There's a very fine line between terror and humor. From screams to the guffaws Z-grade special effects induce, both emotions are highly physical and cathartic. And, as any fan of horror will tell you—from the casual viewer to Fangoria back-issue hoarder—moreso than gore or final girls, a modicum of humor is an essential component of the genre. Given that Brainscan's techno-fears reached obsolescence long ago, it would be easy to believe it's nothing but retro-junk comedy unworthy of screening outside of a lazy Sunday afternoon. However, there's something timeless—and effectively creepy—about its premise that elevates it above the average late 80s/early 90s horror fair.
Like a Tales from the Crypt issue or Twilight Zone episode, Brainscan's plot revolves around someone who is punished with the very thing he loves the most. Eddie Furlong, in all his hooded-eyelid glory, plays Michael, an emotionally bruised teenager who loves heavy metal, horror movies, and technology (his bedroom is like Blank Check meets Spencer Gifts: a sassy, voice-activated phone/TV/computer surrounded by blacklight posters). Looking for the next great immersive CD ROM/virtual reality experience, he buys the newly released “Brainscan”, and, after a series of epilepsy-inducing flashes from the TV, enters the game and successfully hacks someone up in under an hour. However, it turns out that the murder was real, and Michael is forced to commit subsequent crimes to cover it up. Guiding him through all of this is the thoroughly Baudrillardian computer sprite Trickster, essentially Freddie Krueger in punk clothes. After Michael's initial crisis of conscience, Trickster reassures him: “Real, unreal. What's the difference if you don't get caught?” Like Freddie, Trickster can also bend time and space for grotesque displays of power (ie: mediocre s/fx grossout moments) and to loosen Michael's grip on reality.
Without parents (his mother died in a horrific car accident, his father's always away on business) or his best friend (he gets murdered about halfway through the movie, I'll let you guess how), Michael is left to fend for himself, and manages to always make the worst choice with the best intentions—early adulthood in microcosm—making for distinctively claustrophobic plotting. Other touches, such as Michael's relationship with the girl next door (which manages to be equal parts exploitation, true love, and imagination) or the final twist on the denouement, complicate standard horror movie identification and verisimilitude.
Brainscan is a rare treat that explores genre conventions and a key transition point in our collective relationship with technology. At the very least, it will remind you——with the power of terrible haircuts, terrible music, and CD ROM mind control——why 90s nostalgia is a very, very bad idea.