With horror industry heavy hitters already in place from the 1970s, the 1980s built upon that with the rise of brilliant minds in makeup and effects artists, as well as advances in technology. Artists like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and countless other artists that delivered groundbreaking, mind-blowing practical effects that ushered in the pre-CGI Golden Age of Cinema. Which meant a glorious glut of creatures in horror. More than just a technical marvel, the creatures on display in ‘80s horror meant tangible texture that still holds up decades later. Grotesque slimy skin to brutal transformation sequences, there wasn’t anything the artists couldn’t create. It Came From the ‘80s is a series that will pay homage to the monstrous, deadly, and often slimy creatures that made the ‘80s such a fantastic decade in horror.
Frank Henenlotter’s follow up to Basket Case brought a much more effective anti-drug campaign than that of first lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No,” in the form of pint-sized parasitic Elmer. Or Aylmer, for the initiated. When an older couple loses their ancient parasite in their apartment complex, it finds a home in Brian (Rick Hearst). More specifically, it attaches itself to Brian’s brain stem and injects its addictive blue liquid, sending Brian into a euphoria that he can’t get enough of. The only problem is that Elmer demands to be fed human brains in return.
Set in the same seedy underbelly of New York as Basket Case (Kevin Van Hentenryck even cameos with the basket during a scene set in the subway, and Beverly Bonner plays a neighbor), Brian’s relationship with Elmer mirrors the journey of an addict. The bright colors of his highs and the ecstasy he feels quickly erases the bloody, violent way in which he first meets Elmer. Before long, he’s sleeping all day and disassociating with everyone around him. He ventures out all night, tripping on Elmer’s blue liquid while Elmer takes over to kill victims for their brains. None of their deaths are pleasant, and one in particular proved to be very controversial. When Brian finally realizes the bad outweighs the good, he tries to let his girlfriend in on his dark secret, but Elmer refuses, inducing nightmarish hallucinations and shooting pain. Further cementing the heavy addiction metaphor is the extreme withdrawal to those who no longer receive regular injections from Elmer.
The phallic blue Elmer, with his cartoonish eyes and sharp hooked mouth came from creature designer Gabe Bartalos (Leprechaun) and the animatronics of Elmer by David Kindlon (The Blob, DeepStar Six). With a fiberglass skeleton underneath a foam rubber skin, the animatronic Elmer puppet contributed to most of the appearances in the film, with visual effects supervisor Al Magliochetti’s work overlapping the animation and visual effects of Elmer. Bartalos also sculpted a much larger version of Elmer for close ups, where Elmer’s mouth unhinges and his hooks protrude to latch on and inject his addictive venom.
Later revealed to be Aylmer, though still pronounced Elmer, the phallic little parasite stems from Faustian legend, handled in a darkly humorous way that only Henenlotter can relay. If the creature’s design wasn’t indicative enough of the humor, then Elmer’s unique voice does. Elmer is a wily charmer, with a comedic voice that doesn’t seem to quite match the short stature. He’s voiced by John Zacherle, a singer, radio personality, and voice actor. Zacherle was most known, however, for his lengthy stint as television horror host Roland for WCAU’s Shock Theater in the late ‘50s.
Like most of Henenlotter’s work, Brain Damage doesn’t exactly have a mainstream appeal. While it was given a limited theatrical release 30 years ago, on April 15, 1988, the film was mostly ignored or disliked until building an eventual cult following on home release. It wasn’t until Synapse Films’ DVD release around 2007, where a lot of the gore was put back in, that it really started to find its audience. The quirky design by Bartalos and Henenlotter’s equally quirky sense of humor meant another memorable horror comedy that was ahead of its time.