Monday, October 29, 2012

Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981) dir. Romano Scavolini

Logline: George Tatum (Baird Stafford) is a foaming-at-the-mouth psychopath haunted by nightmares of his past who, after being "cured" by a new "secret experimental drug program," begins stalking a single mother and her three children.

Crime in the Past: A young boy in a cute little suit and bow-tie kills his parents with an axe after walking in on them performing some kinky sex. He then licks the blood he's covered in and, you could say, develops a taste for it. They always said he was a sensitive lad.

Bodycount: 8 brains damaged irreversibly.

Themes/Moral Code: A particularly gruesome murder scene (the film's first) demonstrates a gross inversion of the typical slasher's moral code. Instead of Sex being a prelude to and justification for Death, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain informs us that Death can also be Sex. This first murder scene, unlike virtually any other I can recall in slasherdom, is highly and explicitly sexualized to the point of discomfort. Generally, the sexual component in slasher killings is to some extent subdued in favor of the anger and frustration that the stoic, asexual killer expresses-- though their weapons of choice are often phallic in nature, it is their inability to derive any sexual satisfaction from their actions that defines them. This is not the case with Tatum, who, as he straddles his female victim, grunts and plunges the knife repeatedly into her lower abdomen. He does this not with swift, blind, or emotionless fury, but slowly and methodically, wracked with sexual agony. He resembles a man in the throes of guilty passion-- the fact that he collapses onto the body after he's spent, weeping and apologizing to the woman's corpse, confirms as much. It's rare that a slasher villain will express any sort of satisfaction in his or her kills (besides, occasionally, the satisfaction that comes along with sticky revenge), and here we see why: such satisfaction, derived by sexual means, makes the killer in question a whole new breed of monster, one that makes him a bad fit for any appearances on collectible trading cards.

Killer's Motivation: George Tatum is an amnesiac recently released from an asylum after successfully being pumped full of experimental drugs that are supposed to keep him sane and not at all murderous (they don't). His murderous proclivities are triggered by, wait for it, sexual activity. Seeing sex either makes him collapse and start foaming at the mouth or start his stabbing. What's clear to the viewer pretty much from the word go but is obscured and torturous for poor Tatum until the end is that he's haunted by the murder of his mother and father, which he committed as a child after catching them having, wait for it, sex. His goal throughout the film appears to be a reconnecting with his ex-wife and three children by murdering them. How he managed to start a family while being insane is beyond me, and it's never made clear why he's decided they're better off dead. Insanity, I declare.

Final Girl: Like Death Valley (1982), we're given a final boy in lieu of a final girl. C.J. (C.J. Cooke) differs from little Peter Billingsley in that he's rather overtly labeled a Bad Seed child by the film. We have the impression that C.J.'s about one bad report card grade away from some slashing of his own, and so we're never quite sure if he's intended to be our hero or not. He pulls dreadful, near-sociopathic pranks like frightening the babysitter into quitting and covering his shirt in ketchup while pretending like a man on the street has stabbed him, giggling when his mother and her boyfriend arrive back home, having rushed recklessly through traffic to get there. He's a little brat, basically, but not one you'd want to tangle with: when Tatum breaks into C.J.'s home to commit his evil deeds, C.J. pulls out a handgun and shoots him multiple times. Then, when that doesn't seem to keep the resilient psychopath down, C.J. whips out a shotgun and knocks a few more rounds into him. There's very little emotion displayed on C.J.'s part, even when the climax's major revelation takes place: George Tatum is C.J.'s father, bringing the story full circle and employing that old adage, "like killer father like killer son." C.J., sitting in the back of a squad car, gives the audience a knowing wink before the credits role. We knew it.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  I was quite taken with Italian director Romano Scavolini's proto-slasher A White Dress for Mariale (1972) when I watched it earlier this year at the tail end of my giallo moviethon. I noted in my capsule review for that film that it left me quite anxious to check out this later slasher of his, and now, having done so, I'm well satisfied. Nightmares in a Damaged Brain has a certain reputation because of its inclusion on the banned U.K.Video Nasties list back in the '80s. In some ways, its spot on that list was probably a boon. For as much as I enjoyed the film's sensory whirlwind of psychosis (with its hectic editing and nearly beatific central double murder set piece), I fear the film would be a great deal less well known today if those stodgy English censors had smiled on it with kindness. It strikes me as an accomplished film, but one that's just slow and contemplative enough to alienate the genre's more testy viewers. Though it's a swarthy, greasy, ugly film, it's never as grimy as contemporaneous films like William Lustig's Maniac (1980) or Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper (1982). In fact, though it begins with Tatum stalking through a perfectly slimy and fluorescent early '80s New York City (like those two aforementioned films), the location soon shifts to sunny Florida, which is obviously incapable of producing the same sort of atmosphere. While it's fun to see our sleazeball killer stalking his targets on the beach, it cannot help but make him appear like a shark stuck flopping about on sand. But this paradoxical set-up is perhaps appropriate considering the manic, hyper-stylized approach to genre filmmaking that the film displays. I appreciate Nightmares in a Damaged Brain's labored pacing and extended running time (just shy of an hour and forty minutes)-- it strands us in this aberrant cinematic world, one that quite fittingly resembles the jumbled content of a nightmare from a damaged brain, and it keeps us there just long enough to allow us to foster a new appreciation for our slightly saner world.

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