Uniquely warped Canadian cult-filmmaker Guy Maddin's gleefully perverse, near-silent exploration is hypnotic montage mosaic of striking images (most in stark B&W) that resonate with the hallucinogenic power of fever dreams and vintage pop-culture iconography.
House painter Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs) receives a letter from his mother (Susan Corzatte, later Gretchen Krich and Cathleen O'Malley), whom he hasn't seen in 30 years. It's her dying wish that he return to Black Notch Island, where he spent the first 10 years of his life in the "mom and pop" orphanage his parents operated out of an isolated lighthouse, and give the long-abandoned structure two good coats of paint — she hopes to visit there before she dies. Guy dutifully does as she asks, but a little sprucing up can't banish the phantoms that haunt the lighthouse: Guy's rebellious teenage sister (Maya Lawson), a spunky teen detective named Wendy Hale (Katherine E. Scharhon) — her adventures with her brother, Chance, have been immortalized in a series of children's books collectively titled "The Lightbulb Kids" — Guy's mysterious father (Todd Jefferson Moore), who toiled day and night in his mad-scientist's lab; and the haunted orphans who lived in equal terror of Guy's parents and the feral Savage Tom (Andrew Loviska), the oldest of their number, who conducted nude rituals in the nighttime woods and threatened to sacrifice Guy's timid, twitchy best friend, Neddie (Kellan Larson). Trapped in the funhouse of memory, Guy relives a childhood steeped in Freudian excess and baroque horror-movie terrors. His parents aren't just Dickensian opportunists indifferent to the misery of little children; they're bona fide ghouls who harvest, use and sell the potent "orphan nectar" they drain from the tender brains of their helpless charges.
Maddin cheekily declared BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! "96% totally true," and the joke is that he isn't joking. Granted, his real-life mom didn't reverse the aging process by vampirizing children, and his dad wasn't brought back from the dead and packed in a harp case for 30 years. But the nightmare-movie displacements and eerily elegant pulp iconography — Wendy/Chance Hale's slyly androgynous Fantomas drag… wow! — cut to the heart of the way precocious, imaginative children on the cusp of adolescence see the adult world's mysteries. The recurring intertitle "Too Much for Guy!" says it all: sex and power and freakiness, oh my! BRAND UPON THE BRAIN exists in two distinct forms: The live theatrical event that combines the film, a live orchestra, sound-effects artists and a rotating cast of celebrity narrators, and the locked-down version propelled by Isabella Rossellini's cunningly melodramatic voice-over and Jason Staczek's recorded score. Either way, it's a trip. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh