Generally, the 1990’s was not the best decade for horror. Slasher films dominated the previous decade, but when that well dried up the genre seemed to lack direction. Of course, great horror films were made in the ’90’s, but taken as a whole, it was a decade that felt far removed from the boundary-pushing horror movies of the 1970’s.
For a few years in the 1990’s, the horror genre flirted with technology and the potential dangers lurking behind computer screens. The Lawnmower Man, Ghost in the Machine, Arcade, Hardware – as home computers got smaller and became more affordable and the early Internet expanded, horror films eagerly exploited the public’s general lack of familiarity. One of these films, Brainscan, entered and exited movie theaters quickly in 1994. A box office dud with a recognizable young actor and what was a fresh concept at the time, Brainscan is the latest forgotten horror film to get the Blu-ray treatment from Scream Factory.
Michael Bower, a lonely teen, spends most of his time playing video games, watching horror films, and spying on his crush and neighbour, Kimberly. His life takes an abrupt turn when best friend Kyle tells him about Brainscan, a new video game that uses hypnotic suggestion to put the ‘player’ into the game. When Michael orders the disc and plays the game, he meets Brainscan’s host, Trickster, who encourages Michael to act out a murder in the ‘game.’ Things quickly go awry, however, when Michael discovers that the murders he commits in the game are real.
A Promising Premise and Start Unravel Quickly
Brainscan boasted an interesting premise that had the potential to be almost prophetic and years ahead of its time. Ideas surrounding virtual reality and altered consciousness have been adopted into Black Mirror episodes over 20 years after Brainscan’s debut. There’s even the seed of an interesting idea around horror fans and voyeuristic violence that’s planted early in the film.
Sadly, all of these interesting ideas are quickly abandoned as Brainscan opts to embrace familiar tropes and a lazy narrative structure.
Atmospherically, Brainscan further hints that it wants to be more than a forgettable horror film. The early 15 minutes or so, while not soaked in chilling atmosphere, still feel eerie. Director John Flynn also does a good job with the movie’s first death scene, using the POV-shot to implicate audiences in the violence. With a good script, Brainscan could have been a surprisingly subversive horror entry.
Sadly, all of these interesting ideas are quickly abandoned as Brainscan opts to embrace familiar tropes and a lazy narrative structure. Any atmosphere present in the early going is lost as the the movie chugs along to its conclusion. There are no jumps or scares anywhere and even the death scenes have a sense of perfunctory obligation. The speed at which Brainscan flips from ‘promising’ to ‘boring’ is more shocking than anything in the movie itself.
A Poor Lead Performance and Wasted Actors
For a brief moment in time, Edward Furlong found Hollywood stardom following his huge breakout role as John Connor in Terminator 2. Over the next several years, Furlong starred in a couple of genre films (Pet Sematary II, Brainscan), crime thrillers (American History X, Little Odessa), and raunchy teen comedy fare (Detroit Rock City). But it was over almost as soon as it all started. Aside from publicized personal difficulties, Furlong was never really a strong actor. He was the weak link in Terminator 2, and his performance in Brainscan falls well short of what the role needs. Not quite bad enough to pull the movie further down, Furlong is neither believable nor compelling.
The rest of the cast is either wasted or poorly written. As the girl-next-door, Amy Hargreaves is given nothing to do but be … the ‘girl-next-door.’ Frank Langella (Dracula) is criminally underutilized to the point of raising questions about why he was even cast in the first place. Langella looks bored through most of Brainscan and one can’t really blame him.
Horror’s Next Big Monster … The Joke was on Brainscan
Promotional materials for Brainscan boasted that its villain, The Trickster, was horror’s next big monster. It’s been 20 years since Brainscan was released, so we all know how that turned out. So where did it go wrong for The Trickster? Actor T. Ryder Smith seemed more than game for the part, and there’s nothing wrong with his performance per se. Most of the problem with the character can be attributed to the screenplay and visual design. Brainscan can’t seem to decide if it wants its Trickster to be early-Freddy Krueger menacing, or late-Freddy Krueger jokey. Visually, there isn’t much frightening about The Trickster, who mostly looks like a scarred version of the ‘Drop Dead’ Fred character.
Like most films that revolve around technology, Brainscan is also extremely dated by its limited special effects.
Like most films that revolve around technology, Brainscan is also extremely dated by its limited special effects. Fortunately, Brainscan isn’t as reliant on its visual effects until its climax as compared to another technology-inspired entry from the early ’90’s, The Lawnmower Man. But the laughable quality of the effects, paired with their timing in the story, are likely to drain what little tension might exist in Brainscan.
Brainscan Blu-Ray is Purely for the Die-Hard Collector
There’s not much to recommend about Brainscan. It’s a forgotten, and largely forgettable, horror toss-away from the days of Blockbuster and Jumbo Video. Older horror fans who came of age in the early ’90’s may find some nostalgic value. Die-hard collectors will want to add the Blu-ray to their collection for the sake of being thorough. As someone who went to university in the ’90’s, the best part of Brainscan is grunge-infused soundtrack.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: C-