A Strange 90s Horror Relic You Need To Watch ASAP

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Welcome to The Overlooked Motel, a place where under-seen and unappreciated films are given their moment in the spotlight. I hope you enjoy your stay here and find the accommodations to be suitable. Now, please take a seat and make yourself comfortable. I have some misbehaving guests to ‘correct.’  

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Brainscan is a film that didn’t win over many critics upon release in 1994. But I think the flick is far better than the critical consensus suggests. This picture is very much a product of its time; a capsule of ‘90s teen angst. It features a misunderstood monster kid in the lead role and serves up a wisecracking antagonist channeling Freddy Krueger. What’s not to like about that? 

The picture follows Michael (Edward Furlong), a young man alienated from the outside world. He previously lost his mother in a tragic car accident and his father is perpetually away on business. To distract from the loneliness he feels, Michael finds solace in video games and horror movies. When he learns of a new interactive game called Brainscan that uses the player’s subconscious mind to create a unique experience for each user, Michael cannot wait to try it out. But when the CD-ROM arrives in the mail, it hurls Michael into a deadly ordeal that systematically dismantles his life and sees him pegged as the prime suspect in a murder investigation.  

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In the years since its release, the flick has proved to be surprisingly prescient. The premise was in the realm of science fiction when Brian Owens and Andrew Kevin Walker penned the film’s screenplay. But recent developments have made a customized user experience a reality for gamers, rather than a distant fantasy. We live in an era of games that make use of biofeedback to tailor the experience to the specific user. So, the idea of a game that mines your subconscious doesn’t seem like such a stretch at this point.  

Brainscan director, John Flynn, makes frightening use of the film’s prophetic premise. There’s a very gritty quality to it. The stakes feel very real. The way we see Michael’s experience within the game from his perspective makes it feel very much like we are a part of the action. We are right there with Michael as he makes the chilling realization that the game is so much more than just a game. 

Speaking of Michael, I think he is a far more dynamic character than some of the film’s detractors give him credit for being. He was impacted by tragedy at a young age. He lost his mother in a car crash and sustained major injuries himself. Because of what he’s endured, horror movies and games likely provide him a safe way to come to terms with his own mortality.

Early in Brainscan, there is a scene where Michael stops to look at the aftermath of a grisly accident on his way home from school. That triggers a flashback to the ordeal he survived, years prior. The detective working the scene (Frank Langella) assumes he’s just a creepy kid. But there’s far more nuance at play. Michael isn’t stopping to stare at the ordeal. He finds himself frozen in place when he’s unexpectedly faced with a gruesome scene not dissimilar from his own accident. Unlike the grisly affair he observes, horror offers a safe space to exist with those uncomfortable feelings on his own terms and at his own pace. 

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I feel a connection to the lead character for a variety of reasons. And if you grew up an outsider because of your fascination with the macabre, you’re likely to relate to Michael as much as I do. Edward Furlong does a great deal to make the character accessible. He conveys a palpable sense of sadness through his performance. He rarely smiles, he always looks uncomfortable, and he believably appears to be grappling with some really heavy stuff. His fragility is especially apparent in the way he clings to his best friend, Kyle. Kyle is about the only source of stability Michael has. That serves to underscore his vulnerability and it also makes the riffs in their friendship feel dire, rather than like minor squabbles between teenage boys.

Also impressive is T. Ryder Smith as The Trickster. He is a wisecracking antagonist who effectively conveys a sense of menace any time he appears onscreen. His energy is reminiscent of Freddy Krueger, who had cemented his status as a pop culture fixture by the time Brainscan was released. Though The Trickster doesn’t quite reach the level of greatness of The Springwood Slasher, he does manage to be simultaneously entertaining and imposing. 

If you’re not sold yet, allow me to make one final plea: Brainscan is steeped in ‘90s nostalgia from start to finish. It’s complete with a metal soundtrack of the era, dial-up Internet, games on CD-ROM, and swoopy hair. If you’re nostalgic for the ‘90s, you’ll find plenty to scratch that itch in this chilling 1994 effort. 

On the whole, Brainscan is a harrowing experience that puts the viewer in the heart of the action. Furlong turns in a compelling showing, The Trickster proves a memorable antagonist, and the film is full of bitchin’ 90s energy. 

That’s all for this installment of The Overlooked Motel. If you’d like to chat more about under-seen and underrated films, feel free to hit me up with your thoughts on TwitterThreads, or Instagram

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