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Plot: adolescent misfit plays interactive videogame

It is well established that the 90s were a particularly dark decade for the horror genre. Horror descended into nothing but overly comedic, self-aware, and pretentious genre deconstructions that abided by the same conventions they were supposedly mocking. In other words, Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) happened. Two years before, however, there was a Canadian production that commented in a similar condescending, moralizing, holier-than-thou tone on the vices and youth counterculture of the day: heavy rock music, horror cinema and/or violent video games. Brainscan, for all its 90s cultural sensibilities that ultimately end up defanging it, is actually a surprisingly effective little genre effort is one is willing to meet it halfway. It never quite pushes the envelope the way you would want it to, but it tries. It is far more intellectually honest than Craven too.

Michael Bower (Edward Furlong) is a typical 90s social pariah, a product of childhood trauma and parental abandonment. Bower lost his mother in a roadside collision that left him with a nasty scar and a limp as reminder, and an absentee businessman father. Having never properly dealt with the loss of his mother and spoilt rotten by his overcompensating absentee father Michael is a socially handicapped doofus that immerses himself in ungodly amounts of heavy metal, horror, and video games as a cry for someone, anyone, to love him. If only that someone would be Kimberly Keller (Amy Hargreaves), who he surreptitiously spies on in ways that the Twilight novel (2005) and its subsequent screen adaptation (2008) would enshrine as the apex of romance. When his only friend Kylie (Jamie Marsh) reads him an ad in Fangoria about Brainscan, a literal murder simulator, Michael’s interest in piqued. As a seasoned veteran of all things weird, one that has “seen it all, played them allBrainscan offers an experience like no other. When a murder committed in the game occurs in the real world, Michael’s life starts to unravel, and before long he fears of losing possession of the one thing he still has control over, himself. All the while detective Hayden (Frank Langella) is investigating the murder case. The more Brower plays Brainscan the more the gameworld and his own bleed together. With only the macabre and devious Trickster (T. Ryder Smith) as his guide only one question remains: what is real, and what is not?

Brainscan very much wants to be a horror movie for people who don’t like horror movies. Figures of authority, specifically principal Fromberg (David Hemblen), at one point or another, voice their disapproval of Bower’s extracurricular interests. Likewise does Walker’s script demonize Michael for engaging in videogames and horror by making him a social outcast and forcing him into murdering his friends as punishment. Since Brainscan is a thriller masquerading as a horror-movie-with-a-message Michael needs to have the prequisite love interest which is where the underutilized Amy Hargreaves comes in. Hargreaves, who was in her mid-twenties, has a few scenes of implied nudity – but since this was released in 1994 and more of a thriller that will be the extent of what is deemed permissable. Once Brainscan is done moralizing it rewards Michael with a fresh view on on life, the possibility of Kimberly as a girlfriend (she shows reserved interest, and never outright declines his advances) while pushing the Trickster to the back as a mere video game host. It even gives complete cipher Kyle a girlfriend in Stacie (Michèle-Barbara Pelletier). The rank hypocrisy of Brainscan’s screenplay knows no bounds.

For all the things it does right Brainscan shortchanges itself by abiding to the sanitization the horror genre was subject to in the 90s. There are but two slayings that occur over the course of the movie, one of which happens offscreen. After the wild 1970s and the excesses of the eighties, the 90s pushed horror into the self-reflective, self-referential, and the comedic. As horror became shunned and considered a non-legitimate genre, many movies referred to themselves as thrillers instead to avoid the stigma. Brainscan both wants to be a horror movie all while disassociating itself from the genre at every turn. The ambiguity of Brainscan, and the ambivalence of its screenplay, ultimately work against it. There’s nary a drop of blood anywhere in Brainscan, and it is completely bereft of nudity, the very things that horror was decried for in the decades prior. It will have its protagonist showing León Klimovsky’s gothic horror potboiler The Dracula Saga (1973) to the Horror Club attendees, but then will have Michael sarcastically refer to it as Death, Death, Death, Part II just to spite the principal. To its credit at least the makers of Brainscan knew their Mediterranean Eurocult classics, Spanish or otherwise.

Brainscan is also custodian to one of the greatest 90s horror villains, the enigmatic Trickster. In the gameworld the Trickster acts as a master of ceremonies, and with his red mohawk skullet the long-nailed, sharply dressed apparition comes off as a combination of a pre-Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth (1992) Pinhead, a heavy metal frontman, and a 1970s gothic horror villain complete with the snark of earliest Freddie Krueger. In short, the Trickster is the embodiment of the darkness of whoever plays the game. The screenplay never reveals exactly what the Trickster is; whether he is a spectral manifestation of the player’s vices, or the physical incarnation of a sentient program. T. Ryder Smith revels in playing up the red mohawked fiend’s ambiguous loyalties. The Trickster is for the nineties what Freddie Krueger was for the eighties. In a delicious slice of life imitating art T. Ryder Smith ended up lending his voice talents to video games Manhunt 2 (2007), BioShock (2007), BioShock Infinite (2013) and its DLC expansion pack Burial At Sea (2014). The Trickster has done well for himself.

The screenplay was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, later of Se7en (1995) and 8MM (1999) fame and a script doctor on The Game (1997), Stir Of Echoes (1999) and Fight Club (1999). Walker’s screenplay tries very hard to pass Brainscan off as an adolescent version of The Lawnmower Man (1992), or similarly themed David Cronenberg movies as Videodrome (1983) or ExistenZ (1999) without any of the body horror or pathos. The script’s cardinal sin is that it is never follows up on what it promises. It puts its protagonist in a literal murder simulator (exactly what certain detractors called videogames at the time) and exacts swift punishment by having him murder his best friend and love interest. The role of Trickster starts out as a guide for Michael in the gaming world only to turn him in a Freddie Krueger styled antagonist since the script lacks a real opponent to square him off against. Michael defeats Trickster in the gameworld, but the sequence is rendered moot as Trickster materializes in the corporeal realm where Michael can see him in the event of Brainscan becoming profitable enough to warrant a follow-up. Thankfully, the essence of Brainscan remains untarnished by unnecessary sequels.

Frank Langella and Amy Hargreaves do their best with the little they are given to do. Langella is the closest thing to an antagonist during the first half whereas Trickster becomes the antagonist during the second half. Hargreaves is given little else to do besides looking misty-eyed, pouting, or strutting around in lingerie. For reasons that will remain largely unexplained, Kimberly shows reserved interest in Michael at the end. Hargreaves has the prettiest smile but there isn’t an inkling of chemistry between her and Furlong, who by this point had perfected his troubled youth shtick. Hargreaves’ character is of no significance, and much of the running time Kimberly is a complete nonentity until Furlong’s character arc requires a Hollywood-mandated love interest. Langella and Hargreaves maintained a steady career in television and movies while Furlong fell into obscurity due to his puzzling professional choices and a private life that matched Lindsay Lohan’s in sheer dysfunctionality and drug abuse. All the promise that Furlong showed early on in the Aerosmith music video ‘Livin’ On the Edge’ and James Cameron’s blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992) was squandered all too quickly. The career revival that American History X (1998) and the Metallica music video ‘The Unnamed Feeling’ lend Furlong failed to cement his potential as an actor.

As a product of its time Brainscan is both frustratingly middle of the road and agonizingly afraid of its own implications. Lacking in both scares and grue it’s exactly the sort of thing Hollywood would try to pass off as genuine horror. Obviously it’s anything but. As a thriller Brainscan never puts its protagonist in deep enough trouble to warrant the classification. Even as evidence and corpses mount there always seems to be an exit waiting for Michael. As a proxy-horror exercise it fails not only because it lacks the scares and grue, but because it never truly ventures into the territory. To the untrained eye Brainscan indeed looks as a fairly typical horror movie of the day, but beyond the superficial ties with the genre are practically non-existent. Brainscan was a timecapsule of 90s counterculture. Michael’s room is adorned with posters from Aerosmith, Iron Maiden, Alice Cooper, Metallica, and Fangoria. The soundtrack features, among others, OLD, White Zombie, Primus, Pitchshifter, Butthole Surfers, Mudhoney, and Wade. It’s strange that Furlong chose this Canadian co-production after the high-profile Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992) from James Cameron. Brainscan is woefully banal and if it wasn’t for Furlong it would have fallen into much-deserved obscurity ages ago.

The reunion of classic New York death metal combo Suffocation has been one of mixed results. It is not without a sense of irony that the most traditional sounding album since 2002 is one with only two original members, one of whom due to economic considerations has minimized his involvement to that of a glorified recording musician more than anything else. A decade and a half into their reunion there’s only question that remains: is Suffocation still relevant to the very genre they helped pioneer and redefine in their original run? Fortunately, if “…Of the Dark Light” is anything to go by then, yes – somehow they are. As unbelievable as it may sound in light of the band’s more than dubious post-“Depise the Sun” output. Can “…Of the Dark Light” hold its own against the band’s classic Roadrunner output? No, but nobody is expecting these grizzled veterans to. Which is sort of the problem.

The strangely titled “…Of the Dark Light” arrives after a turbulent four-year period of inner turmoil and personnel changes that saw the departure of lead guitarist Guy Marchais (hired to substitute for the absent Doug Cerrito) and troubled skinsman Dave Culross. Supplanting their more established predecessors are sometime Pyrexia and Internal Bleeding guitarist Charlie Errigo and Ontario, Canada-based drummer Eric Morotti. Errigo is a suitable replacement for Marchais, but the absence of original creative force Cerrito (whose advanced arthritis no longer allows him to play guitar for extended periods of time) remains a sore point, and rightly so. Morotti is no Mike Smith but nobody is expecting him to be. Instead he leans closer to Doug Bohn’s hardcore-informed style on “Pierced From Within”.

That “…Of the Dark Light” then comes across as a modern day “Pierced From Within” equivalent should surprise exactly no one. There’s very little ornamental about this new album and it’s reassuring to see the New York stalwarts reclaim at least a fraction, however insignificant, of the identity they worked so hard to distance themselves from in the early 2000s. Granted, it took them four albums and a second, less than amicable ousting of drum god Mike Smith to arrive at that point, but they are finally here. Had “…Of the Dark Light” followed on the back of “Souls to Deny” than Suffocation would have made a more than admirable comeback. Unfortunately that’s not quite how it went. To go from the lethargic and largely forgettable “Blood Oath” to something as punchy and compact as this speaks of a veritable meeting of minds. Suffocation, even though there are hardly any prime era members left, acquits itself admirably after passing itself off as a thinly-veiled beatdown hardcore band for well over a decade.

None of the songtitles do particularly inspire confidence as the majority sound nothing like vintage Suffocation (‘The Warmth Within the Dark’, ‘Your Last Breaths’, ‘Caught Between Two Worlds’, ‘Some Things Should Be Left Alone’) and from a visual standpoint “…Of the Dark Light” is anything but typical. The uncharacteristic songtitles makes one question the level of Mullen’s involvement. The days of Dan Seagrave or Hiro Takahashi artworks are apparently over. The album features guest vocals from Kevin Mueller, Mullen’s live substitute, in what is probably a remnant of the failed experiment that saw Disgorge drummer Ricky Myers briefly co-fronting the band. Boyer’s bass guitar never sounded better as it at long last sounds tonally similar as to when Chris Richards handled the low end. Charlie Errigo has quietly replaced Guy Marchais, and he very much continues what Marchais excelled at; providing a fairly indistinct and inobtrusive support layer for Hobbs’ guitar pyrotechnics. The title track, usually the tour de force of any album, sounds like every other well-budgeted New York death metal band. Whether or not that is actually a good thing is entirely up to one’s personal preference. At least Suffocation’s reunion output has been more consistent than Obituary’s. Not that that is saying much.

It goes without saying that Suffocation never again will reach the height of compositional elegance and technical prowess that they had on “Breeding the Spawn”. “…Of the Dark Light” at long last abandons the beatdown hardcore aesthetics that plagued much of the band’s post-2002 output and Suffocation - however little is actually left of it at this point - is so much better for it. Mullen, no longer the guntoting New York stereotype from the not-quite-so-distant past, wields a deeper register once more. Has he sounded better and more lively? Certainly. Has the production work done him more justice in earlier days? Not a shred of doubt about it. Frank Mullen, who has been subject to imitation and emulation for about two decades and counting at this point, remains a frontman that few can match in enunciation and delivery. Terrance Hobbs, Suffocation’s primary songsmith in the post-Cerrito era, rekindles some of his old magic on “…Of the Dark Light”. While it can hardly be called a revival this late into the reunion Suffocation reclaims at least a figment of the glory they once commanded.

“…Of the Dark Light” is the closest the New York formation has come to matching its classic tenure on Roadrunner Records. However this new recording isn’t without its shortcomings. The production from Joe Cincotta and his Full Force Studio is probably the driest, the most compressed and sterile sounding that this band has utilized thus far. Likewise is the Colin Marks artwork the most charateristically uncharacteristic. It largely is a stylistic continuation of the Raymond Swanland canvas of the prior effort. As the visuals pull the band into the 21st century its key members gravitate back to what established them two decades prior in the first place. Evolution through attrition, so to speak. Mullen and Hobbs may be the only real Suffocation members left, at least there’s something, however little, defensible about “…Of the Dark Light”. The same couldn’t be said about the drab preceeding this 11th hour return-to-form, if it can be called that.