Monday, June 25, 2012

Summer of Slash: Nightmares in a Damaged Brain




Released as Nightmare in America, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (a title I like much, much better; therefore, I will refer to it by this title throughout this piece) is arguably one of the two or three most infamous titles to appear on the Video Nasties list (I'm going to assume, as I have in the past, that most reading this understand by this point what a Video Nasty is; if not, a simple web search on the subject yields hours of reading material). The director, Romano Scavolini, UK distributor actually released a slightly longer version than the approved cut by the DPP, and so he spent 18 months in jail because of it – the only filmmaker distributor during that ridiculous era of censorship to actually do jail time. Unfortunately, the film itself is pretty bad – coming off often as nothing more than a bad Halloween (at one point the killer dons a mask for no other apparent reason than to cash in on the The Shape) and Maniac (the film’s seedy New York setting) rip-off – only briefly showing glimpses of some kind of coherent filmmaking and coalescing tone and theme. There are times when it is conceivable to see just what Scavolini was going for, and by God, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain seems like a coherent horror film; however, as soon as those thoughts creep into the viewer’s head, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain does something – or cuts to something so random – so inane that it just proves what’s really going on here: schlock. Even with all of the film’s problems, the die-hard slasher fan will probably find something to enjoy here, and the film certainly needs to be seen for its historical importance during the era of the video nasty.



The setup for the story is your basic exploitation/slasher film: George Tatum is in an insane asylum and is haunted by nightmares of a brutal murder that cause him to have seizures and suffer from other ailments (conveniently displayed in one of those scenes where doctors gather around one of those computers that spits out exposition). The Tatum is soon “cured” by pills and sessions with the good doctor (a character so horribly written and acted that it seems the filmmakers were expecting the viewer to believe this guy to be a legit psychiatrist simply on the merits of him having a beard and wearing a tweed jacket) and released back into society.  Once on the streets of New York, the film tries its hardest to emit a tone a la The Driller Killer or Maniac as Tatum visits a peep show where a woman’s sleazy masturbation act causes him to lapse into another seizure.

As the doctor and his supervisor (a low-rent theater actor that gets to deliver the most hilarious line read ever when he screams in disgust, “SORRY!?”) head down to Florida to try and track down Tatum, we’re introduced to a family that is seemingly being terrorized at random. Susan (Sharon Smith) won’t win Mom of the Year anytime soon: she spends most of the movie sleeping in while her kids get themselves ready for school, takes off in the middle of the day for trysts with her Kenny Loggins-lookin’ boyfriend who tells her to stay in his boat with him (I love the line, “can’t the kids make dinner for themselves just once?” – classy), and spends most of her energy just trying to get the babysitter to not quit due to her son, C.J. (C.J. Cooke), and all of the practical jokes he plays on the poor, unsuspecting babysitter. The pieces are in place for a typical hack-and-slash movie (which is obviously based on Halloween, but it also feels a lot like another 1981 slasher/Halloween rip-off, Joe D’Amato’s Absurd) as Tatum makes his way to Florida and to the family’s house where he shacks up in the attic closet waiting to dismantle the family one by one. It all comes together (sort of) at the end after a blood bath reveals the killer’s true identity when Susan sees the killer for the first time and screams that it’s her husband. We then get the full, uninterrupted flashback that we’ve only been catching glimpses of throughout the movie. It’s a helluva an nasty way to end a movie as the final shot reveals that young George killed his mom and dad after confusing bondage sex with his mom trying to kill his dad. So, he cuts of her head and splits his dad’s head in two with an axe.

Yeah, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain is that kind of movie. Normally, I can’t understand why the DPP banned some of the movies they did, but it seems that they had a legitimate gripe about the content here (even though no film should be banned). A child killer wielding an axe (earlier in the film the young C.J. uses a gun) after witnessing mom and dad engaging in rough sex? Yeah, that’ll most likely kill any chances your movie has of distribution. I have to hand it to Scavolini (edit: and the distributor) for sticking to his guns and not editing anything out of his movie (he actually added gore to his film after he was asked to cut certain scenes), but really I feel kind of icky admiring it; after all, admiring that kind of stance is something one should do for a film that warrants that kind of admiration. I mean, would anything really have been lost had Scavolini just cut those scenes? Would the film world – specifically the slasher subgenre – really have been worse off for those scenes not being in the video release of the film? Probably not. And that’s easy to say now in hindsight where almost everything that get released in-tact, but in 1981 it was a big deal and Scavolini believed enough in his “art” to stick to his guns and not make any cuts. So bravo, Mr. Scavolini. Yes, you paid jail time for it, but I don’t care how high or low the art is – censorship is censorship and Scavolini refused to be the one whose hand made the cuts.

Edited to add: as pointed out in the comments, I misspoke in saying that it was Scavolini that did jail time; it was indeed the distributor of the film. Scavolini may or not have had anything to do with what did or didn't get cut or added to the final film released, but I would assume, as director, that he would have some say in the manner.

So perhaps I’m critiquing the principle behind the Scavolini’s decision not to cut his movie, and perhaps I’m thinking too much about the context of the film rather than the film itself. It’s not a very subtle movie, and it’s got that late-70s/early 80s, grimy vibe that reminds one of the aforementioned Driller Killer and Maniac but also of that not-so-flattering New York aesthetic Fulci presented in The New York Ripper. It’s all appropriately grimy and exploitive, yet there’s a lot lacking from Scavolini’s film that other films of its ilk have (despite his shortcomings as director, I’m curious as to why Scavolini never made another horror movie and kind of just disappeared from the business); it’s as schizophrenic as its main character as it always seems to be see-sawing between grimy, watchable slasher movie and horribly inept exploitation movie. The gore is certainly visceral (more on that later) and seems to have taken up the entirety of the film’s budget, but there are moments where it becomes too much to focal point – blood for bloods sake instead of some of the earlier scenes where the violence is truly unsettling. The lighting is horrendous – when a character turns on a lamp, the image on the screen is bleached out to the point where I found myself squinting through a lot of the movie – yet there is a scene at the very end where during the full version of the flashback, the young George opens the shed where the axe is and the light shines through the wooden slates of the shed; it’s, dare I say, a really damn good shot. Finally, the editing is often downright mind-boggling as Scavolini will one moment pace a scene really well – specifically a scene that seems to predate by a year the victim-leans-over-to-reveal-the-killer shot that Argento popularized in Tenebre (and this certainly can’t be the first instance of such a shot, right?) – and create a lot of tension; then, the next moment the film will jump around from scene to scene or flashback to present as it all becomes a very confusing, jumbled mess to sit through, making it impossible to remain invested in the film’s story.

The gore scenes and makeup effects are source of some contention amongst the film’s director and the supposed makeup effects artist, Guru Tom Savini. Savini, still to this day, denies working on the film beyond just a mere “consultant” role (back when it was merely called Dark Games – a horribly banal title), yet the director not only credits him for the makeup effects in the film, but promoted the film to audiences as something Savini – who at that time in 1981 was notorious for his effects in Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th– worked on; it was the main selling point of the movie and Scavolini was smart to use Savini’s name to bring in audiences. Savini, of course, would have an amazing run within the slasher subgenre in 1981, doing memorable makeup effects (that often act as the catalyst for a lot of horror fans to remember these movies more fondly and as something better than they actually are) for Maniac, The Burning, and The Prowler – all of which were films that, at least to the not-so-die-hard slasher fan, were more respected efforts. Scavolini maintains that Savini closely supervised the gore effects (and certain close-ups certainly make a strong case for it indeed being Savini’s work). The original effects supervisor was someone named Lester Loraine (who took his own life after the film was released), and it may just be a case of Savini being a nice guy and not taking complete credit for collaborating with another effects guy. Whoever was responsible for the gore effects, they’re a big reason (quite honestly, if we’re talking the film’s status as a cult film, the gore is the reason why people still seek out this film) why the film was so popular and was widely banned and why people still seek the movie out.

Scavolini reportedly got the idea for the film after reading an article about how Vietnam veterans were being used as guinea pigs for medicine designed to cure schizophrenia.  That’s a decent enough idea to get started, but it speaks to the larger problems that lay within Nightmares in a Damaged Brain: the film aspires to be more than it actually is. So it’s a catch-22 because on one hand you have a film that is intolerable because it’s so apparent that the filmmakers had no idea how to rein in their ideas and still make an exploitation gore picture; on the other hand, you have a film that is, at times, extremely watchable because it’s apparent that there are ideas in its head that often aren’t found in other exploitation movies. The film had aspirations of actually being something (what it wanted to be I don’t know); it’s not Shakespeare, but then that’s not why we watch slashers. And as far as slasher movies go, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain at times feels like a really good one – at least it feels different than most slashers (I attribute that to its Italian-ness) – unfortunately, as a whole, it gets bogged down by its amateurish flourishes and just doesn’t work because it’s too inept in its ultimate goal: creating a jarring, psychological horror film that also dabbles in visceral gore.

5 comments

  1. Scavolini didn't do time, it was the UK distributor.

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    Replies
    1. Anon:

      Thanks. I fixed it. I don't know why I had it in my head that it was the director that did jail time.

      Delete
  2. I love the voiceover warning in that video you posted. Better than the trailer itself (and probably the film too).

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    Replies
    1. Yeah -- the trailer is, in a way, more entertaining than the movie. I knew when I did this movie for this series that I HAD to find THAT trailer, hehe. The voiceover is so great.

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