Now grown, he returns to explore his twisted roots

Posted: June 15, 2007

Brand Upon the Brain!, a feverishly imaginative Freudian vampire film from Guy Maddin, is like a silent-movie serial by Louis Feuillade or an improbable collaboration between writer Oscar Wilde and photographer Man Ray.

It is not a film for the popcorn crowd.

My hunch is that aesthetes, art students and lovers of experimental film will delight in Maddin's neo-Gothic, a film made by using primitive means, which makes a primal connection with its audience.

In Toronto, Chicago and New York, Maddin's silent film was accompanied by a live orchestra, a celebrity narrator and a team of Foley (sound) artists.

Here, the moody 8mm black-and-white film, evocatively photographed by Benjamin Kasulke, is accompanied by Isabella Rosellini's pre-recorded melodramatic narration that complements James Staczek's thumping, tell-tale heart score.

Brand is about a man, a character named Guy, who returns to the island where he grew up and where he exhumes his troubled past.

When Guy was a boy, he lived on the island with his beloved Sis (Maya Lawson) and his parents (Gretchen Kirch and Todd Moore). Guy's folks ran "a mom-and-pop orphanage" in a lighthouse that offers Mom, a human gargoyle, a convenient perch to monitor the nascent sexual play of her children and charges.

Many of the foundlings have suspicious scars at the bases of their heads, "the brand upon the brain" to which the title refers.

Much of what happened on this turbulent island was, as an oft-repeated intertitle puts it, "Too much for Guy," who in the movie's extended flashback was unconscious for the better part of his youth.

It is the work of the adult Guy to retrieve the bawdy, bloody memories of repressive/seductive Mom, rebellious Sis and curiously distant Dad and reconstruct the psychological forces that warped his psyche.

And it is the play of the audience to appreciate Maddin's funny/sad Oedipal story that has the resonance of an artifact with relevance to contemporary life.

Brand Upon the Brain! ***1/2 (out of four stars)

Produced by Amy Jacobson and Gregg Lachow, directed by Guy Maddin, written by Maddin and George Toles, photography by Benjamin Kasulke, music by James Staczek, distributed by The Film Co. and Vitagraph.

Running time: 1 hour, 35 mins.

Mother. . . Gretchen Kirch

Young Guy. . . Sullivan Brown

Sis. . . Maya Lawson

Chance/Wendy Hale. . . Katherine Scharhon

Savage Tom. . . Andy Loviska

Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (nudity, sexuality, violence)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at

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