I was unreasonably stoked to see Brainscan back in ’94. Not only was it hyped to the moon and back, even Entertainment Tonight was pushing it as some kind of historic cross between iconic horror and modern technology. I wasn’t disappointed, either. The teenage characters were addicted to bloody movies, the sets were dressed with piles of Fangoria, and there was just enough violence to keep its intended audience—teenagers—entertained.
Terminator 2’s Edward Furlong plays Michael, the kind of cynical outsider who’d probably be suspected of shooting up his school today. Moodiness aside, eleven-year-old me really identified with Michael. I still want to live in his hyper-90s, pseudo-cyberpunk bedroom, playing CD-ROMs all day while using a voice-activated interface that puts Siri to shame. Why would a teenager need his own refrigerator, especially when his mother’s dead and his father’s never home? Because fuck the rest of the house, that’s why. That attic bedroom is the tits and I could live in it forever.
Although Michael used to love horror, he’s become exceedingly blasé about it. He turns cynical whenever video game companies oversell their “terrifying experiences,” and he talks about his favorite movies with all the enthusiasm of someone doing house chores. By the time he gets his hands on a copy of the mysterious video game Brainscan, he rolls his eyes like the angsty little piece of shit he is. The game ends up blowing his mind (never mind the seizure it somehow caused him before he actually played it) and he raves about it to his metalhead friend (his only friend) on the way to school the next day.
So in a plot twist no one didn’t expect, Brainscan’s depictions of murder seem real because they are. Michael finds out he unwittingly killed a man and has to spend the rest of the movie covering up his crime. Each cover-up requires an additional cover-up and so on and so on. I’m afraid I’m making this sound cleverer than it is, but it’s not not clever, either. Just average clever.
That’s when the Trickster enters the picture, played by T. Ryder Smith. If you don’t recognize the name, that’s okay. The film’s marketing department wanted you to believe this guy was a big deal. The impish Trickster is a cross between Freddy Krueger and an obnoxious MTV veejay. Smith, who was previously a stage actor, doesn’t exactly suck in the role, but he’s probably miscast. No amount of guitar riffs and scenery-chewing antics will convince you this guy’s comfortable in the role of a bad ass, nor will you believe he’s eating the raw chicken as advertised in that Entertainment Tonight promo.
The film’s really punching above its weight when it folds in Frank Langella as a surprisingly likable detective. Whereas all the other adults are either missing in action or portrayed as clueless squares (Parents just don’t understand, right kids?), Langella gives it his all and it really shows. Other portions of the movie are surprisingly mature, too, which is why I give it a cautious recommendation.
And here’s why you should be cautious: whenever Brainscan gets odd—and not in an entertaining, so bad it’s good kind of way—you just have to remind yourself: “Because the nineties.” The oddest thing about Brainscan is probably the romantic subplot. The filmmakers go for a Judy Blume approach to sexuality, but come off as wildly misguided… and creepy. See, Michael secretly video tapes his high school crush whenever she gets undressed in her bedroom window. At first you think the film means to damn his voyeuristic proclivities as a despicable character flaw, but later the filmmakers make it clear it’s supposed to be cute. I guess if you’re as hopelessly vapid as these teens are, it would be kind of cute, but that’s missing the point.
Despite the film’s many misses, it gets a lot of points for effort. Yes, they were being just a little too derivative of Nightmare on Elm Street and yes, there are so many holes in the plot they begin forming clover shapes. Yet where so many other “serious” horror films miss the mark entirely, Brainscan is almost there. I really enjoyed it at times and managed to keep my snickering to a minimum. It could very well be the fulcrum point between 80s slasher flicks and the following era’s abundance of Scream knock-offs. That alone is interesting for historical purposes.