The horror film was in a strange place in 1994. Major franchises like Friday The 13th and Halloween were played out and Wes Craven was toying with postmodernism in an attempt to revive the Nightmare On Elm Street series via Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (he’d fully realize his postmodern ambitions a few years later with Scream).  There was still a heavy interest in making and releasing horror films, though, with major studios trying out reboots of familiar ideas like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Wolf and everyone from indies to foreign filmmakers experimenting with the genre.

One of the most interesting films to emerge from this productive, experimental year was Brainscan.  The premise fuses the high-tech of that era with the psycho-thriller and fantasy vs. reality elements that give it its own unique take on rubber reality. The protagonist is Michael (Edward Furlong), a latchkey kid both emotionally and physically scarred by a car accident that killed his mother.  He drifts through high school as a misfit,  spending his time on the horror genre and video games.

Michael meets his match when he is introduced to a CD-ROM game that promises a virtual reality experience that allows a person to experience being a killer.  He tries it out, only to discover that someone who lives down the street was violently murdered. He soon finds himself bedeviled by the Trickster (T. Ryder Smith), the host of the game, who begins appearing to him and trying to convince him that the game represents his true nature. Michael tries to fight him off as his grasp on reality slips and the bodies begin to pile up.

The resulting film has some notable problems. The script toys with the idea of whether or not violent content influences impressionable young minds to commit violent acts but never really commits to taking a stance on this idea.  It also has an odd ending that evokes a certain Frank Capra film, believe it or not, and follows said ending with a twist coda that completely undoes that ending.

However, if you overlook these bumps and seams, a lot of what goes on Brainscan is more interesting and ambitious than a lot of its other competitors from 1994. The script was an early effort for Andrew Kevin Walker and he gives it some interesting characters: the troubled-teen hero has more interesting shadings than the usual cannon fodder and the Trickster sidesteps the obvious aim of being Freddy Krueger knockoff by acting like a Mr. Hyde to the hero’s Jekyll, making the case for homicide and detachment in unexpectedly philosophical debates.

Brainscan also benefits from stylish direction by John Flynn.  He is better known to film buffs for tough guy fare like The Outfit and Rolling Thunder but he shows a nice grasp of horror atmosphere here, staging a number of effective, moodily-lit setpieces.  For example, there is a great opening titles scene that sets up the hero and his past trauma via a series of jagged images that ultimately cohere into a sequence that reveals the mystery.  Francois Protat’s photography amps up the mood in these scenes, as does an evocative, guitar-tinged score from George S. Clinton that sounds like a meeting point between John Carpenter and the first Nightmare On Elm Street score.

Flynn also gets good performances: Furlong is better than you might expect, coming off believably like an angsty teen, and there’s nice support from Frank Langella as a detective who suspects Michael. That said, it’s Smith who really stands out as Trickster, bringing  a range of dark humor and menace to what could have been a generic villain.

Ultimately, Brainscan is caught between the teen horror conventions of the late ’80s/early ’90s and a darker, more gothic style that would be fully realized later.  However, maybe that is not such a bad place for a horror programmer to exist?  Brainscan tries out a number of interesting ideas, does so with style and never outstays its welcome. If you’re checking out mid-’90s horror, this is worth adding to that survey.

Blu-Ray Notes: Scream Factory recently revived this one for blu-ray and the results look and sound pretty nice. It’s also kitted out with plenty of extras, including interviews with Andrew Kevin Walker and George S. Clinton as well as some fun behind-the-scenes footage.