The Brain [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Shout! Factory
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (5th April 2020).
The Film

On occasion I have mused about the good ol’ days, spent endlessly perusing the aisles of my local video store and committing to memory a number of awesome VHS covers for films which I never watched. As an adult it’s been fun tracking down some of these titles… though the less fun part that usually follows involves me learning the cover art far exceeds the film itself in terms of quality (shocker). That’s not always the case, though. Sometimes a film manages to, at the very least, capture the vibe given off by its eye-catching art. I’m gonna say “The Brain” (1988) fits that bill. The VHS artwork features the titular organ with a wide, toothy maw and massive dark eyes, partially hidden in shadow. It’s a striking image. You know how it goes with most cover art creatures – the picture sells you and the special FX underwhelms you. But in this instance the eponymous gray matter actually looks fairly spot-on… just so long as it isn’t moving.

James Majelewski (Tom Breznahan) is a smart slacker, excelling on paper but causing mischief constantly in his daily life. The kid loves a good prank. After a particularly explosive stunt at school the principal finally has had enough and so, during a meeting with James and his parents, threatens to expel the boy and ensure he doesn’t graduate unless he enrols at a local psychiatric institute run by Dr. Blakeley (David Gale), who offers a new-age kind of treatment. The institute wants total control over its patients – and viewers of its television program – and it does this with a massive sentient brain that transmits, well, brain waves over the air, influencing some viewers to perform horrific acts. It also eats people. James proves insusceptible to The Brain’s influence and soon he escapes the facility, sending the second act of the film into chase mode; however, eventually all roads lead back to Dr. Blakeley.

There are plenty of cool concepts going on in this low-budget Canadian psych-horror film, and it also gives off a slight early David Cronenberg vibe which I was fully into. The story also feels like it would work within the wheelhouse of Cronenberg, with the notion of a brain-sans-host using the guise of a self-help guru (Dr. Blakeley) to secure victims it can manipulate and sometimes eat – and with every body it devours its size continues to swell. James, having a strong mind, is unable to be controlled and that’s why even though he seems like such a small cog in the larger wheel The Brain is obsessed with overtaking him; it’s all about power. The opening scene is packed with some great hallucinatory nightmare stuff and it set a high bar for things to come. I felt the film could have explored The Brain’s abilities further, including how it came to be working with Dr. Blakeley. The budget likely dictated the story’s direction but there is more material that could have been mined.

Gale might be named Dr. Blakeley but he’s practically reprising his role of Dr. Hill in “Re-Animator” (1985) and if you think I’m only saying that because his role is that of genial-yet-nefarious doctor just wait until the end rolls around. Still, he has one helluva screen presence and I was a tad bummed out his role isn’t as big as I expected. Breznahan is shouldering this thing and he’s… ok. He’s never convincingly good, though he’s also never outright awful. George Buza is a beast of a man and even though his henchman character is one-note he makes sure that note is intense. There’s a certain charm to mediocre acting in low-budget films and so I tend to cut a little slack. Everyone is giving it their all.

"The Brain" has a bitchin’ design and the film does a decent job of “hiding the seams” so the autonomous organ can float around the set and (sorta) convincingly consume adults. Really, the only time the effect lost me was during the climax when The Brain is flying through a warehouse on what is probably a forklift, looking like a floating pizza. But still, watching that rubbery face and teeth interact with actors is infinitely more convincing than if it had been done with CGI on a film at this budget level. I had a fun time with “The Brain” and I’m glad it wasn’t a complete disappointment as so many childhood rediscoveries are.

Video

I had no major qualms with the film’s 1.85:1 HD 1080p 24/fps image mastered using AVC MPEG-4 compression. The print used for this master appears to have been kept in good shape. There are no major age-related defects or debris. Colors are sharp and there are many examples of fine detailing present. Film grain is moderate veering toward heavy but that’s a look in keeping with the low-budget roots. Contrast is mostly solid but a few scenes look washed out. Seeing as how the U.S. never got an official DVD release this is going to no doubt impress fans that have yearned for a proper release.

Audio

An English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies the audio and it’s generally a fine track. A couple pops are heard throughout and some minor hiss is present but this is a fairly simple track with nicely balanced dialogue and good fidelity for the sound effects. Paul Zaza’s score is filled with punchy synth cues. Subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired.

Extras

This release isn't exactly listed as a "Collector's Edition" but considering the amount of extras it probably should be.

There are three audio commentary tracks, the first from the film's director Ed Hunt, the second track features the film's composer Paul Zaza, and a third and final track featuring star Tom Breznahan.

“Food for Thought: A Love Letter to The Brain” (1080p) is a featurette that runs for 11 minutes and 21 seconds.

“Canada on the Mind: Cynthia Preston on The Brain” (1080p) is an interview that runs for 11 minutes and 17 seconds.

“From Monster Kid to Monster Man: George Buza on The Brain” (1080p) is an interview that runs for 12 minutes and 33 seconds.

“Brain Art: Interview with Michael Borthwick 1st Assistant Art Director” (1080p) is an interview that runs for 12 minutes and 52 seconds.

A still gallery (1080p) runs for 3 minutes and 49 seconds.

Packaging

The single BD-50 comes housed in a standard Blu-ray keep case.

Overall

Low on budget but high on ambition “The Brain” offers up some thoughtful plot ideas, while also serving as a helluva fun creature feature filled with 50's throwback vibes and 80's-level gore.

The Film: B- Video: A- Audio: B Extras: B+ Overall: B+

 


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