If you’re a fan of the junk cinema of Ray Dennis Steckler, who’s given us a celluloid trove of 52 directorial efforts — the most notable three being Wild Guitar (1962)*, The Thriller Killers (1964), and Rat Pfink a Boo Boo (1966) — then you may have heard of the career of actor, writer, and director Herb Robins in passing. As actor, you know Steckler, aka Cash Flagg, for The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964). (We are also working on Steckler’s later, post-’80s slasher entry, Las Vegas Serial Killer (1986); it’s coming; use that search box, kiddies!)
Born in 1930 as “Rabinowitz” in Newark, New Jersey, Herb worked on a couple Steckler projects, making his acting debut in The Thriller Killers, as well as Steckler’s Body Fever (1969) and Sinthia: The Devil’s Doll (1970), which also served as his screenwriting debut; he Second AD’d Rat Pfink. And, if we are to believe the QWERTY’ing digital content warriors of the IMDb plains: Herb Robins had bit parts in Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973), the Ted V. Mikels classic (it really is) The Doll Squad (1973), the pretty decent CB-radio flick Convoy (1978), and Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse (1981).
Then, after appearing in Fred Williamson’s Blaxploitation vanity western Adios Amigo (1975) with Richard Pryor and James Brown — and with one Steckler writing and AD credit each under his belt, and a production assist from Ted V. Mikels — Herb Robins decided to do the celluloid “Triple Lindy” (know your ’80s Rodney Dangerfield film references) to write, direct, and star in — we kid you not — the telepathic worm horror-comedy, The Worm Eaters (1977).
We’ve never reviewed The Worm Eaters at B&S About Movies. I can’t speak for Sam, but I have seen it. And it’s a case of don’t ask, don’t tell. But I will tell you that it’s pure Bill Van Ryn digging-up-the-old-drive-in-newspaper-ad fodder for a Groovy Doom Facebook posting — if he already hasn’t done one. So, The Worm Eaters did reasonably well. It must have, since Herb Robins returned — a decade later — in the midst of the shot-on-video craze of the ‘80s to write his third and final and direct his second and final film: The Brainsucker, a _______ that has the nerve to soil the name of Mel Brooke’s by name dropping the horror-comedy classic, Young Frankenstein. And, are they trying to tie this into Mad Max and make us think we’re getting a “futuristic” flick?
We’ve never had a reason to review The Brainsucker — no more than we had any reason to review The Worm Eaters. Then Sam the Bossman had to come up an “SOV Week” tribute, and you know me: I like to dive deep into the celluloid muck and mires of Allegheny County. I am ashamed to admit I rented this on VHS back in the day. Hey, at $0.49 one-day rentals at a Phar-Mor drugstore that had to be returned at midnight with a brisk walk down to the corner: why the hell not?
Exactly. I don’t know why. But I do know that it had nothing to do with Herb or Steckler or any connection to The Worm Eaters: I just liked stacking up the $.49 cent Phar-Mor tapes (I bought my used copy of FM and two of the four De Ossorio’s “Blind Dead” epics there) to see what I came up with — which was usually, you guessed it: muck and mire of a dog’s ass variety. Such a film is The Brainsucker, a ___________ that gives “backyard” filmmaking a bad name and was shot-on-camcorder because Kodak and Fuji Film forged an alliance to make sure not one frame of 16mm film was sold to Herb Robins. For it is a film (I hate using the word “film” in this review) that is an insult to the Reverend Samuell Henshall and wine bottles the world over.
“Corkscrews?” you say.
Yes. This is a movie about a serial killer with a loose screw on the loose (Santa Fe, New Mexico, where this was shot) with a corkscrew-sucker-thingy that’s part garden weasel and part bong. He carries it around in red bowling bag. He drills into the back of one’s skull, turns the handle, and sucks brains, aka raw, fatty bacon strips, up through the shaft. We think someone watched Phantasm one too many times — but couldn’t afford the Chinese harmony balls and X-Acto blades to come up with something better than a garden weasel, a bong, and a rotating handle from a kitchen vegamatic.
At least exploitation auteur Frank Henenlotter knew how to create insanity with the likes of Frankenhooker and Basket Case. Then, in his infinite mad genius of wisdom, gave us Brain Damage: an examination of man’s relationship to drugs — personified in a worm-creature named Aylmer who demanded his hosts eat brains to feed him. But The Brainsucker personifies nothing; for it has no brain to damage. There’s no mad genius. There’s just stone cold stupidity.
Did Herb Robins, perhaps, see the SOV’er Goremet Zombie Chef from Hell (1986) and Redneck Zombies (1987) and said, “I can do that?” and broke (out) the camcorder? If so, he succeeded in making those (admittedly fun; with fan bases) inert-inept’ers look better than they are — and that’s a tall order to fill for a zombie-burger Wednesday Special. In fact, Robins succeeded in making T.L.P Swicegood’s utterly awful The Undertaker and his Pals (1966) look even better that it should — and that film strove — and failed, miserably — as a comedy rip on Hershell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast (1963; considered the first “splatter” film). But Swicegood’s final film wasn’t no Blood Feast and The Brainsucker ain’t no pal to the Undertaker, so it surely ain’t no Blood Feast.
Maybe, just maybe, if Glenn Danzig worked images from Robins’s opus into his music (as he did with Swicegood’s) or Rob Zombie sampled Brainsucker dialog into his music (as he did with Swicegood in “What Lurks on Channel X” from Hellbilly Duluxe) . . . no, not even Danzig or Zombie is helping us swallow this film’s hash browns and bacon-cum-brain-strips. Maybe if this was more “cannibal” and we had Lemmy and this was titled Eat the Rich (1987) and Motorhead composed the theme song, “. . . come on baby, and bite my brain / Come on, baby, suck my brain / drill the bong into the back of my brain / feel the sucking, roll / Come on, baby, Brainsuck the Rich.”
The psycho-helixophile twistin’ the brain bong is not, however, Herb Robins: it’s someone named Jonathan Mittleman — as Max — in his film-and-then-vanished-debut. But Herb Robins is here as (the bumbling line-reading) Detective Kropotsky.
Now, with that name — and since were dropping Mel Brooks, and Mad Max, and soiling-ripping Frank Henenlotter — is the “Kropostsky” name supposed to evoke the New York urban legend of the Cropsey manic that fueled the slasher flicks The Burning (1981) and Madman (1982)? As with the lack of any Henelotter baskets, brains, or hookers . . . there’s no burning or madness . . . and no slashing, no special effects, no lighting, no sound, no framing, no soundtrack, no budget, and no permits, along with bad accents, and yelling and line-flubbing actors in a VHS toilet swirl with no rhyme, no reason, no purpose, and no plot. The Brainsucker is an SOV that, when the wow-and-flutter credits and soundtrack music ends . . . two more whole minutes of black screen accompanied by low-rez buzzing, ensues. And like an idiot: I watched those two minutes, thinking there was an “Easter Egg” to be had. And there was: 30-more seconds of hissing mixed with black-and-white snow flurries.
In the little that passed as a “plot”: Max is a career criminal placed by a judge under the care of a psychiatrist: an evil psychiatrist. Now Max is a corkscrewin’ n’ brainsuckin’ serial killer of the Troma variety. Why and how did the medical malpractice “Frankenstein” our little Maxwell into a helixophile is anyone’s guess. What’s Max’s backstory: Did he collect fine wines. Did he have a traumatic experience in a wine cellar. Did a rich, wine collecting uncle fondle Max’s lower abdominal Pez dispenser. Did his wine-swillin’ aunt seduce him on the couch in the wine cellar. What tragedy — if any — occur in wine country. Perhaps a flashback car wreck that killed mom and left dad impaled on a twisted road sign post?
Nope, there’s no reason. Max just like corkscrews.
What is certain: Troma movies do not audibly have their directors urge “zoom, zoom, zoom” off-screen to their DP (well, a kid holding the VHS camcorder) or implore their actors to “keep going” with a scene reaction. Troma movies also do not have a radio DJ swallow-breathing a portable cassette player’s microphone as a studio mic.
While Troma movies have their crimes (don’t get Sam the Bossman started), The Brainsucker is a celluloid-destroying wehrmacht that instills a whole new appreciation for all boondoggles Don Dohler — while it simultaneously inflicts 16mm backyardin’ of the ‘70s and shootin’ on video of the ‘80s with a bad name. Not that Ray Dennis Steckler is a cinematic genius by any stretch of the ol’ celluloid . . . but did Herb Robins learn nothing between the years of 1964 to 1988? Steve Martin said, “Comedy is not Pretty.” He did not, however, say comedy was deaf, dumb, indigent, and incontinent.
Was The Brainsucker possibly produced on an ENG camera sometime in the mid-‘70s and issued in the late ‘80s? Nope. The copyright in the end credits states this all got legal like in 1988. And it was, in fact, shot on an RCA-styled VHS Camcorder. It’s also the worst of the SOVs I’ve either watched and reviewed or re-revisited/nostalgia-binged this week. And I can’t believe I sucked my brain clean of 8,000-plus character to create 1,700-plus words for a movie that chilling described what it did to my cerebellum. Calling the Ramones! Give me a dose of DDT! The bacon-bong sucker is here for my teenage lobotomy.
But hey, you gotta love a movie where one of the actresses — Marjorie Morris, who played Max’s girlfriend, Joanne — finds the movie on You Tube and leaves a comment of her fond memories of the project. Yes. Margorie, in a few simple keystrokes, just made The Brainsucker a lot less sucky and a lot more fun. And you, dear reader, can experience the sucky fun on You Tube, courtesy of film historian extraordinaire, TheBurialGround5. (Who’s going to be gettin’ an ear-mail full from me; for if there was no copy to share, I wouldn’t have gotten this far in the review.)
* So, you need a Arch Hall, Jr. fix? Well, we didn’t get to Wild Guitar, but we did review and overview Archie’s career with a look at The Choppers. And Arch is alright, we love the guy. Just like with Herb Robins.