Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Film Review: BRAINSCAN (1994, John Flynn)

Stars: 4.1 of 5.
Running Time: 96 minutes.
Tag-line: "Wanna play? I dare you."
Notable Cast or Crew: Edward Furlong (TERMINATOR 2, "Livin' on the Edge" music video) , Frank Langella (MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, FROST/NIXON), T. Ryder Smith (off-Broadway theater star, winner of a Drama Desk Award), David Hemblen (THE SWEET HEREAFTER, TOMMY BOY), Amy Hargreaves (MICHAEL CLAYTON). Music by George S. Clinton (HELLBOUND, AMERICAN NINJA 2).
Best one-liner: "That outfit's totally bitchin'!" –"You think so?" "I know so. You look like that one girl in that one video by what's his face. Only better."

BRAAAAAAINSCANNNNNNNNNNN!!! That's right, folks, we're talkin' BRAINSCAN. Now, on occasion, I get a little too excitable about the movies that I watch and I'm perhaps prone to a little exaggeration. Under different circumstances, I might be labeling BRAINSCAN a masterpiece. Instead, maybe I'll simply say that it's a thousand times better than it ought to be. The reason for that might have something to do with the fact that its directed by John Flynn (THE OUTFIT, ROLLING THUNDER, OUT FOR JUSTICE), a master craftsman, "get 'er done"-style filmmaker who had more in common with Hawks, Peckinpah, and Fuller than anyone on Earth who you'd assume to be directing BRAINSCAN. How he ended up directing material worthy of R.L. Stine is anybody's guess, but here we are, so let's take a look at it.

On the surface, it seems a bit like a mash-up of TOTAL RECALL and VIDEODROME as written by, as I said, perhaps R.L. Stine for his FEAR STREET series. (For those not familiar, R.L. Stine was kind of the 1990's Stephen King for kiddies.) Brian Owens (HAPPY HELL NIGHT) and Andrew Kevin Walker's (SLEEPY HOLLOW, SE7EN) screenplay is certainly an enjoyable enough, twist n' turn-filled narrative, but it feels like an R-rated episode of EERIE, INDIANA (at best) or GOOSEBUMPS (at worst). On the page, it could certainly go either way. But Flynn grabs ahold of it, wrestles it, and emerges with an atmospheric, surprisingly immersive work of cinema!

Immediately, you can tell something strange is going on when you hear the opening theme (composed by George S. Clinton, whose most notable credits include several Cannon Films and the AUSTIN POWERS series), and instead of rootin'-tootin' honkytonk and wacky piano (as George S. Clinton is certainly known for), you hear soothing, foreboding strains- guitar reverb, ominous synths. Evidently somebody's Brainscan'd George S. Clinton and replaced him with some fusion of Angelo Badalamenti, Howard Shore, and Mychael Danna! And speaking of Egoyan (Mychael Danna is Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan's composer), BRAINSCAN almost feels like one of his films! (He did EXOTICA, THE SWEET HEREAFTER, THE ADJUSTER, SPEAKING PARTS, and FAMILY VIEWING, among others.) The gloomy, direful atmosphere; the engaging, gradual presentation of media commentary; the forlorn voyeurism; the muted, glossy, impersonal nature of society... in other words, Flynn is not going the R.L. Stine route. That 'Egoyan feeling' is amplified by the fact that David Hemblen (an actor who has appeared in ten Egoyan films) appears here as a disapproving teacher.
Now I can't find any interviews with Flynn which reference BRAINSCAN, but I still feel as if I can say with certainty that he had Egoyan on his mind.

But what the hell is BRAINSCAN, exactly?, the uninitiated are likely wondering. Well, I'll tell you. It's "the ultimate experience in interactive terror."
Edward Furlong plays Michael, a horror flick-obsessed, denim-clad lad who operates a film club at his school (where they screen movies like DEATH DEATH DEATH- PART II). He's one of those 80's and early 90's movie teens who has a bedroom tricked out with all sorts of ridiculous gadgets, sculptures, bizarre props, and a creepy virtual butler- a rich tradition embraced by everyone from Ferris Bueller to Pee-Wee Herman to Slater in PUMP UP THE VOLUME. Furlong's a rich kid, his dad is out of town, and, curious about this new 'Brainscan' CD-ROM game that's the talk of the town, he decides to give it a whirl. His absent father exists only as a disembodied voice on a non-responsive machine (voicemail), whereas Brainscan is immediate, immersive, and personal. He calls the 1-800 number (more on this in a bit) and talks to a human who calls him by name! Is there really any choice? Bring on Brainscan!
Now, it's basically Dario Argento meets Virtual Reality, and you play as a black-gloved malfeasant who murders people in their sleep. Sounds like a great game, right? Well, morbid little Furlong seems to like it just fine.

Oh yeah, and before I forget: the game is hosted by THE TRICKSTER, a freak-dancing CD-ROMMY "Freddy Krueger meets Drop Dead Fred"-type who wears a nose ring, eye-liner, long pimp fingernails, a fiery red mohawk skullet, and is, in short, the greatest thing to happen to the movies since the advent of sound.

He's played with incomparable élan by the Drama Desk Award-winning T. Ryder Smith, who maybe you recognize from the American theater, perhaps from Sarah Ruhl's acclaimed PASSION PLAY where he played such figures as Queen Elizabeth, Adolf Hitler, and Ronald Reagan.

Yeah, this guy is amazing. He leaps and bounds and gesticulates with a Shakespearian panache and animal intensity.
I'm reminded of Scott Cohen's astounding performance as 'Wolf' in THE 10TH KINGDOM. Why the hell don't these theater guys get more work?! Would I rather watch some pretty-boy WB douche brood around in a stagnant movie with bad blue 'indie' filters, or would I rather watch the Trickster surge through a film like a flash flood, exuding psychotic magnetism and tearin' the hell outta the joint? 100% of the time, I am choosing The Trickster. So there.
Anyway, this is all well and good until Mr. Furlong discovers that Brainscan is not actually a game– there's some sort of ALTERED STATES-esque warp and these people are dying for real. And to make matters worse, their feet are turning up in his fridge. (Well, only one foot, to be exact, but you get the idea. And his attempts to dispose of said foot end quite comically with an overeager canine and a nod to YOJIMBO.) Before you know it, a no-nonsense cop- played by the one and only Frank Langella- starts sniffing around, and it's only a matter of time before Furlong's found out...
But then up pops THE TRICKSTER– and, you think you can just give it up and quit like that, Sonny?! Well, not when there's all these CD-ROM discs for you to play before all this is over!

Now, John Flynn's vision of suburbia is singular and quite striking. It's the lushest depiction of suburbia I've ever seen– every scene looks as if it was filmed immediately after a light shower. As such, overcast skies and a vague wetness permeate the mise-en-scene- it almost feels like a dreamlike Midwestern rainforest. Furlong is kept pretty sweaty, too- nightmares, hair-raising situations, and the constant taunting of the Trickster can be fairly stressful. It lends the film a certain, tactile aura; all this humidity is almost something you can feel... can place your hands on.

Well, a pool of blood transforms into a CD-ROM, The Trickster engages in trickery, and all manner of mind-bending events occur. There's even a nod to Fritz Lang's THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE, with some ominous crosscuts of leering African masks during a murder.
Then The Trickster torments our hero with a video camera in what seems to have later been mirrored by David Lynch in LOST HIGHWAY, when Robert Blake eerily brandishes a camcorder.
If David Lynch is a fan of BRAINSCAN... Well, I'm not sure why, but that would make me very happy. (The man's always been exceptionally tight-lipped about his contemporary influences, though, preferring to focus on Tati, Wilder, Hitchcock, or Buñuel.) Annnnyway, the film ends. You think you're safe. And then- I shit you not- THE TRICKSTER HIJACKS THE END CREDITS. So help me God, I love this movie. A little over four stars.

Annnnnnd one last side note:

But back to that 1-800 number. The film flashes the number "1-800-555-FEAR," which is awesome, and could've even been an acceptable title for the film. I thought about what happened when we called the Encyclopedia Britannica Kid, and impulsively, as the film was running, I decided to give it a go. I was pretty excited as I dialed 1-800-555-FEAR. I had it all figured out. "Oh, hello. May I speak to The Trickster? ... No, it's just 'The Trickster.' Big guy. Long nails. Red mohawk skullet. Yes, yes, it's regarding the uh, CD-ROM he sent me? Yes, the Brainscan. Yes, that's correct. Yes, I'll hold." Unfortunately, I was unable to say any of those things- it went straight to a recording which told me to call a 1-900 number, which suspiciously sounded as if it had more to do with talking to sexy singles than Brainscanning. So that's enough of that. But I have to wonder- at one time, was the Trickster's number live? Could unsuspecting kiddies call it up and have the shit scared out of them by a live, mocking T. Ryder Smith? I sure hope so.

-Sean Gill


Unknown said...

Whatever happened to Edward Furlong and his career? Substance abuse I heard. I know I saw him at a Q&A for PECKER when it screened at the Toronto Film Festival and he looked very hungover and said very little. Of course, he was standing next to John Waters who can (and did) talk a blue streak...

GuyR said...

I saw this one recently, while being sick as a dog in my bed. And I really enjoyed it, something connected!
Maybe the sweat.
I was glad to see Edward Furlong being pretty damn close to his John Connor persona.

P.S : where's the picture of T.Ryder Smith as Hitler, dammit!

Sean Gill said...


I see that Furlong has been working pretty consistently, just not on the most high profile of projects. I feel like I've heard the rumor that he committed suicide from several misinformed parties over the past few years, and each time I check his IMDB and see that he's still among the living and has several projects on his plate. I see just now that he's in Michel Gondry's upcoming GREEN HORNET. That's funny about the PECKER Q&A!

Better to connect over the sweatiness than in shared visions of a taunting maniac with a mohawk skullet! And yeah, totally- the propensity toward electronic gadgets and lack of parental supervision certainly seemed a lot like the young John Connor.

And I've just added a picture of T. Ryder Smith as Hitler as well for everyone's viewing pleasure!

GuyR said...

Hooray, thanks!