Plot: Guy Maddin (Erik Steffan Maas) hasn’t been to his childhood home in decades, but he has been called back by Mother (Gretchen Krich), who requests that he put his house painting skills to use. She needs two coats of paint applied to the family lighthouse, so Maddin returns to fulfill this request. As he left the island locale as a child under some strange circumstances, once he is back, his memory is flooded with flashbacks to his troubled youth. The lighthouse serves as an orphanage and Guy recalls some dark, twisted memories that involve his parents, the orphans, and odd experiments that were seared onto his mind. As he drifts into his past, how will his memories and this return home impact Guy’s fractured persona?
Entertainment Value: This is a wild one, one of the most creative and visionary films out there, sprung from the fertile mind of Guy Maddin. Brand Upon the Brain was part of a trilogy of films based on a fictional autobiographical accounts of Maddin’s life, quite an interesting concept, to say the least. This movie feels like an experimental art film smashed into an old school horror picture, with some intense melodrama thrown in to spice things up even more. There is a story of sorts, with a son going back to the dysfunctional world of his parents, but this is more of an experience than anything close to a traditional narrative. The entire movie has a dreamlike presence, or more like a nightmare in most scenes, with an unnatural texture that amplifies all the elements within. This leads to some wild and intense moments of obsession and emotion, the kind most films can’t even begin to approach. The surreal, theatrical nature of Brand Upon the Brain is likely to confuse some viewers, if not drive them to madness, but it is a powerful cinematic experience.
The offbeat, experimental narrative approach is remarkable, but for me it is the visuals and overall atmosphere of Brand Upon the Brain that really stand out. The movie looks like an old silent film, not just the black & white images, but the stark contrast and production design elements as well. I love the overall look of the movie, which has a theatrical presence to it, but remains cinematic at the same time. I am always reminded of the expressionist horror silents when I watch, but the horror vibes don’t end with the visuals, as the tension and unpredictable tone also fall into that area. But I think most would consider it more of a suspense/thriller, with layers of buried secrets, sudden twists, and dark, mysterious characters with questionable motives. As all this artistic mayhem is unleashed, Brand Upon the Brain remains riveting throughout and never feels slow or drawn out. Some films with an experimental lean can struggle to fill a feature length duration, but this picture never feels like filler and I was reeled in right from the start. If you’re a fan of outsider cinema, artistic or experimental films, or just like to have your mind melted, you need this movie.