Mike Apichella / September 23, 2021
Outside of David Cronenberg’s work and stray oddities like 1980’s The Changeling, the Canadian horror and sci-fi movies of the 1970s and ‘80s often get overshadowed by their counterparts from the US and Europe. Unlike gory scares from other nations, these films reflect the fears of a society deeply impacted and alienated by the goals of close political allies. When viewed through the prism of the Canadian diplomacy that helped diffuse tension during some of the Cold War’s most dangerous moments, America’s patriotic vanity, the remnants of Old World imperialism, and other messy political controversies appear self-destructive and excessive at worst, futile and absurd at best. The 1988 film The Brain presents a grotesque rumination on suburban neurosis, mass media, and Canada’s place in the tangled mass of global politics. A film whose complex special effects, creature designs, dangerous stunts, and high-speed pacing place it a step above many other ‘80s horror works, The Brain is a seamless hybrid of sci-fi adventure and insane spectacle with political symbolism burning at the core of every scene and characterization.
The Brain was directed by Ed Hunt and written by Barry Pearson, two indie stalwarts who’d been active for the better part of two decades by the time of the film’s release. Los Angeles expat Hunt didn’t begin his film career until relocating to Canada in 1969, where his twisted vision brought life to sci-fi/crime hybrid Point Of No Return (1976) and the cult-classic “documentary” UFO’s Are Real (1979). Hunt and Pearson collaborated on several interesting cheapies, including the convoluted but colorful Starship Invasions (1977) and the kids-on-a-rampage flick Bloody Birthday (1981). The Brain premiered in Toronto on November 4, 1988, generating little interest before quickly fading into the blurry late-night glare of cable TV and the home video market.
Much of The Brain was shot on location at Ontario’s Xerox Research Center, a gargantuan example of architectural modernism that looks like a cross between an alien spaceship and a megastadium. Interior scenes are shot with the stark ambience of a morgue, which emphasizes the building’s grim fictional repurposing as headquarters of the P.R.I. (Psychological Research Institute). The faux medical facility functions primarily as the secret hideout for the film’s titular alien monster, a huge, tentacled, telekinetic mutant brain with gaping jaws, beady bulbous eyes, and an insatiable hunger for human flesh. The Brain works hard to control Earth’s population via a hypnotic P.R.I.-produced TV program called Independent Thinking, which is hosted by the creature’s smooth-talking lackey Doctor Blakely (David Gale of Re-Animator fame) in the guise of a Tony Robbins-like motivational speaker. Unbeknownst to its loyal viewers, however, the broadcast progressively drains their free will whenever it airs.
This process is illustrated when mischievous science prodigy Jim Majelewski (the smirking, Ferris Bueller-ish Tom Brezahan) is punished by his high school principal after one prank too many. The uptight administrator (Kenneth MacGregor) orders Majelewski to get psychiatric treatment at P.R.I. or face expulsion from school. When Jim arrives at the site, he’s greeted by silence and the cold stares of line upon line of emotionless Independent Thinking audience members and P.R.I. “patients,” his wisecracks answered only by the surly mumbling of security guards. P.R.I. isn’t so much a medical entity as it is a psychic meat processing plant where victims are primed for consumption by the operation’s grotesque mastermind.
The giant Brain draws power from the sheep-like “independent thinkers,” whose loyalty springs from the desperate search for an efficient solution to everyday suburban problems—workplace stress, financial woes, marital dramas, and, most of all, raucous teens and juvenile delinquents. Much of the program’s loyal fan base is made up of educators, school administrators, police, and parents, who represent the authority figures who struggle with huge moral decisions that can make or break young lives. They flock like lemmings to the fluffy pop psychology of Independent Thinking and its glorious potential as a universal stress remedy.
Even before Majelewski discovers the grim secret of P.R.I.’s “therapeutic” behavioral modification, he’s shown to be one of the few people who refuse to watch Independent Thinking, and he frequently tries to stop friends and relatives from watching once he notices the show’s damaging mental effects. When P.R.I. thugs and other local authoritarians take note of his disruptive influence, the teen becomes a target and is forced to go on the lam. In the film’s most 1984-esque twist, there’s even a short, PG-rated love scene that occurs while Majelewski and his girlfriend Janet (Cynthia Preston) hide from pursuers in a shuttered school library, a structure dedicated to knowledge and enlightenment—both of which are subverted when Majelewski wakes up the next morning to find Janet watching TV, mesmerized. The latest episode of Independent Thinking comes on, featuring a false portrayal of Majelewski as a psychotic serial killer. Janet starts screaming her head off and rushes out of the library to alert authorities, revealing that the Brain’s power can instill emotional instability just as well as destructive passivity,
Although The Brain does offer something of a critique of the power of television, it does not demonize the medium, much to its credit. The plot revolves around the idea that mass media can only be destructive in a society that refuses to question its authority. What saves Ontario (and ultimately the world) from mass zombification is not technology or Luddism, but Majelewski’s emotional concern for the well-being of his community. Conversely, the monstrous Brain and its violent appetites are cold-blooded and antisocial in the extreme: the creature treats people—from TV audiences, to unsuspecting home viewers, to Dr. Blakely and other acolytes—like interchangeable tools to be used and abused at will (that is, of course, when it’s not busy eating every living thing in sight). The monster is ego and gluttony, a combination of crazed dictator and rabid animal.
That brutal inhumanity is fleshed out in growling, spitting, drooling visuals inspired by a patchwork of iconic sci-fi influences: bits of Audrey II from Little Shop Of Horrors, rubberized ‘50s sci-fi monsters (with nods to 1957’s The Brain from Planet Arous and 1958’s Fiend Without a Face), and Dark Crystal-esque acid nightmares all congeal in the gooey weirdness of the effects work of Mark Williams and Daniel White. Roaring aerodynamic attacks tear across the screen thanks to “brain operators” Chris Thiesenhausen and Phillip M. Good (who doubled as assistant producer), the monster’s cartoon fury providing a perfect contrast to the tragic vulnerability defining many of the characters who fall under its telekinetic death spell.
The Brain’s predictably noisy, ultraviolent demise is contrasted by an unexpectedly subtle final scene. All we see is a quiet, overcast day in an inconspicuous suburban development as victims and protagonists decompress. It works equally well as the set up for a sequel or as an extra layer of political symbolism. There’s no fanfare, no triumphant hard rock anthem blasting over the end credits. Grey skies and contemplation are all that can accompany the calm and unease—and vigilance—born of the Brain’s strange aftermath.
Mike Apichella has been working in the arts since 1991. He is a writer, multimedia artist, musician, and a founder of Human Host and the archival project Towson-Glen Arm Freakouts. Under his real name and various pseudonyms, his work has been published by Splice Today, Profligate, Human Conduct Press, and several DIY zines. Mike currently lives in the northeast US where he aspires to someday become the “crazy cat man” of his neighborhood.