Written by: Brian Owens (story), Andrew Kevin Walker (screenplay)
Directed by: John Flynn
Starring: Edward Furlong, Frank Langella, and Amy Hargreaves
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Hey, sausage dick. Man, listen up! 'Brainscan. The ultimate experience in interactive terror. Brainscan is not for the squeamish!"
I once had a history teacher who claimed if you watched all of the movies about the ďold west,Ē they would last longer than the actual time period itself, not to mention give you the wrong impression of what the frontier was like. Iíve never verified if thatís true or not, but I have to think the same logic applies to the virtual reality craze of the 90s. If Hollywood was to be believed, the 90s were a VR utopia, full of technology that transported us to different planes of reality; however, the truth is thatís pretty much all there was to it: some gimmicky movies, plus the disappointing launch of the Virtual Boy. Otherwise, it was all a pipe dream. One of these movies was Brainscan, which is so 90s it probably tastes strongly of Dunkaroos*. This is not a suggestion that you ingest Brainscan, though; in fact, few would even recommend watching Brainscan. Iím not one of those people. You know me by now: if something is this thoroughly 90s (and certainly anything featuring Edward Furlong and soundtrack boasting the likes of Mudhoney, Primus, and Tad qualifies), itís going to be my kind of shit on some level.
Furlong is Michael Brower, a moody teen who basically lives alone in a huge house since his dadís always away on business. Haunted by the car accident that claimed his motherís life, Brower broods in his room, surrounded by stacks of Fango and an elaborate AV system. As the president of his schoolís horror movie club, heís always chasing the genreís next big thing. When his buddy Kyle (Jamie Marsh) stumbles across a video game called Brainscan, the two just know they have to check it out. Despite the gameís cryptic instructions and ominous warnings, Michael jumps right into the ultra-realistic simulation, where he carries out a horrific murder. But it turns out this is no game: Michael is shocked and disgusted when local headlines announce the actual homicide heís committed. Soon enough, heís visited by The Trickster (T. Ryder Smith), the gameís nefarious host who continues to goad Michael into taking his game to the next level.
Brainscan is one of those movies that sounds silly as shit but doesnít quite know itís silly as shit. Therefore, it is, in fact, silly as shit anyway as it puts on a straight face, its long hair dangling in its eyes in an attempt to be serious and cool. If Brainscan was a 90s teen, itíd be those of us who brooded as dragged around enormous wallet chains as our Jncos dragged the ground. Nobody can take it seriously, no matter how much it insists upon it with its moody lighting and somber George Clinton (!) score. Michaelís traumatic memories and subsequent tumultuous adolescence frame the story, yet it somehow seems incidental. At the end of the day, Brainscan is a movie where a Freddy Krueger wannabe hypnotizes Edward Furlong into committing murders under the guise of a video game. Suddenly, the Virtual Boy doesnít seem to be that disastrous since it only killed a bunch of kidsí enthusiasm at Christmas.
But thereís also an upside to a movie with that description because, holy shit, who wouldnít want to watch this? Brainscan is one of those movies where the general aesthetic and time period is too alluring, at least to a certain set. I imagine itís a very narrow set, but Iím part of it. Save for the whole committing murder thing, Michaelís existence seemed like the absolute dream to me back in the 90s: there wasnít a cooler motherfucker on the planet than Furlong at this point, and here he is running a horror movie club and living in an attic space wallpapered with Fangoria. His computer is not only able to play VR simulators, but itís also tricked out with Igor, a digital personal assistant that screened and made phone calls for him. Not that Michael has a ton of phone calls to make, mind you; mostly, he calls Kimberly (Amy Hargreaves), the girl next door but hangs up before she answers. To be fair, it is healthier than his other obsession, which involves peeping on her and taking pictures of her as she changes. Probably not the most healthy relationship, and, as you can imagine, things become really complicated once Michael starts gutting people and covering up his tracks.
But despite my weird affection for it, I have to admit Brainscan doesnít totally work. Thereís the obvious tonal clash between the material and the approach, especially whenever the Trickster is involved. Smithís performance is broad and silly, putting him at odds with the otherwise grungy, bleak vibes. Whatís more, The Trickster simply doesnít do shit. Heís basically the devil on Michaelís shoulder, leading him down a dark path with corny wordplay. Heís basically one of those devious cartoon characters from an anti-drug PSA, only heís trying to get this kid to murder people for whatever reason. Between The Trickster and the hard-ass principal who detests Michaelís horror club, you could almost make the case that Brainscan is an exploration of the residual parental hysteria surrounding horror, here making its final drips in the 90s. The only problem with that is the exploration doesnít particularly go anywhere, and seems to actually suggest that maybe the hysteria had some basis. After all, Michael succumbs to the temptation of the game and commits murder inspired by the media heís consuming. Go far enough down this path, and you seem to have a horror movie that makes a case against horror movies.
Of course, you canít go all the way down that path considering Brainscan changes course at the last moment, revealing that all of this has been Michaelís dream. Quite frankly, itís a galling cop-out in some respects, mostly because itís never foreshadowed and the movie goes out of its way to cheat viewers with elaborate scenes that donít even involve Michael. This is the ultimate example of a twist for the sake of a twist: itíd be one thing if this elaborate dream somehow completed a character arc for Michael that allowed him to overcome the traumatic memories of his dead mother. Mostly, though, it just results in him working up enough courage to finally ask Amy out, only for her to reply ďmaybe. Itíd be funny if it didnít stir up painful adolescent memories of wondering just where you stood with your crush. I suppose you could make the case that the twist is the punchline to an elaborate gag, one that insists that all of this shit is silly. No, horror obsessives arenít going to commit murder in the name of chasing the next genre-related high, nor does media have the power to rot their brain. I will choose to give acclaimed filmmaker John Flynn the benefit of the doubt here. Directing Rolling Thunder earns you that kind of respect in this household.
Sadly, thereís little indication of Flynnís mastery evident here. Sure, he brings a workmanlike steadiness to the production: Brainscan at least looks and feels like a legitimate production, but thereís not much in the way of artistic flourishes to really bring the material to life. An extended POV shot of the first murder provides a glimmer of hope that Flynn will bring some panache, but itís mostly a false hope. Maybe the biggest surprise is the relative lack of gore, too: at the very least, Brainscan might have worked on some levels had it featured some elaborate murder sequences to take advantage of the premise. Instead, itís a little dull in this respect, another reflection of the movieís misguided attempt at self-seriousness and restraint. Any right-minded person would have glimpsed this premise and decided to just let it rip. Flynnís direction, on the other hand, feels tepid and bored. If not for the 90s of it all, Brainscan would be pretty forgettable. Good thing I have a weakness for cocktails involving Furlong, flannel, and Mudhoney. I donít expect most rational people to share that taste; cool people, though? Iím afraid you canít be in my horror movie club if youíre not down with The Trickster.
*I borrowed this phrase from my buddy Nat Brehmer, who you should definitely follow on Twitter.
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