Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #93

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Number of Views: Three
Release Date: October 23, 1981
Sub-Genre: Psychological/Splatter
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 97 minutes
Director: Romano Scavolini
Producer: John L Watkins, William Milling (Florida)
Screenplay: Romano Scavolini
Special Effects: Ed French, Tom Savini (consultant)
Cinematography: Gianni Fiore
Score: Jack Eric Williams
Editing: Robert T. Megginson, Jim Markovic (uncredited)
Studio: Goldmine Productions
Distributors: 21st Century Film Corporation, World of Video 2000
Stars: Baird Stafford, Sharon Smith, C.J. Cooke, Mik Cribben, Danny Ronan, John L. Watkins, Bill Milling, Scott Praetorius, William Kirksey, Christina Keefe, Tammy Patterson, Kim Patterson, Kathleen Ferguson, William Paul, Tommy Bouvier

Nightmares in a damaged brain 1981 poster by Beyond Horror Design Nightmares in a damaged brain 1981 poster by Beyond Horror Design Nightmares in a damaged brain 1981 poster by Beyond Horror Design

Suggested Audio Candy:

Dry Kill Logic Nightmare

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I’m always asking myself ridiculous questions but one I haven’t given anything like the right amount of consideration involves how much a brain in a jar weighs. It may seem like a pretty pointless poser but, in May 1982, Italian director Romano Scavolini pitched this precise poser to the great British public as a publicity stunt for his new film ironically titled Nightmares in a Damaged Brain. What a novel way to promote your art. If you ask me, Steven Spielberg missed a trick in 1975 when not asking the average Joe on the street for the lung capacity of a great white shark. You have to praise Scavolini for his original technique if nothing else. Meanwhile, he also ensured that vomit bags were distributed during any screenings but Herschell Gordon Lewis beat him to the punch on that one sixteen years prior when pimping out his Z-grade splatter sensation Blood Feast. I guess you win some and you lose some. All’s fair in grue and body parts.

Nightmares in a damaged brain 1981 poster by Beyond Horror Design

Needless to say, the answer to his preposterous poser was irrelevant as this dash of entrepreneurial spirit had its desired effect and the film turned plenty of heads. This affirmative action inevitably provoked the wrath of the DPP who, without a picosecond’s procrastination, deemed Nightmares in a Damaged Brain way beyond therapy and placed it on their 39-strong 1983 Video Nasty list. To make matters worse, events only continued to escalate and, the following year, the police found themselves a fall guy.

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Their enquiry culminated in the incarceration of an executive of Oppidan, who distributed an unapproved version of the film to an ill-prepared British public. Although only serving twelve months of his original eighteen month sentence, the fact that David Grant (nicknamed The Gnome on account of casting his rod wherever he saw fit) was jailed at all shows how ludicrously blown out of all proportion censorship had become. Granted, he was a renowned producer of hardcore sex films throughout the sixties and seventies but, like the gore that got this film banished, it turned out to be a storm in a teacup.

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Pretty fucking turbulent one when you consider poor Grant likely ended up taking a soapy slider in the shower block for his endeavors. If you ask me, he was something of a martyr and that makes him okay in my book. Fucking gnome bashers! Alas, it was all too much and The Gnome finally cast his rod out for the last time in 1991. I like to imagine that he died with an ironic smile on his face as Nightmares on a Damaged Brain, also known as simply Nightmare, is now available to watch in its entirety on YouTube. The winds of change wait for no man and this gloriously gruesome little number just considered par for the course now.

Bloodsucking Zombies From Outerspace Nightmare in a Damaged Brain

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Anyhoots, during all the enduring mayhem, the actual film was pretty much forgotten, while it is still considered one of the most reviled of nasties to this day. Moreover, it is also one of the most intelligent, highlighting how history has a tendency to perpetuate itself as our main protagonist George Tatum (Baird Stafford) attempts to do battle with some fairly deep-rooted psychosis. His journey takes him to the sort of seedy establishments synonymous to the exploitation brand and, after one particularly discouraging episode, our curious George skulks off to the sunnier climates of the Sunshine State for a change of scenery.

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On his arrival in Florida, he then takes to a spot of prowling, staking out a family whom he deems to be dysfunctional. At this juncture we have been made well aware of George’s slaughtering antics as a mere child whereby he passed the ultimate axe-incorporated judgement on his neglectful sleazebag father. George’s demons manifest themselves in torrid nightmares which enable Scavolini to utilize a technique brought to the forefront by the great John Carpenter three years prior for Halloween. Focusing on an inanimate object, an example being the disembodied head in the opening dream sequence, he then draws his lens back and pans around the vicinity, creating a feeling of unease in his audience. Works like a charm.

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The nightmarish opening coupled with its notorious conclusion is sandwiched a rather intriguing little oddity; not compulsive by a long chalk but a decent drive-in double bill with William Lustig’s Maniac (and appraised back-to-back with that precise reasoning). It explores the theme of mental health which historically never bodes well the censors, further incensed by its use of a smug child in its advertising campaign. A little must be said of its sleeve, notably the reverse sleeve of its VHS which astutely milks the film for all its worth, depicting various grisly screenshots designed to appeal to anyone with a partiality for claret. However, behind all that canny branding lies an acute study of psychosis and its manifestation on a still developing mind.

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There certainly isn’t any deficiency of grue, although once again Scavolini courted controversy, this time by rubbing the Sultan of Splatter himself, Tom Savini, up the wrong way. He was credited as the make-up effects director when, in actuality, he was merely a consultant via one measly phone call although it has been suggested he was spotted on-set. Savini very nearly sued for what he considered a shameless scam but presumably he saw the queue of others baying for Scavolini’s blood and decided to cut him some slack. Ed French’s bloodletting is never up to his impossibly high standards but remains striking and particularly unremitting, especially during the climactic bloodbath.

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The fierce axe dismemberment at its tail-end leaves a bitter taste, especially given the age of the underage juvenile swinging it. Nightmares in a Damaged Brain has every intention of leaving this tang of offensiveness with the viewer and, while distributing a vomit bag may have been a touch acute, there’s no question that its infamy is fully justified. When drawing towards the film’s conclusion it may be an idea to fire up the boiler as you will inevitably need a pretty intensive shower down to remove all the grime directly afterwards.

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Make no mistake, it’s some way from being a classic. Nightmares in a Damaged Brain is exploitative, mean-spirited, occasionally deficient in logic, features some slipshod performances aside from an intriguing one from Stafford, and is more morbid than a tram ride through Auschwitz in the heights of bleak midwinter. But Scavolini’s grubby portrayal of declining mental health is never anything less than fascinating and I still ponder now how much a brain in a jar actually weighs. Now where did I leave that loofah?

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 6/10

Grue Factor: 5/5

 

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Easily one of the more deserving video nasties, this has plenty of vivid glugging red of the deepest order and doesn’t hold back in the grue department but the moment I found most difficult to shake was the ending where a young Tatum, dressed in his Sunday best complete with dickie bow, stands defiantly sheathed in crimson, none of which belongs to him, axe in hands and grinning at the camera like he’s just let one go in his slacks. Remember to thoroughly bathe directly afterwards and you’ll be fine. I’ll be coming back to make sure you’ve washed those whistles.

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Read The Driller Killer Appraisal

Read Maniac (1980) Appraisal

Read Don’t Go in The House Appraisal

Read Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Appraisal

 

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