Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Brain Twisters

Brain Twisters (1991)
Dir. and written by Jerry Sanguliano
Starring Farrah Forke, Terry Londeree, Joe Lombardo

            In the early 1990s, there was a low-simmering fear that computers were going to turn us all into psychotic killers (see, EVILSPEAK, BRAINSCAN, LAWNMOWER MAN, BRAIN TWISTERS). Nowadays, of course, we know that was silly. They only encouraged us to turn into psychotic killers by exposing us to a constant undiluted barrage of humanity’s darkest and most unrestrained compulsions all day, every day, year after year. Most of us just turned into passive piles of clinically depressed glucose, and the rest became aggrieved, reactionary monsters furiously sending rape threats to any woman online who had the audacity to disagree about what Luke Skywalker would do in a given situation. But mostly not psychotic killers, by and large, with probably only a few hundred exceptions a year. So, bullet dodged.

            Back in the innocent days of 1991, though, we had no idea that’s what would happen. In fact, this movie alleges, we didn’t really know what would happen if students were exposed for minutes at a time to abstract pixelated computer animation. It might very well twist their damn brains, for example! Which is, in this case, exactly what happens when the villainous professor referred to alternately as “Dr. Phillip Roth” or “Dr. Phillip Rothstein” (the credits say “Dr. Phillip Rothman,” but what do they know? Let’s just call him “Dr. Phil”) (Terry Londeree, 40th-billed in the Mormon romantic epic THE WORK AND THE GLORY, no other credits) begins subjecting students to some sort of experiment where they watch an 8-bit light show in a little darkened booth while a trippy electronic soundscape plays. Needless to say, it’s not long before one of them (this guy Ted, Shura McComb, no other credits) cracks up, possibly murders his girlfriend (though I don’t think that’s ever definitively established), freaks out at a pinball machine while being interviewed by police, and leaps out the window to his death. 

This is certainly tragic, but would not seem sinister or suspicious in any way, because let’s face it, college students are ridiculous and barely able to stay alive even in the best of conditions (in fact, one of the first emails I received upon arrival to college was a campus-wide communication from the university, begging in apparent helpless desperation for students to please for the love of god stop falling out windows.) There would be absolutely no way to link this dork Ted’s odd behavior to these experiments, except that Dr. Phil gets uncomfortably possessive about the corpse, claims it for himself and demands the cops get a judge to force him to release it, a move which he seems to regard as super slick but definitely, uh, raises some red flags with law enforcement. Even when he gets a court order, he huffs, “I have some imperative matters to accomplish. I’ll be there in an hour,” and storms off, which Detective Frank Turi (Joe Lombardo, PLEASE DON’T EAT THE BABIES) seems to think is rude but not completely outrageous behavior. Turi smells a rat, but since it would be pretty crazy for him to immediately jump to the conclusion that a professor is driving his students insane by subjecting them to a groovy screen-saver, Dr. Phil continues his experiments, all the while being pushed forward by a nefarious business concern which apparently wants his research for a video game? Which I think is supposed to brainwash kids and turn them into mind control agents, although it’s not clear that Dr. Phil is aware of the potential applications of his pure science.

Also there is the main character, White Girl #1 (Farrah Forke, Wings, Lois and Clark, HEAT) who is a college student of some sort, and will perpetually be hovering on the outskirts of all this stuff without ever being directly involved. I believe she will be mentioned exactly one more time in this lengthy review, when she is served a plate of spaghetti.

            BRAIN TWISTERS almost immediately gets down to the business of dragging out a bunch of cheerfully dumb cliches, starting with a rare combo deal of two of my favorite college cliches at once: 1) the professor makes the only relevant point he’s going to make in a presumably hour-long class just as the bell rings, and 2) our protagonist walks into class late, just before the only point we need to hear is being made. Separate, the two are still lazy movie cliches, but combined they becomes a bit surreal as we’re left to accept this young woman casually walks into the class literally seconds before the bell rings. That’s no way to get an education!

            With its standard shady-corporate-science-gone-too-far hook and an even more standard vanilla detective snooping around while a bunch of disposable cracker college kids and their one affirmative action friend get bumped off, BRAIN TWISTERS gamely sets itself up for being exactly what you imagine it is. But of course, this isn’t just some hacky B-movie cranked out by AIP or Cannon or somebody. This is a first-time director working for the prestigious Crown International Pictures, whose regal moniker is somewhat belied by their official website, which appears to have been put up shortly after BRAIN TWISTERS premiered in 1991 and left in its pristine original form ever since. When you think of B-movies, you might think of BLOODSPORT or something. CIP (which had been around since the late 50’s, and made a film as recently as 2003!) was not making BLOODSPORT. Hell, it was not even making AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT. It’s making things like BLOOD MANIA or CRATER LAKE MONSTER or BLUE MONEY, which identifies its genre as "Soft-Porn" :

CIP is probably best known for the terrible-movie classics THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS and MADMEN OF MANDORAS: THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN, films so unbelievably insane and incompetent that they transcend puny human judgements like “good” or “bad.” Granted, those were made in the early 60’s, but the reviews of more recent fare do not suggest that experience improved their creative process much.** And so it was that even in 1991, director Jerry Sanguliano (filming in Scranton, Pennsylvania) managed to make something which is not just terrible, but somtimes terrible in confusing, inexplicable ways which make one wonder how recently Sanguliano had actually watched a real movie.

So right after the opening salvo of cliches, things get more offbeat. First, a major shock: this turns out to be a rare and possibly even unique college movie where a student tries to sleep with a creepy professor for a better grade, and he actually turns her down and tells her to work harder! (Or, alternatively, participate in his evil experiments). Wow, the times, they are a’changing! Of course, someone has to bang the sexy co-ed, I mean, come on, Sanguilio may not have seen that many movies, but he knows that much. So they just have the cop investigating the murder/suicides of all her friends do it, which is hopefully not standard police procedure in these cases. Here’s good mental health tip, ladies: If a cop ever tells you he has to talk to you about the details of your friends’ grisly murder/suicides case that he “can’t get into over the phone,” and then proposes he come over to your house and tell you over dinner...  just say “no.” It can only lead to tedious conversation and inappropriate behavior with a side dish of mind-control murder (and a plate of ostentatiously elaborately prepared ...spaghetti... that both he and the movie agree makes him pretty much the greatest chef since Boyardee).

"I'm not used to an electric stove!" he grouses, apparently unfamiliar with the concept of heat which does not originate with visible flames. This is after chiding this broke-ass college student, who has to work in a creepy lab after school just to make ends meet, about having an insufficiently gourmet selection of herbs. Solid police work, dude.  

Inexplicably, though, this blatant feint towards a more prurient appeal doesn’t actually lead to the expected softcore payoff. They passionately make out in a cramped kitchen, sure, but no clothing whatsoever is removed. In fact, you’ll notice as BRAIN TWISTERS grinds along that it features all the standard beats of a sleazy exploitation movie -- forbidden love subplot, shower murder, even an extraneous bath scene… and yet, not only is there no nudity, there’s not even a hint of T n’ A unless you’re into the tops of people’s shoulders under a mountain of bubbles. Without any leering nudity to distract you, your mind might well start to wander to other topics, such as “gosh, is there any blood in this movie, either?” There are a few deaths, but two happen off-screen, and the only one I think we actually see is a scissor-slashing which results in a thin line of blood on the victim's’ neck, briefly glimpsed as he falls over. The movie claims to be rated R, but unless they dropped some profanity in there that I didn’t notice, I sure can’t imagine why.

After a while, finally it becomes clear that this low-rent horror movie isn’t peddling sex or violence (and it’s certainly not selling itself on high drama) and that it’s instead putting all its eggs in the visual effects basket. Which translates to: a lot of the movie is spent watching oscillating colored squares, which was about the coolest thing computers could produce on the cheap in 1991. Alas, I’m afraid it doesn’t quite hold up as a reason to watch an entire 91 minute movie the way sex and violence reliably do. But I guess it’s cool in a lame sort of way. At any rate, I’ve never seen anything else quite like it.

I mean, there were things that could have been built on, here. The cast seems to be making an effort with their inane, glacially paced dialogue scenes. Londeree, as the villainous professor,  acquits himself nicely enough by doing a solid John Glover (IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS) impersonation, which is fine, because I like John Glover.** And some credit is due to the filmmakers for (whether by amateurish naivety or intentional undermining expectation) not going the obvious route with the villainous professor character. (SPOILERS for a movie you’re definitely not going to see) Any normal movie with this plot would posit him as a sociopathic villain recklessly killing off students for personal gain. He seems real shady and he’s definitely a jerk, but... it turns out he is genuinely surprised that his experiments are killing people, and as soon as he learns, he stops doing them! In fact, since he’s also been experimenting on himself (as we glean from a SHINING-esque glance through his notebook as it chronologically becomes illegible and insane), he’s really just as much a victim as the dead kids, which sort of retroactively explains his bizarre behavior.

There’s a scene later in the movie where he acts really weird to our ostensible heroine (OK, one more mention of her, you caught me) and creepily offers her ice cream (“Vanilla? Come on Laura, be a little daring!” he says, with a weird mix of off-putting strangeness and genuine earnestness, like he’s really trying to inspire her with some wise advice). It would be a pretty standard “overtly friendly sinister guy” scene if we hadn’t just learned that his mind is so scrambled he can’t even write legibly anymore. I think he might genuinely believe he’s being friendly and helpful, and isn’t aware he’s a few pinball machine dings away from turning into a homicidal maniac. It’s kind of a tragic direction to take with the ostensible villain, and it really could have been a potentially interesting character if the movie ever realized it (hard to know if Londeree does get it, or if he just stumbled naively into an interesting portrayal through incompetence, but there’s definitely something intriguing in his performance, if not the script). 

The other parts, alas, are not even in the same time zone as “potentially interesting,” and so any effort on the actors’ parts adds up to exactly nothing. In fact, the harder they try the more dull they make it, since their efforts aren’t anywhere near enough to create actual drama, but are more than enough to ensure you won’t have much fun snickering at their ineptitude (well, maybe the guy who plays Ted.)

The sound designer also seem to be making a real effort, using atonal glitchy computer sounds to depict the killers’ electronically fried mental state. Again, it’s not even remotely close to making the thing watchable, but at least it’s a net gain for the movie. And there’s a Halloween party with masks and stuff, where the only actual “kill” takes place. It’s badly lit and the masks are lame, but it was a thought. You can imagine a remake with a few more genre goods and a good deal more (or less) competence making something less bland out of these elements. Not this time, though; I’m sorry to say so, but mostly it’s not even incompetent in an interesting way. It’s a bad tale badly told, but even at that it’s just too stale and uneventful to even be worth more than a fitful chuckle. The ugly, overlit 1990s photography and borderline competent but witheringly dull characters can’t really be blamed for its failure --it was a lost cause from the start-- but certainly do their part to doom it to rightful obscurity.

There is one cheerfully ridiculous bit that made me laugh out loud, though: once it’s become clear that prolonged exposure to microsoft paint is having deleterious effects on the experimental subjects, Dr. Phil calls up his evil financial backer and yells at him that he thinks this research is “the cause of all these murders and suicides around here, don’t you understand?” and the guy denies it in pretty specific terms and hangs up, then indulges in a few minutes of quiet post phone-call reverie while staring thoughtfully into the distance. That in itself isn’t so funny, except that the next shot changes from a close-up to a long shot… and suddenly we see that he’s not in his office, he’s sitting at the head of long desk in a meeting with about twenty other people, patiently waiting for him to remember they're still there! They’re in on the conspiracy too, but man, it was pretty rude of him to take this phone call right in the middle of a meeting! 

(I'm also not sure where those curtains and window came from, but let's not linger on that)

Anyway, I take no pleasure from saying this, but BRAIN TWISTERS has held up about as well as its still-active website, which you should definitely check out (inexplicably under the title FRACTALS, which IMDB assures me is actually a long-gestating 2013 sequel with an identical cast and plot, even though the photo montage in the website is obviously from this movie). In fact, irony of ironies, watching it is probably more likely to drive you to murder-suicide than any pixelated light show ever could. But if something this dull was going to push you over the edge, that’s really sort of on you, anyway.

* Though my favorite IMDB review of 1977’s THECRATER LAKE MONSTER takes an... unexpected perspective to film criticism:  

**Say, whatever happened to John Glover? You couldn’t escape him in the 80s, but it looks like he hasn’t had a single significant role since his stint on Smallville. Did he just get replaced by  William Fichtner? That seems unfair. We could always use more John Glover.

The Discreet Charm of the Killing Spree

An Experiment in Mind Control is Out Of Control... And The Body Count is Building!
BRAIN TWISTERS seems a kinda mild description of “mental breakdown leading to insanity suicide and murder,” but sure, why not.
Good lord, no
None, although IMDB seems to erroneously suggest that FRACTALS is a sequel
Techno-Anxiety, mind control
Is Farrah Forke considered A-list because of Wings? No, right?
No animals
Mind control
The evil corporation is watching and surveilling people
Studying harder in college is a good way to avoid having to sleep with your creepy professor or having your mind twisted! Do yourself a favor and show up for class before the bell rings, even if it’s just to hear the one important sentence in the hour-long class!

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