Janet and we’re treated to one final appearance by the brain. The movie doesn’t have a twist ending of any kind, so a repeat of the triangle-shaped smash cut to the brain is the best it can muster. Not a thrilling conclusion.
The movie has far too many contrivances, lucky breaks, and plot holes to be taken seriously. What saves it from being horrendous is its creature design and its villains, Gale and Buza (who used his Neanderthal looks to great effect in Quest for Fire, many appearances as Santa Claus, and a long-running stint on the amazing X-Men: The Animated Series as Hank McCoy/Beast). Gale died far too young due to complications from open heart surgery and unfortunately, Alan Parker’s The Life of David Gale is not a biopic of the late actor’s career.
I will admit something that I’m quite ashamed of. At Dragon*Con one year, I attended an H.P. Lovecraft panel and for a door prize, we were told to guess the name of the villain in Re-Animator. This was a heavily-attended panel, but for some reason everyone blanked, including myself. I thought it was David Gale, but that damn Parker film messed me up. I did, however, guess the name of the Great Old One, Cthulhu, so I got a little Lovecraft-inspired bouncy ball. The trip to Atlanta wasn’t a complete waste, I guess.