For the last four years, Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson has hosted a late-night horror movie celebration called Terror Tuesday and if you are a lover of horror, both esoterically brilliantly and obscurely awful, this night was invented just for you. The Terror Tuesday Report will dissect the movie shown as well as provide a barometer for the audience's reaction; as many of these films demand to be seen with an audience, this proves a vital component to the evening.
This week's film: Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, directed by Romano Scavolini, 1981
The plot of Nightmares in a Damaged Brain...has to be in there somewhere right? It's a lot like Little Miss Sunshine except it's a car instead of a van, it's only one guy, and instead of trying to get to a beauty pageant, he's butchering people all along the eastern seaboard. So it is technically nothing like Little Miss Sunshine. George is a less-than-sane individual who spends several years in a mental institution before being inexplicably deemed cured and released. He proceeds to travel from New York to Florida killing people with the same frequency that most of us would stop for gas on a trip like this. A detective, unconvinced of George's newfound mental health, urges George's former therapist to accompany him on a mission to find George and once again lock him away from society before he kills again.
For me, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain was one of the biggest surprises yet this year. I don't think I have had so little anticipation for a Terror Tuesday film; everything I had heard about this one negating my usual weekly buzz. Zack Carlson's less than complimentary introduction did little to quell my concern. Even as the first few scenes trudged their way across the screen I felt wholly unmoved. But then the film kept rolling, and with each passing frame I realized the film I was watching and the film I was expecting existed on two separate planets.
Ultimately, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain is not a good film. It was made by Italians and as such, their shenanigans of boasting Tom Savini as their visual effects artist based on one set visit is not surprising and lends a familiar nefarious charm to the film. It does however flirt with quality in a way that is respectable in its own right. The fact that a film that harbors exploitation tendencies is not purely exploitative is interesting if nothing else. It is clear that Nightmares in a Damaged Brain has aspirations, some might say delusions, of being a great horror film. And frankly, at times, it is moody and artsy; showcasing some interesting cinematography. Despite some instances wherein he doesn't really seem to know when to end innocuous scenes, director Romano Scavolini displays some real chops. For god's sake, the man references Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up so he is clearly setting his own bar pretty high.
When you watch the performances in Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, two things become readily apparent. The first is that while director Romano Scavolini has an infinitesimal flair for cinematography, he cannot direct actors to save his life. I'm not sure which bothered me more, the doctor who seemed totally unconcerned that his patient was out killing people or the supposedly tough detective who demonstrated all the intimidating manliness of Truman Capote. Nope, I think the winner would have to be the real estate agent who spoke in the fashion in which William Faulkner wrote; sentences running together leaving no time for the other actor in the scene to respond to him. The other painfully obvious fact, in light of the first, is that leading man Baird Stafford is an actor with great natural talent. He clearly needed little to no direction to bring such an unsettling, unhinged madman to life. And hey, he gives us an answer to the nagging question as to what the offspring of Stewie Griffin and Alka-Seltzer's Speedy the Elf would look like.
If there was one major setback to this film's being taken seriously, it would have to be the violence. That being said, I am certainly not faulting the film for its violent tendencies; point of fact, a criterion for Terror Tuesday greatness. There is actually a very H.G. Lewis quality to the kills that, while constituting the film's one exploitative element, also makes the violence ghoulishly entertaining. The connection is bred of the fact that the kills aren't just goopey and loaded with faux viscera, but the lovingly long shots of absolute carnage also smack of the Godfather of Gore. The shot at the end where the axe goes into the man's face was truly inspired. However the film is not afraid to supplement explicit gore with subtle, and arguably more effective moments of atrocity. For instance, the scene wherein George kills a young girl is left largely in the mind of the audience which made it even more unnerving.
There are some other, smaller elements of the film that made for its registering highly on the entertainment scale. The first would have to be the scene in which George is strolling through the seedy side of New York. As a cult film geek, there are few things that fill me with more glee than seeing the infamous 42nd Street and all its trashy theaters in their prime. In Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, George wanders nonchalantly past the warm glow of marquis boasting titles like The Streetfighter, Caligula, what appeared to be a Charlie Chan movie marathon. I was no less than giddy while watching this. I also love the ending. Too often in horror films there exists a hesitation in adult characters to shoot anyone, even the killer! But the kid in Nightmares in a Damaged Brain wastes not one breath filling George with hot lead over and over again. It was awesome to watch little baby Straw Dogs repeatedly pump holes in the bad guy.
This movie amounts to one of the bigger challenges for Terror Tuesday this year. The line up for the months of July and August features the longest run of iconic, classic horror films I have as yet seen. For example, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain was sandwiched between last weeks Night of the Comet and next week's They Live. It was therefore up in the air as to whether Nightmares in a Damaged Brain could compete with that lineup in terms of audience response. I have to say, from the boisterous reaction from the crowd, the film met that challenge and passed with flying, bloody colors. I was surprised at how well this movie was received but I think it's due in part to its flashes of legitimate quality.