Monday, March 11, 2024

“Rats Aren’t People!” - Brain Twisters (1991)

Jerry Sanguiliano's Brain Twisters (1991) is a science fiction thriller that imaginatively uses computers as tools to twist college students' brains so they commit murder and/or suicide. Unfortunately, it is the late Mr. Sanguiliano's only feature-length film, despite it being a brilliant work of early 1990s cinema.

Some of your universe's critics don't understand the intricacies of Brain Twisters. For example, reviewer movieman_kev writes, "This stinker not only scrapes the bottom of the proverbial barrel, but permanently resides there. It can't get much worse than this." Reviewer Red-Barracuda writes, "It's just very poorly put together generally." And reviewer Rainey-Dawn writes, " I was bored, bored and more bored with the film." (As if anything could be more exciting than Brain Twisters!)

Read on for a full appreciation of Brain Twisters...

The opening shot of the film is indeed a brain twister, in that we see trees sliding along a curved surface, until we realize we are watching the reflection of trees in a car’s windshield as the car drives along a rural road. In a shocking moment, the car hits a young woman jogging while listening to a Walkman, then speeds off, leaving her lying dead on the ground.

The film cuts to what appears to be a high-tech laboratory. A woman, Yvonne, watches a video screen showing colorful computer graphics. A man observes her image on a bank of monitors, then opens the pod where Yvonne sits, her computer monitor filled with static. He asks if she is okay. She replies that yes, she is okay.

The man, Dr. Rothman, receives a phone call from the man funding his research who threatens to terminate the project due to a lack of interesting results.

Later, Yvonne walks through a university corridor, where she is observed by a sinister janitor pushing a mop past a series of suspiciously tiny closet doors.

Later, Dr. Rothman gives a short lecture about medieval tortures/treatments for mental illness before he asks one of his students, Laurie, if she is interested in a work study job in his office. She agrees, then walks outside with some of the other students, all of whom appear to have been caught by surprise by a light rainshower — every student on campus carries an umbrella, but they have all forgotten to wear jackets. One of Laurie’s friends, Ted, appears catatonic when the sun peers between clouds, but he quickly recovers.

At night, Ted’s girlfriend Denise is attacked in her apartment by a camera’s point of view. When Laurie (who resembles a young Margot Kidder, though with a little more hair and a lot less energy, and is played by Farrah Forke of the sitcom Wings) arrives to go to aerobics class with Denise, she finds her friend apparently murdered with a towel.

Lori uses a pay phone to call the police, resulting in the apartment being swarmed by a half-dozen detectives, the handsomest of whom tries to comfort Laurie.

The same night, Dr. Rothman is visited by Michelle, one of his students attempting to get a good grade by seducing her instructor. She tells him, “It’s taking me a long time to understand the material. I guess I’m not as smart as the rest of the class.”

Bluntly, Dr. Rothman replies, “Very astute observation.” He gives her a glass of wine.

“Any pointers you want to give me?” she asks.

“I suggest that you quit school,” he answers, “and pursue your lascivious talents where they can be appreciated.” Then he offers her a chance to be part of his research on what he refers to as “nerve stimulation.”

The next day, the handsome detective Frank Turi sits with Laurie at the restaurant where Ted works so he can get some leads from the murdered Denise’s boyfriend. Thus begins the most exciting part of any horror movie: the detective’s investigation of the murder. In this case, Detective Frank breaks the news of Denise’s murder to Ted. During the interview, Ted gets overstimulated by a pinball machine in the background. He suddenly becomes violent, pushing the detective away and running through the restaurant. He jumps through a window and falls to his death. (Although there was no indication the restaurant was above ground level previously, Laurie and all the other patrons look out the shattered window, staring at Ted’s body on the ground several stories below, revealing the restaurant was on the fifth or sixth floor of a building.)

Suspiciously, Dr. Rothman reveals to Detective Frank that Ted left his body to Biotronics Incorporated, the computer company funding Dr. Rothman’s research. Detective Frank says he needs Ted’s body to prove that Ted did not murder Denise. Dr. Rothman pushes back with perhaps questionable sensitivity:  “I have a legal right to that body, and I don’t intend to give it up.”

Detective Frank has a court order demanding an autopsy, however, so he and two officers come to Dr. Rothman’s lab to collect the body. “Ted is in the freezer,” the professor says.

When he opens the freezer, Detectives Frank asks, “Where’s his head?”

Dr. Rothman reveals a separate cabinet holding Ted’s severed head.

Dr. Rothman explains, “Ted was kind enough to leave me his brain. I don’t care about the rest of him.”

Frustrated, Detectives Frank leaves, but he is happy to run into Laurie on campus. When Laurie reveals she works for Dr. Rothman, Frank quips, “He’s got a lot of brains, that’s for sure. A whole roomful.”

In an interesting twist, later Rothman gets a court order to return Ted’s body (“I’ll just take the head,” Rothman clarifies), which for some reason requires Rothman to visit the detective division of the police station rather than simply taking the body from the morgue. 

At night, Rothman subjects Michelle to his experiment, which involves her sitting in a pod with electrodes attached to her head while a computer screen shows colorful patterns.

Elsewhere, Yvonne, the original subject of Rothman’s experiment, swims in a swimming pool. She and Laurie get a bite to eat with her boyfriend Norm, and then, as most dating couples do, they go through a car wash together while eating onion rings. Shockingly, Yvonne is triggered by the machinations of the car wash. She gets out of the car and runs away.

Later, Detective Frank confronts Dr. Rothman in a city park as the professor plays with his dog (not a euphemism). (Unfortunately, the film skirts the audience’s expectations, as Frank does not arrive with a court order demanding another swap of Ted’s body.) Frank reveals that a former student of Rothman’s shot himself, which is very suspicious after Ted’s apparent suicide. “It’s kind of a coincidence, wouldn’t you say? These students of yours committing suicide and killing people?”

“Yes, it is,” Rothman says, turning away and walking quietly through the park with his dog.

The film cuts to a costume party where Norm asks Laurie where Yvonne is. Laurie says she thinks she is upstairs, and indeed Yvonne is in a luxurious bathroom taking a bubble bath while the party rages downstairs. In a surreal sequence, Yvonne is startled when a bubble pops. Then she puts on a bathrobe and expressionlessly walks downstairs to the balloon-filled party. She picks up a pair of scissors and stabs two partygoers.

After he finds out about Yvonne murdering people, Dr. Rothman spends some time in what appears to be a video game-themed bar.

He phones his the head of Biotronics and, showing a surprising amount of conscience, says he is pulling the plug on the experiment because it’s causing brain damage and resulting homicides and suicides. “You knew this was happening all along, didn’t you?”

“No, we didn’t,” says the CEO. “Nothing showed up on the rats.”

“Rats aren’t people!” admonishes Dr. Rothman, hanging up.

The camera reveals that the CEO was in the middle of a board meeting. He tells the attendees around the boardroom table, “Time to get rid of Rothman.”

At the bar, a smiling Rothman smashes a bottle against a bouncer’s head, knocking him out. 

The next day, Detectives Frank nonchalantly suggests he will make dinner for Laurie at her apartment while they discuss the case. Like any normal college student, Laurie finds nothing unusual about a police detective offering to make dinner at her home, so she tells him when her last class is done. Unbeknownst to either of them, however, someone is monitoring their phone conversation.

Of course, Detective Frank makes Laurie spaghetti. (Amusingly, as they eat spaghetti, they are watched via hidden camera by two men eating pizza.) She does not want to tell him anything about her work with Dr. Rothman so he talks about the meal, made with clams and olive oil. “Which one are you?” he asks suggestively. “Fresh clams or the virgin olive oil?”

Of course, she giggles at his little joke.

After dinner, Laurie watches TV while Frank washes dishes. Mysteriously, the TV shows digital patterns, triggering Laurie to pick up a knife.

Even more mysteriously, instead of stabbing Frank, she kisses him passionately. Then she tells him to get out and throws spaghetti at him.

The next day, Dr. Rothman walks into class, gives a ten-second lecture, then dismisses everybody because he sees someone from Biotronics in the classroom. He exits the building and unties his dog’s leash from a railing (apparently having planned to leave his dog tied to the railing for the length of his class), but the dog gets away, running through campus dragging its leash. Dr. Rothman, for unknown reasons, simply stands in front of the building, failing to chase his dog.

Later, Laurie investigates Dr. Rothman’s office during a brief interval when the professor, oddly, goes downstairs to get ice cream cones from the campus ice cream truck.

Later at night, Laurie’s friends Raj and Michelle break into the lab to use the machine, which results in Michelle biting Raj to death.

In the thrilling climax, Dr. Rothman breaks into Laurie’s apartment. He starts to strangle her, but in a Hitchcockian moment he is distracted by her bizarre mirror lamp.

He pushes her to the floor, then returns to his lab, where his confronted by the CEO of Biotronics. One of the CEO’s henchmen shoots Rothman and he dies in his lab. The Biotronics employees, however, find out that one of Rothman’s videotapes is missing. They immediately deduce that Laurie has it, so they go to her apartment.

In a final series of events that can only be described as confusing, a would-be assassin dies by crashing his car into a tree, and Michelle, who has somehow become a vampire due to the computer experiments, appears in the CEO’s car and bites his neck.

Laurie and Detective Frank return to Rothman’s lab, where they find Michelle. She screams, her eyes wide. The film, instead of showing us what happens to Laurie and Frank, dissolves to a suburban home somewhere where a young boy whom we have never seen before plays the new video game Brain Twisters from Biotronics Incorporated. (Game is perhaps an overstatement, as it is simply a 3D image of a blocky man holding a gun rotating around a grid.)

The End

I have barely scratched the surface of the complexity of Brain Twisters. One thing I have not mentioned is that the film frequently shows the university handyman (the man standing in front of the tiny closet doors) watching the main characters. This red herring is never resolved, or even addressed in dialogue, unless he is perhaps one of the Biotronics Corporation's assassins. The appropriateness of the (perhaps lopsided) romance between the adult Detective Frank and the college student Laurie is also not addressed. The campus ice cream truck offering blood-red frozen treats is similarly never addressed. Finally, of course, the ability of the computer graphics to turn people either suicidal, homicidal, or vampiric is also never explained -- though the revelation in the final scene that Biotronics makes video games and their apparent overarching plan is to turn children either suicidal, homicidal, or vampiric raises both questions and the specter of a potential sequel that was never realized. In any case, the late and unfortunately forgotten auteur Jerry Sanguiliano can rest peacefully in the knowledge that he created a landmark film of great complexity, emotional power, and satisfyingly unresolved ambiguity.