Posts Tagged ‘New York’

"Combat Shock" Tromasterpiece 25th Anniversary Edition DVD Cover

"Combat Shock" Tromasterpiece 25th Anniversary Edition DVD Cover

“It was becoming clearer all the time. The war is not over. The battlefield may have changed, but the war is not over.”        —Frankie Dunlan, “Combat Shock”

This is the REAL guerrilla filmmaking. Forget today’s “YouTube generation” with their hi-def home video cameras baring their excuses-for-souls in overwrought,  self-important quasi-confessionals that even they won’t care about themselves a week from now. In 1984, armed with nothing but a few thousand bucks and a 16mm camera and lighting equipment borrowed from the film school he was attending (and soon to be teaching at), Buddy Giovinazzo, a guy with nothing more than a couple short films and some music videos done for his own band ( who went by the moniker 2000 A.D. Circus, in case you were wondering) on his resume hit the postapocalyptic-looking streets of Staten Island and committed to celluloid something so fearlessly and unforgivingly bleak that even today’s audiences, reared as they are on high-gloss torture porn and million-dollar grime, will find sitting though the whole thing from start to finish hard to endure. That’s because “Combat Shock” is nothing less than a cinematic brass-knuckled punch to the gut. A movie that spits in your face while you’re down on the ground and dares you to get up again, you disgusting wimp. And just as you start to get your bearings and lift your head, it delivers another body blow and dares you to try that shit with it again, worm.  The world you ignore—the world you want to pretend doesn’t exist—the REALITY that squirms and slithers at the absolute bottom of the trash barrel, underneath the maggot-infested, rotted-meat discards of your SUV-driving, charge card-funded ILLUSION of a life—it’s forcing its way to the top, DEMANDING that you pay attention, no longer allowing you to turn a blind eye to the fact that its horrid dog-eat-dog squalor is the price OTHER people have to pay so that YOU can pretend everything is fine and dandy. “Combat Shock” is a movie that screams at you how much it hates your fucking guts and how richly you’ve earned that hatred—and for that, I love it.

Let’s go back in time for a moment to 1984. Ronald Reagan’s TV commercials are triumphantly declaring that it’s “morning in America,” but the reality on the ground is that all the people enjoying this glorious fiction of a “morning,” complete with its Hollywood sunrise, hoisted flags, and happy children scurrying off to greet the smiling school-bus driver left  one hell of a mess the night before, but guess what?  It’s morning for millions of other folks,  too — the people who weren’t at the party  and won’t be at tonight’s,  either. They’re sifting through the broken beer bottles, soggy cigarette butts, and puked-up food the partiers left in their wake, looking for some way to survive in the hollowed-out shells of once-booming industrial towns the Wall Street fat cats and junk-bond hustlers left behind as “collateral damage”  on their way to Reagan’s bright and shining new dawn.

A lot of those numberless, faceless, voiceless, hopeless “left-behinds” are veterans. Guys who put it all on the line, risking the one and only thing they truly had—their lives— in the jungles of Viet Nam while the daddy warbuckses of the world made billions standing in a pool of their blood and atop a makeshift hill of their severed limbs. Some came back so shellshocked, so physically broken and/or psychologically and spiritually tunneled-out, that from where they were standing, limping, crawling, or lying down, the guys who died, the guys who didn’t have to come back and try to eke out some kind of gutter-level existence on the table leavings of the same assholes who profited from their sacrifice and were now enjoying Ronnie’s new morning, were starting to look pretty lucky.

One such discarded veteran is Frankie Dunlan.  When we join Frankie’s story, he’s already at rock bottom, and while the shiny, happy people will tell him there’s nowhere to go but up, we all know that’s bullshit.  “Morning in America” for Frankie means, like every other morning for the past four months,  he doesn’t have a job to go to. His overbearing wife and horribly deformed (thanks to Frankie’s exposure to agent orange) baby are starving. He can’t make the rent on his calling-it-a-shithole-would-be-a-compliment apartment in the economically bombed-out ruins of Staten Island. There’s no water. The toilet’s backed up (note for the squeamish: while some movies have backed-up toilets, and lots of movies smell they came out of backed-up toilets,  “Combat Shock” points the camera lens inside the backed-up toilet). The train line runs right outside their window. His clothes are stained and torn to shreds. And just to add insult to injury,  his frayed shoelaces snap on him when he’s tying them in preparation to head out to another day in the unemployment line.

That doesn’t prove to be an easy trip, though.  Local “debt collectors” he had to turn to in order to make last month’s rent are looking for him and don’t much care at this point if he pays them back in cash or blood. A junkie pal of his is so strung out he doesn’t even recognize him at first and tries to hold him up for cash he doesn’t have. His mind is is riddled with waking fever-dreams of Viet Nam—both of the war atrocities he committed there and those perpetrated upon him when he was captured.

And of course, when he does finally get there (warning to those with short attention spans: “Combat Shock” is not exactly a fast -paced flick) the line goes around the block, it takes hours to get in, and there’s no work, anyway. And Frankie’s long meander home isn’t much easier—when he tries to prevent a little girl who can’t be more than 10 or 11 years old from beating up her kid sister, he’s attacked by—get your vomit-bags handy—her pimp, who says Frankie needs to fork over 50 bucks if he wants to keep talking to her, proving only that even when he tries to do the right thing, it’s absolutely hopeless. “Combat Shock” is many things, but a “feel-good” movie isn’t one of them.

Suffice to say, there’s only one way Frankie’s story can end, and of course it ain’t pretty. You see it coming five minutes into the movie, but even so,  when it happens it’s still nerve-wracking. Hell, I’ve seen this movie a dozen times at least and it still gets  no easier to take it all in with  subsequent viewings. How many movies can you say that about?

And while too many “B”-type films than you can mention are hindered by their low budgets, in “Combat Shock”‘s case—for the most part, with an exception or two I’ll detail in a minute–the fact that it was made for nothing is actually a key reason for its success. Frankie is played by Ricky Giovinazzo, writer-director Buddy’s brother. Ricky’s a musician by trade (he also provides the frenetic and bizarre, so-incongruous-it-actually works score to the film) and not at all what you’d call an Oscar-caliber actor. Hell, it doesn’t even feel like he’s actually acting at all. Combined with the film’s completely non-stylized, absolutely direct camerawork (Giovinazzo and company never had any filming permits and shot the whole thing “on the fly,” quite often having to settle for getting things in one take and moving quickly to the next scene) this gives the proceedings an absolutely naturalistic, almost documentary-type feel and eliminates much of the “comfortable distance” between viewer and subject found is most cinematic fiction.  “Combat Shock” is a story that lives beneath gutter-level, and its raw, amateur, unpolished technical quality is exactly right for it.  the word we’re looking for here is AUTHENTIC–completely, agonizingly, harrowingly AUTHENTIC.

Awww---isn't he a little darling?

Awww---isn't he a little darling?

So what doesn’t work? Well, as you can see above,  Frankie’s baby, a puppet-type construct whipped up by effects man Ralph Cordero for $140, is a little too “Eraserhead”-influenced to really work in the context of the story (and to be honest, the influence of David Lynch’s indie surrealist masterpiece—which, in Giovinazzo’s defense, was a very popular thing to ape in the outside-of-Hollywood film world at the time and would eventually even find its way inside the movie capitol’s less-than-hallowed-halls—  is glaringly obvious in a few other notable instances as well, such as the occasional close-up of the vapor-spewing humidifier in Frankie’s hovel and some truly Lynchian dialogue on the part of his case worker at the unemployment office, interrupted as it is with Buddy G himself popping his head inside the guy’s door and asking to borrow a veg-o-matic, a complete non-sequiter that would feel right at home in (the admittedly later, but  it’s still Lynch so I’m straining the comparison in that direction on moral grounds alone, chronology be damned)”Twin Peaks”). The “Viet Nam” flashback scenes are, it’s  painfully obvious,  shot on Staten Island, with, it’s painfully obvious, non-Vietnamese actors (one of whom, a woman gunned down by Frankie, was actually Giovinazzo’s wife at the time). The woman playing the nurse at Frankie’s VA hospital-bedside (in another series of flashbacks) is Vernoica Stork, the same actress who plays his starving-and-therefore-understandably-nagging wife, in a black, curly wig. I know, I know—it’s a zero-budget flick and Giovinazzo was doing the absolute best he could given the circumstances, but these no-way-to-be-avoided shortcomings really do detract from the overall aura of (here’s that word again) authenticity that the film otherwise conveys so brilliantly (even if only by dint of complete practical necessity).

Now, “Combat Shock” had a very brief theatrical run on New York City’s grindhouse circuit in 1984 under its original title, “American Nightmares.” Buddy G had always envisioned that what he was making here was an arthouse flick, but its raw and brutal violence and uncompromisingly grim overall worldview and aesthetic scared the self-appointed film “sophisticates” away in droves at test screenings, and to the notorious streets of “The Deuce” it went.  Somehow, I suppose,  it’s only right that a gutter story filmed in a gutter style should play in the cinematic gutter — poetic justice indeed. I’m sure many of the people who saw this film knew the world it showed— hell, the world it lived in—as intimately as one can. Some folks know street-level genius when they see it, though, and fortunately for Giovinazzo the folks at Troma picked up his little opus for re-release in theaters and (later) on VHS in 1986.  They got together with Buddy at that point and fitted it out with its new “Combat Shock” title,  redid the opening and closing credits sequences, tinkered a bit with some of the sound and gore effects (another area, it must be said, where the lack of budget well and truly heightened the—word for the day, kids—authenticity of the film, as the blood n’ guts effects really work marvelously), trimmed eight minutes of  some of the more relentless brutality off the  runtime (mostly from the ending, although even in edited form it’s still a pretty tough slog) in order to get an “R” rating from the MPAA, and outfitted it with a completely-incongruous (though still pretty cool in its own way, it must be said) “Rambo”-style poster and ad campaign.  And the end result? 25 years later, we’re still talking about it, and it’s still reducing new audiences to the same levels of shellshocked trauma that Frankie himself would understand so well.

All of which brings me (go ahead, I know you’re dying to scream out “Finally!”) to the new 25th anniversary edition 2-disc set from Troma, the fourth entry in their “Tromasterpiece” collection. What do we get here that we didn’t have in the original release? Well, for one, there’s new and vastly more appropriate-to-its-subject packaging (although I miss the original artwork, myself). There’s a great  liner notes essay inside by “Shock Cinema” editor Steven Puchalski. We get both versions of the film—the 100-minute “American Nightmares” cut (available on DVD for the first time and  struck from the very first 16 mm answer print, complete with original opening and closing credits sequences and sound and visual effects), and the 92-minute “Combat Shock” cut (which also features the absolutely terrific commentary track with Buddy G and “Nekromantik” director Jorg Buttgereit, recorded in Berlin, where Buddy now occasionally works directing television, that first appeared on the earlier single-disc edition). There’s a new trailer made especially for the “Tromasterpiece” DVD. We get a wide and intriguing selection of Giovinazzo’s short films, both pre-and post-“Combat Shock” (including “Mr. Robbie,” aka “Maniac 2,” starring the original “Maniac” himself, Joe Spinell, which also features on the “Tromasterpiece” DVD release of “The Last Horror Film”) in addition to a sampling of his 2000 A.D. Circus music video work.  There are no less than four very good interviews with the brothers Giovinazzo, three with Buddy (one of which has, again, Buttgereit along for the proceedings) and one with Rick, which marks his first ever on-camera discussion about his role in the film ( and I must say he couldn’t be any more different, personally,  to the character he portrays in the film). The original theatrical trailer is on hand for good measure. There’s a fascinating short look at the Staten Island locations as they appear today. And finally, best of all, there’s a new 30-minute documentary, “An American Nightmare,” a detailed look not only at the making of the film, but its distribution history,  its rediscovery in the “cult” cinema underground, and its impact on both contemporary and subsequent independent moviemaking, including reflections from such notables as “Deadbeat at Dawn” and “The Manson Family” director Jim VanBeber” (“Combat Shock” was an obvious influence on “Deadbeat”, although admittedly it’s a whole lot grimmer and grimier) “Henry:Portrait Of  Serial Killer” director John McNaughton (“Henry”  probably was, and remains the closest thing around to “Combat Shock” in terms of style and tone), “Maniac” director Bill Lustig, “Evil Dead 2” screenwriter and “Intruder” director Scott Spiegel, “Hardware” and “Dust Devil” director Richard Stanley, and “Document of the Dead” director and “Street Trash” writer-producer Roy Frumkes. Definitely one of the most informative and insightful–not to mention interesting—“behind-the-scenes”-type DVD extras in some time.

So yeah—this is the total package. If you already own the original Troma release, you can throw it in the trash or try to get three bucks for it on eBay. This is the version you need to own. And that goes double if you don’t have it already. I had mentioned in a post last week that I thought this would figure to be the must-own DVD release of the year, and my prognostication was, even if I do only say so myself, exactly correct.

Is “Combat Shock” for everyone? Is the Pope a Presbyterian? If, however, you want a cinematic experience you seriously will never forget (even if you’d like to)— if Hollywood “coming-home-from- ‘Nam fare like “Born on the Fourth of July” or even Cimino’s excellent “The Deer Hunter” left you feeling like the ugliest side of the story of these vets had been glossed over—if you genuinely enjoy being challenged to keep going through something you feel like  you might not want to see thorugh but know, deep down inside, that you must—and yes, if you can forgive a few necessary foibles of amateurism in service to the greater good that very same amateurism provides—then “Combat Shock” is a film that if you haven’t seen you absolutely need to see, and see very soon. But be warned—it leaves a stain inside that can’t be washed away, and there’s no Spray-n’-Wash for the human soul.

Poster Art For "Don't Go In The House"

Poster Art For "Don't Go In The House"

Let’s face it, grown men who have unresolved issues with their mothers, particularly those who still live with them, have been a staple among movie bad guys since the days of Norman Bates — and while it may have become something of a cliche, it’s one that works, because to the rest of us, there’s just something creepy about a guy in his 30s or 40s who lives with his mom.

Donnie Kohler (Dan Grimaldi), the central character in writer-director Joseph Ellison’s 1980 grindhouse psychodrama “Don’t Go In The House” has a million and one reasons to move out of his mom’s drafty old Victorian tomb of an abode, but he doesn’t. His mom used to burn him as a kid, you see, holding his hands and arms over an open gas flame on their gigantic old stove when he’d been a bad little boy. As a result, Donnie grew up not only with unresolved mommy-issues, but with a peculiar fascination with fire, as well. He’s both attracted to and frightened of it in equal measure in his adult years, as evidenced by the fact that he works in an incinerator but when a co-worker catches fire, he freezes up and is unable to assist in his rescue, forcing the other guys at the plant to save him even though Donnie is closest to the scene.

Needless to say, this act of cowardice doesn’t go over well with his co-workers, and Donnie leaves the plant humiliated. If he thought he had a bad day at work, though, things only get worse when he gets home — his mother, you see, has finally succumbed to old age and departed this mortal coil, and with her goes Donnie’s last (admittedly tepid) connection to reality. He’s on his own now, and has a lot of shit to work out as he finally “grows up” in his own uniquely twisted way.

His first actions are natural enough—he blasts his stereo at top volume and gets drunk. But this youthful (err—okay, so he’s not youthful) fling with excess quickly loses its appeal and Donnie soon combines his unhealthy fascination with fire and his unresolved issues with an overbearing mother (issues that he has now, in a classic case of psychological transference, grafted onto the entire female gender as a whole) in a decidedly toxic fashion. He starts calling in sick from work every day and nailing sheet metal to the walls, ceiling, and floor of  one of the many large and unused rooms in his house. Then, it’s time for him to get busy and bring home some “dates,” by any means necessary—but his idea of a good time with a member of the opposite sex requires him to wear an asbestos suit. That’s right, our guy Donnie decides to bring women home, chain them up, and take a flamethrower to them.

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit there’s nothing terribly original about the premise here (apart from Donnie’s preferred method of dispatch for his victims), but Grimaldi really sells you on the character with his performance.  He absolutely seems like the quintessential loser who never left home, has no social skills, is terrified of the opposite sex, and blames them (all of them) for his problems. Ellison’s script is a character piece through and through, and the casting of Grimaldi in the lead was a brilliant stroke on his part. In the hands of a lesser actor, this would be standard—or even substandard—exploitation fare, but Grimaldi’s virtuoso performance alone elevates this movie several notches above where it probably belongs.

The house itself is a brilliant piece of location scouting, and succeeds in first capturing, then magnifying, the twisted mental landscape of  our psycho protagonist. The winter shooting schedule of the film in the New York/New Jersey area adds to the overall intensely moody atmosphere, as well.

All in all, this is a classic case of a film whose whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. The creepily inherent understanding of the lead character’s twisted psychological worldview on the part of both the writer/director and the star, combined with (I hesitate to use the term but it really does apply here) a perfect physical setting takes what is, on paper, nothing too terribly special and transforms it into something very special indeed. Sick, twisted, depraved, abhorrent, offensive, shocking, perverse, and sleazy, to be sure—but very special nonetheless.

Media Blasters released “Don’t Go In The House” on DVD under their “Shriek Show” label a few years back, and it features a fine feature-length commentary with Grimaldi, an on-camera interview with the actor, an alternate take of one of the film’s more brutal scenes, the original theatrical trailer, and more. It’s available alone or as part of the “Grindhouse Psychos Triple Feature” boxset, together with “Cop Killers,” an early Rick Baker special effects effort, and Roberta Findlay’s notorious “Tenement.” Great stuff!


Anybody else besides me miss the days when any reasonably successful — and reasonably cheap — movie genre birthed scores of  Italian knock-offs?  Yes, whether it was westerns, crime flicks, zombie movies, or Hitckcockian-style thrillers, there was always an Italian who figured he could do it quicker, cheaper, and—most importantly—bloodier. The runaway success of Mel Gibson’s “The Road Warrior” and John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” were no exception, and soon there was a mini-deluge of Italian-made post-apocalyptic sci-fi ultra-macho exploitation fare playing grindhouse theaters and drive-ins from coast to coast. While the best-remembered of these are Enzo G. Castellari’s two entries in the field, the brilliantly absurd “1990 : Bronx Warriors” and the even more OTT “The New Barbarians,”  for my money the funnest, weirdest, and most jaw-droppingly insane of the bunch is veteran exploitation director Sergio (“Mountain Of The Cannibal God”) Martino’s 1983 trashterpiece “2019 : After The Fall Of New York.”

Set in—oh, to hell with it, you can read the title — our story centers on the tough-as-nails Parsifal (Michael Sopkiw), who is sent into New York to retrieve the last fertile woman on the face of the Earth. The human race, you see, has been rendered sterile due to a nuclear attack from the dastardly EURAC organization, a world government of sorts that encompasses  all of Europe, Africa, and Asia and was at war with the Pan-American confederacy, a rival superstate that I assume consisted of North and South America. The Euracs “won” the war by nuking our hemisphere and are now occupying it, as victors of a conflict tend to do.

Unbeknownst to the Euracs, however, the Pan-American confederacy have reconstituted as a sort of underground government-in-exile and are planning on staging a comeback—just not here. They’ve got a rocket ship loaded and ready to blast off for Alpha Centauri, they just need the one fertile female still alive to get the human race up and running again on its new home. For his trouble, Parsifal has been promised a place on the rocket and, presumably, a crack at the lady in question he gets there.

Parsifal is assigned a couple of assistants in his quest in the form of a guy named Bronx, who lost his family in the Eurac attack, and the mysterious, quiet, ultra-tough Ratchet. Along the way, they pick up a few stragglers, as well—the beautiful Giada, to whom Parsifal has taken a shine (his best line to her has to be “If love meant anything in this world, you’d be the one I loved”), a dwarf named Shorty (there’s creativity for you), and the mutant leader of a band of ape-men (the always-great George Eastman). Their journey through the remains of New York takes them primarily through one sewer after another, encountering a tribe of rat-eaters, Shorty’s band of midgets, and the aforementioned ape-dudes, as well as one nasty force of Eurac soldiers after another, each with an increasingly bizarre array of pseudo-futuristic weapons at their disposal. Oh, and after they find the girl (who is never named—oh, and sorry to give away that big plot point—and she’s in suspended animation, to boot), they make their escape in an armored-up early 80s Oldsmobile (or Buick, or whatever) station wagon. The Euracs fire everything they’ve got at them and seldom score a direct hit, while ape-boy manages to lop of four of their heads in one go just by chucking his cutlass out the window (of what could well be a Cutlass station wagon). Who needs numbers when you’ve got such a clear aim advantage?

The special effects for this film are so mind-numbingly stupid they’ve got to be seen to be believed, especially the low-rent obvious model shot of a post-nuke New York that they linger on in detail in the opening credits. And the music score? Man, synth-cheese doesn’t get any better than this! Suffice to say you’ll know within moments why composer Maurizio De Angelis went under the pseudonymous credit of “Oliver Onions.”

Oh, and somebody does get a go at our sleeping beauty fertility goddess—and it’s not Parsifal. Suffice to say I’d feel unclean just mentioning who does the “honors,” so I won’t.

DVD From Media Blasters

DVD From Media Blasters

The good folks at Media Blasters have seen fit to preserve this gem for posterity on DVD, and it features a nice, clean anamorphic widescreen transfer, a 5.1 surround remix, trailers and promo art, and interviews with Sergio Martino and actors George Eastman and Hal Yamnouchi—all in Italian. It’s recently been made available as part of their bargain “Post-Apocalyptic Collection” Triple Feature Box Set along with the two previously-mentioned Castellari classics, making this set a definite must-own item. Get some cheap beer and pizza and kick back and watch them all — just be prepared to have your IQ drop a few points in the process!

"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.



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!