Posts Tagged ‘Frank Henenlotter’

"Frankenhooker" movie poster

"Frankenhooker" movie poster

We’ll conclude our little look back at the madcap career of semi-legendary director Frank Henenlotter with his 1990 trash masterpiece, “Frankenhooker.” I won’t beat around the bush, this is my favorite of Henenlotter’s films, and is a bona fide cult classic completely deserving of its reputation.  Hysterically funny and just-as-hysterically gruesome, “Frankenhooker” packs more punch than any multimillion-dollar Hollywood blockbuster and delivers the gore-soaked goods on a budget that directors like Zack Snyder and George Lucas probably blow on lunch.

Once again filmed in the environs of New Jersey and, most notably, New York’s former scuzzy underside in and around Times Square (and yes, there are scenes set in a sleazy 42nd Street flophouse, in case you were wondering), “Frankenhooker” is the story of aspiring mad scientist and med-school reject Jeffrey (played by James Lorinz of “Street Trash”), who builds his future father-in-law an automatic lawnmower as a birthday gift, only to have the half-assed gizmo shred his fiancee, Elizabeth (former Penthouse Pet Patty Mullen) to pieces when it goes haywire at said future father-in-law’s birthday party. Jeffrey isn’t one to meekly accept tragedy when science can fix things, though, and he absconds with her decapitated head and concocts a truly warped plan to bring the love of his life back from the grave.

On a “shopping trip” to 42nd street in an attempt to find the perfect body to attach Elizabeth’s now-cryogenically-frozen head to, Jeffrey decides his best course of action is to get as many working girls as possible assembled at one time in order to select the perfect unwitting donor for his scheme.  He hires “lead hooker” Honey (former Playboy Playmate Charlotte Helmkamp) to get a bevy of her fellow hookers together so he can literally “play doctor” with all of them, but he hits upon a problem—after taking copious measurements of all the girls, he can’t find just one perfect “specimen” to stick his former fiancee’s head on. Fortunately for Jeffrey, he doesn’t need to pick just one, as the ladies of the evening stumble upon the batch of “super crack” he has cooked up as a little side experiment and soon are getting higher than heck on Jeffrey’s killer (literally) rock. The result? The picture below says it all, I think—

There's no high like a "super crack" high!

There's no high like a "super crack" high!

That’s right, the hookers literally explode all over the room, leaving Jeffrey no end of body parts from which to select as he stitches together a new “home” for Elizabeth’s head.  Soon, with the aid of a makeshift operating theater in his mother’s garage and convenient lightning storm, Jeffrey has brought his lady-love back, with her head attached to a body assembled from exploded prostitute-parts—she’s not the same, though—she has purple hair (and nipples), shambles around like a heavy-footed beast, and says things like “Lookin’ for some action?,” “Want a date?,” and “Got any money?” Yes, homemade surgery combined with the wildly unpredictable forces of electricity have brought Elizabeth back from the grave, and turned her into—Frankenhooker!

With a wildly outlandish premise, a truly fantastic comedic performance from Ms. Mullen in the title role, strong supporting performances (especially from Ms. Helmkamp—who knew so many former centerfold models could actually act?), wonderful “old-school” effects, authentically sleazy New York locations, and a tongue-rammed-tightly-into-cheek overall tone, “Frankenhooker” is an absolute gem of a flick, as no less authorities than Bill Murray and Joe Bob Briggs have attested to.

Unearthed Films' "Frankenhooker" DVD

Unearthed Films' "Frankenhooker" DVD

Finally released on DVD by Unearthed Films in 2005 in a package crammed with great extras, “Frankenhooker” is an absolutely essential addition to any B-film junkie’s video library. Besides a terrifically clean 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, the DVD includes a terrifically insightful commentary from Henenlotter and makeup/effects man Gabe Bartalos, an extensive interview with star Patty Mullen, a great set of production still photos, a featurette on the movie’s make up effects, the original theatrical trailer, and lots more goodies to keep the demented “Frankenhooker” fans out there happy.

This movie has aged especially well given the “clean-up job” Rudy Giuliani did to 42nd Street, and so unwittingly provides a slice of nostalgia for a bygone era on top of all its other sick attributes. A true one-of-a-kind movie watching experience, “Frankenhooker” marks the apex of Frank Henenlotter’s uniquely twisted filmic sensibility  and will leave you laughing out loud all the way through while reaching for the bark bag at the same time. Not to be missed under any circumstances!

Synapse Films' Special Edition DVD

Synapse Films' Special Edition DVD

Brian ( played by Rick Herbst) has a little problem—that’s getting bigger. One night his neighbors’ parasitic brain-sucking symbiote “pet” escapes and worms its way into neck neck where it intends to stay for a spell, using Brian to get ahold of its favorite source of sustenance—human brains. In return for helping him procure his food of choice, the parasite will inject the psychedelic fluid that’s produced as a by-product of his digestion directly into Brian’s brain, giving him some awesome hallucinogenic experiences.  If this sounds like a fair trade to you, then you, my friend, need some serious help. Soon getting his “brain juice” consumes all of Brian’s waking hours, and he abandons his girlfriend, brother, and all semblance of a normal life in his quest to have another mind-bendingly outrageous trip.

Leave it to Frank Henenlotter to come up with a premise for his second film that’s even more outrageous than his first feature, the previously-discussed “Basket Case.” His follow-up, the 1987 comedy-horror shocker “Brain Damage” ups the ante in every way imaginable—and frankly some ways that aren’t imaginable.  There’s a bit more of a budget to play with here than there was in Henelotter’s debut feature, and he puts it to good use—the effects are pretty solid, the brain parasite creature, Aylmer,  looks terrific in a pleasingly cheesy way, and the overall acting ability of the cast is a notch higher.

For all the added semi-professionalism, however, none of the demented charm of Henenlotter’s debut feature is lost—this film is just as quirky and —ermmm—brain damaged as its predecessor, maybe even moreso. The scene where Brian (a self-consciously groaningly obvious anagram for brain) picks up a young lady at a club and feeds her brain to Aylmer in a most—shall we say—original way simply has to be seen to be believed, as does the scene where Brian sees his dinner at a restaurant transform into writhing, pulsating little brains.

Aylmer

Aylmer

Truth is, Aylmer is a jovial and friendly little parasite, but that doesn’t mean that Brian doesn’t know he’s got a problem that he needs to lick, and his withdrawal scenes in a dingy 42nd street hotel (another Henenlotter staple, as you can tell by now) are very well-done and pretty damn harrowing for a movie that’s otherwise got a decidedly comedic tone.  Soon, it’s  down to a struggle of man-vs.-brain parasite as Brian tries his best to kick his Aylmer addiction—but can he survive without the “juice” that his brain-eating buddy provides?

Lots of words and phrases come to mind to describe this film, Gratuitous. Deranged. Over the top. Outrageous. Incredible. Tasteless. Gross. Hysterically funny. Yet I think the English language itself actually comes up short in describing the truly twisted world of “Brain Damage,” and in the end you’re just got to see it to believe it—and even then, you’ll find yourself rewinding in several spots just to make sure that, yes, you really saw what you just did.

Fortunately, you can replay each and every scene should you so choose to your heart’s content on Synapse Films’ absolutely awesome special edition DVD release. Featuring an absolutely pristine 1080P/High Definition D5 16:9 anamorphic transfer, the film looks like a million bucks even though the budget was considerably less than that, and the newly-remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is well and truly awesome, with all speakers getting in on the action. There’s a terrific commentary by Henenlotter and Bob Martin (who wrote the now-highly collectible paperback novelization of the film) and the original theatrical trailer among the extras, as well, making this an absolutely essential purchase for fans of late-era —or any era, for that matter—low-budget exploitation films. All in all, this is a “must-add” to your DVD library.

Next time around, we’ll finish our little Henenlotter retrospective with a look at his third “essential” film, the 1990 classic “Frankenhooker.”  Until then, as always, thanks for reading, and have fun in your own quest to dig up diamonds in the cinematic rough.

basketcaseart03The work of cult film auteur Frank Henenlotter holds a special place in my twisted heart, as his films were staples of the late-night second-tier “premium” cable channels (Cinemax, The Movie Channel) during my misspent “formative” years, and as such I wasted far too many hours watching them repeatedly and finding my fondness for them grow with each successive viewing. While his strange blend of gross-out horror and slapstick-style comedy is admittedly an acquired taste, his sizable semi-legion of fans is testament to the fact that many people are indeed tuned into his particular warped wavelength, and as such, I thought it might be fun to pay homage to what are unquestionably his three best efforts (to date, that is—I have yet to see his long-awaited new release, “Bad Biology”), the “unholy trinity” comprised of “Basket Case,” “Brain Damage,” and “Frankenhooker.”  Let’s begin this nostalgic look back at Henenlotter’s career at its inception, his feature-film debut, the 1982 classic “Basket Case.”

The set-up is simple enough : a doctor is murdered in over-the-top gruesome fashion in his home by an unseen assailant. Cut to a 20-something young man with a big wicker basket and even bigger hair (our “hero,” Duane Bradley, played—if that’s the word we really want to use because very few of the performances in this film resemble anything traditiononally defined as acting—by Kevin Van Hentenryck) from upstate New York arriving at a fleabag 42nd street “hotel,” checking in, showing off a fat wad of cash that attracts the attention of the establishment’s unsavory residents—excuse me, “customers”—and asking where he can get something to eat. After procuring a sizable quantity of hamburgers, Duane heads for his room and there we see that the food isn’t for him,  as he feeds it to whoever or whatever is in his wicker basket. Duane then holds what appears to be a one-way conversation with his basket-dwelling friend, goes to sleep, and the next day begins to embark on a series of visits to other doctors, saying he’s an “old friend” who wants to pay a surprise visit.

Over the course of his brief “scouting mission” to say hello to his “old friends,” Duane manages to pick up (through zero effort on his own part) and start a semblance of a romance with one of the doctor’s receptionists, get acquainted with the truly varied yet deliciously stereotypical cast of characters who reside in the hotel (including getting drunk for the first time in his life with a hooker who lives across the hall played by Beverly Bonner), and withstand further telepathic assaults from his “pet” in the basket.

Along the way, we learn the film’s not-so-secret— that his wicker-dwelling companion is actually his horribly deformed twin brother, Belial, who was attached to Duane in conjoined fashion until they were teens, when some unsavory paid-in-cash doctors agreed to separate the two so Duane could lead a “normal life.” As for Belial, he was surreptitiously dumped in the trash, presumed dead, or soon to be so. Belial quickly summons Duane via telepathy to rescue him, and then the two creatively and grotesquely kill their father, who was the brains behind the operation of—errr—-the operation and are raised from that point on by the kindly aunt who had looked after them during their early years. When she passes away, they have no remaining relatives (their mother died giving birth to them), and set out to avenge themselves on those who separted them.

Duane's basket-dwelling brother

Duane's basket-dwelling brother

I won’t tell you (if there is a “you” out there reading this) how it all ends up in case you haven’t seen the flick, but I will say that there are some solid cheap gore effects, a fun, cheesy extended stop-motion animation scene of Belial trashing the hotel room, some sick chuckles thrown in for good measure, and an authentic vibe of Times Square griminess to the proceedings that makes this demented zero-budgeter an absolute joy to watch and sets the tone for all of Henenlotter’s subsequent work—outrageous premises, lovably bizarre monsters, New York sleazepit locations, and biological absurdities of the David-Cronenberg-on-crack variety are constant running themes in his films.

Something Weird's 20th Anniversay DVD Release

Something Weird's 20th Anniversay DVD Release

There are a couple of different DVD versions of “Basket Case” out there, but the best is easily the 20th Anniversary edition released in 2002 from Something Weird Video. Featuring a plethora of extras including a commentary by Henelotter, producer Edgar Ievins, and actress Beverly Bonner, a raft of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage, a documentary short featuring Henelotter and rapper R.A. “the Rugged Man” touring the movie’s  original filiming locations, an extensive selection of trailers, TV spots, radio spots, promotional posters and artwork and still photos, and radio interviews with actress Susan Smith (who played Duane’s love interest) among other delights-for-the-completist, this is definitely the version of this disc to own and can be found at bargain-basement prices most anywhere.

Followed by two sequels, the first of which is pretty damn clever and the second of which doesn’t quite reach the same level of twisted-yet-fun depravity of the first two (but which isn’t nearly as bad as many folks seem to think), “Basket Case” is definitely one of the better efforts of the low-budget horror-comedy genre and has earned its esteemed reputation in B-movie history. If you haven’t seen it, then I highly recommend checking it out ASAP, and if you have seen but it’s been a few years, it’s well worth another look, as it holds up surprisingly well given its budgetary and technical limitations, and it has an air of authenticity that most shlock filmmakers often spend their entire careers striving to find but never quite achieving.

Next up I’ll be taking a look at Henenlotter’s second feature, the remarkably twisted “Brain Damage.” Until then, thanks for reading,  and remember, when it comes to moviemaking, money is no substitute for brains and imagination!