It's an odd quirk of timing that in the same week a big-budget, campy Hollywood take on teen sleuth Nancy Drew hits theater screens nationwide, Orange County gets the low-budget, campy, eccentric as all hell Brand Upon the Brain!—which features as one of its major characters a teenage girl detective determined to solve the mystery of an old lighthouse. Though I haven't seen the Nancy Drew film yet, it seems safe to assume that most of the similarities stop there: Brand's young sleuth, Wendy Hale (Katherine E. Scharhon), is part of a sibling team called the Lightbulb Kids, who also happen to be expert harpists. Oh, and her brother Chance? He isn't a brother at all, but rather Wendy in drag. Also, the movie's in black and white and shot as a silent.
It isn't quite accurate to call it a silent film, however—there are sound effects, and an enthusiastic narration by Isabella Rossellini, who frequently sounds as though she's gone quite mad. Audiences in Los Angeles and New York had the chance to see the film performed with a live orchestra, sound-effects crew and narrator—who might be anyone from Udo Kier to Eli Wallach on any given night. It's a great gimmick, but we're just getting the film by itself, and I reviewed it from a DVD screener, which is perhaps as far from the live version as you can get. Fortunately, the film holds up just as a plain old film, in large part because there isn't really anything plain about it.
Shot in nine days by quirky Canadian director Guy Maddin, Brand is the second part of a semi-autobiographical trilogy, following 2003's Cowards Bend the Knee. Like that film, it features a main character named Guy Maddin (here played as an adult by Erik Steffen Maahs, and as a boy by Sullivan Brown) in a silent-movie setting that frequently features mad scientists, cannibalism/vampirism, twisted experiments and lots of nudity . . . though somehow, when filmed in such a quaint style, it all seems rather innocent. The story begins with the adult Guy returning home to the lighthouse where he grew up, which also happened to be both an orphanage and a laboratory back in his youth. He has been asked by his mother (Gretchen Krich) to paint the place one last time before she dies, so she can see the place looking fresh again.
As he begins to paint, Guy starts to remember the things he's quite literally glossing over, and the rest of the tale is told in flashback. It involves his father's odd experiments on the orphans, an aspiring warlock named Savage Tom, Mom's desire to age backward with the aid of science, and Guy's sister's burgeoning sexuality, expressed primarily with the aforementioned teen sleuth, who attracts both Guy and his sister, depending on whether she's dressed as Chance or Wendy, though Sis doesn't bat an eyelid when her beau turns out to be a belle. As for Guy, he's quite the passive protagonist, and he passes out a lot.
Some warning may be in order for the Maddin neophyte—his style can tax the patience of the unprepared, despite the brisk editing. As involved as the story is, it isn't exactly involving. Maddin wrote the script on the fly, and it shows. It's like when a child starts making up a tale—"and then this happened, and this, and this, and then the dead guy came back to life, and then they got into a boat . . ." By itself, filmed in a more straightforward style, what story there is might be comparable to one of the original Grimm's fairy tales, but it wouldn't sustain a feature. Told in 12 chapters, edited like a symphony in time with an orchestral score and using vintage effects, it transcends narrative to a certain degree. Though perhaps not as much as one might like. The casual viewer may well reject the experimentalism outright, but for those who seek more unique rewards, they're definitely here. Like Nancy Drew, you'll just have to do a little digging.
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BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! WAS DIRECTED BY GUY MADDIN; AND WRITTEN BY GUY MADDIN AND GEORGE TOLES. AT EDWARDS WESTPARK, IRVINE.