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Exclusive: We Talk Trash With Director Frank Henenlotter

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Frank Henenlotter is a dirty old man - and I mean that in the nicest, most complimentary way possible. Best known for directing cult trash like Basket Case and Frankenhooker, he now puts most of his energy into finding and preserving classic sleaze with Something Weird Video. Genial and the first to laugh at himself, Frank is one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever met on the subject of grindhouse cinema. On the eve of the release of his own trash treasure Basket Case on Blu-Ray - something which still boggles Frank's mind - Frank graciously took time from editing a new documentary to speak to me about Basket Case, Something Weird Video, and the sleazy days of 42nd Street.

What are you editing?

A documentary on sex education films. Forty years of non-Hollywood sex in the cinema, from theatrical releases to peep-show loops. It's monstrous and rather hilarious. The whole thing is made up of exceptions to the rules, rather than the same old boring shots. We have found stuff that is unbelievable. There is nothing stranger than seeing a beautiful naked woman, indoors, wearing a scuba mask and flippers. I don't understand it, but we've got it!

When will this project be ready to go?

I am hoping I will finish it by the end of this year - before it finishes me - and hopefully it will go out to the festivals next year. I think it's gonna do great. MGM used to have a saying: "More stars than in heaven." No one remembers that saying, but if they did, I would have called this film More Tits Than in Heaven. I think that is the way to sell this. The amount of crackpot nudity is what makes this work. You sit there going, "I don't get it... why is she fondling a paper skeleton?" The film goes from 1929 and finishing at the birth of porn - which we don't want to get into.

Where did you find all this stuff?

It's all in the archives of Something Weird Video. I don't think people are aware of the amount of stuff we have. We have all these peep loops from the original negatives.  It's just amazing.

Are you surprised at the long-running popularity of Basket Case?

I have always been surprised, and I continue to be surprised. Honestly. [When I made the film] I told everybody, "Don't worry; it cost $35,000 to make the film. We'll make our money back." We were making a movie that was going to be shown on 42nd Street [the infamous strip of Times Square in New York that was the birthplace of grindhouse, sleaze, and midnight movies before the state cleaned it up in the early 1990s and "Disney-fied" the area to be more tourist-friendly], and then it would be forgotten about. And that was fine with me. It was easier than thinking I had a legacy in front of me. When it played the Waverly Theatre here in New York at midnight, I thought "Uh-oh." I would walk past it every day... for two and a half years! And each time, I would shake my head and say, "I don't get it." I still don't get it. I'm not complaining, but I really don't understand the lasting popularity of the film. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that we would be doing a high-definition release. 

What kind of work went in to putting this Blu-Ray together?

A lot. Most of the work went into finding a lab that was comfortable with what I wanted, and to let me sit in on it. It's the first time I ever transferred one of my own films, and I sat there with the colorist. I don't know why no one asked me [when re-releasing Frankenhooker] to comment on a couple shots in that thing. But I never get asked. I own Basket Case, so I can put my foot down and do it my way. The lab understood what I wanted: the film is a cartoon, and I wanted to colors really pumped up. Mostly what I wanted was to restore the film to the way it first looked when we made the first 16mm prints. I remember shooting a film that was very bright and colorful. I was horrified when I saw the 35mm theatrical prints, which were dark, murky, dirty... I couldn't believe it was the same film. It certainly wasn't the film I made. I hated the look of the film for years. I hated the theatrical prints, I hated the VHS release. It wasn't until we did the first digital master that I was able to put some of the color back in. But now with this release... I found the original 16mm negatives. They are missing a couple pieces that were taken out for the sequels. I also found one of the 16mm release prints, missing the first reel. But we were able to take this stuff and compare it to the 35mm positive, which was virtually identical. What a relief! The negatives looked identical except for the size. As we were doing the [conversion], any time we had a question, we would just go right back to the 16mm and match it.

Back when I had just finished Basket Case, I was editing it and I was unhappy with the night scenes. I shot them wrong. So I asked the lab if they could put in a subtle blue tint. They did, and it looked great! Then somehow when we did the 35mm blowup - because it wasn't built into the negative, it kind of disappeared. So now it's back. I didn't change anything in the negative, but I changed everything on the negative. Dirt on top? Got rid of it. On the other hand, if there are shots where you can see a hair sticking out or dirt in the gate - I didn't touch that. That was there since day one, so that is the film.

That's awesome. You're not George Lucas-ing it.

Nope. I will not do that. I will not remove grain or add grain. That's it - that's the film. All I wanted to do was preserve it, and bring it back to what it looked like when I finished it in 16mm.  That's the film. Everything else - the way it looked theatrically, the way it looked on VHS - that was tampering with it. Just keep polishing that turd!

For someone who doesn't "get" the appeal of his film, you sure speak of it with passion and joy.

Oh yeah! That is an extension of me. I didn't want a career in films, but that is my personality in films. Don't misunderstand - I am happy with the film. The fact that anyone else is, baffles me! I can't imagine why someone else would like the film or think its funny. I wasn't trying to make a film that appealed to everyone. I wasn't trying to go mainstream. I was trying to make it commercial, but commercial and mainstream are two separate things. It just has to make money for it to be commercial. For it to be mainstream, it has to be watered down. "We have to sell Belial dolls, so we need a PG rating so the kids can see it." Now I wish we had manufactured Belial dolls - we could have made some money! That's what made George Lucas rich - not the damn films, but the merchandise. 

It's never too late! Your core audience are the ones who buy the most toys nowadays.

Well, maybe. I don't know. I took time off from filmmaking for 16 years. I got my toe back into it with Bad Biology. So the recluse has at least opened the door. A bit.

Why did you take so much time off?

I don't really have good answers for my life. I never intended to just walk away from it, but I didn't like where things were going. When I quit, the exploitation film market was dying. The theatres were closing up.

That was when they cleaned up Times Square, right?

Yes. Early 1990s. The company that financed me died a year after Basket Case 3. For me to continue to make films commercially, I would have to make mainstream films, and that was at a point when I wanted to go crazier. So I figured it was time to take off and do something else. I didn't abandon film, though, because I got involved with Something Weird Video. So I was happy restoring other people's films - as happy as I was making one. I don't know, I just don't think about things like that. It wasn't like, "Gee, I haven't made a film in a while..." By the same token, me coming back to do Bad Biology was as earth-shatteringly casual as making Basket Case. When I was making Basket Case, it was Edgar Ivans who said, "Hey, let's make a commercial film." And I said, "Okay." So when R.A. Thorburn came to me and asked if I wanted to make another commercial film [Bad Biology], I said, "Okay." If I was writing my own story into a film, I would have to embellish.

Do you feel that exploitation filmmaking has come full circle in a sense? When you started, exploitation was a huge moneymaker, then it died out, but now there is a resurgence.

It's not coming back, but there seems to be some interest now. Films are so mainstream now; there has to be people out there who want to look at something different. Not too many, but enough to sustain another release of my idiot films.

I can't believe Basket Case is still selling. I can't believe it is going to have a high-def release. I got [the disc] in the mail two days ago. I looked at the box and just thought, "Oh my god, what the fuck is wrong with this picture?" And I know I'll do the same with Frankenhooker: shake my head in bewilderment. 

Did the blu-ray come out the way you wanted it to?

Oh yeah. Very much so. Every shot in the film, I would ask if we could tweak this way or that, and most of the time, the answer was, "No, Frank, that's how you shot it." I accept that. But there were plenty of times I would say, "What about this?" and they would say, "Yeah, that'll work." I was very happy with how it came out. I really was. It looks like the film I shot. Talk about a long birth process! I finished it in 1981, and now, 30 years later, it looks right.

Well, that can be good and bad.

Part of the problem was that we didn't even know where the negative was! We lost it! I've made a career with Something Weird Video to find lost films. Then I turn around and lose my own? What the hell! It's very embarrassing. Edgar and I have been looking for the negative for years.

Where did you find it?

At my mother's home. One of my brothers called me up and said, "Did you know you've got some film boxes up here?" I got really excited and asked if it was Basket Case. He said it was labeled Brain Damage. I told him I'd come out and look at them next time I was out there. So I do, and it says X amount of cans of Brain Damage. I'm looking at the box, thinking it was awfully big for only four cans of Brain Damage. I reach in and feel 35mm, 35mm... then, I feel 16mm! I tore it out and screamed, "YES! I found it!" So that is why we were able to [restore it]. Last time I was out in Los Angeles, visiting with Image Entertainment, I told them I wanted to do a high-def transfer of Basket Case. Everyone in the room got quiet. I said, "Yes, I know! But I have the 16mm negative." And everyone relaxed.

So that's that. It's out. It's selling. It's cheap. 

Just like the original.

The list price is $17.95 - what's there to complain about? And The Godfather of Gore comes out the same day. Actually, so does the Blood trilogy! That's a lot of absolutely worthless film for your valuable money.

When I was first getting into exploitation films, it was the mid 1990s, and I read every book and magazine I could find on the subject, but it was incredibly hard to get copies of the actual films. I had my stash of illegal bootlegs of course. Now the films are so easy to get... but a little part of me misses what I'm sure you miss about 42nd Street - the griminess and seediness.

Yeah. I have a thousand and one wonderful stories about 42nd Street, but ultimately, all that really matters is the film. It doesn't matter if you saw it on 42nd Street or if you are seeing it now. For years and years, I was too young to see those sexploitation films, and then they disappeared - where could you see them? So I've been thrilled that, with Something Weird, we've been able to find them. Mike Vraney, who runs Something Weird, didn't see these until we got them! That's half the fun of it. We have this huge film vault now with all these abandoned films. Films that were going to be tossed out. Nobody cared, nobody wanted them, the companies are gone, there are no copyrights on them... all just sitting there, rotting away. Somebody had to take them! I remember the excitement of going through those titles, telling Mike, "I've got a film here called The Monster of Camp Sunshine! Does that sound like a horror/nudist camp movie to you? Could we be that lucky?" Then I would look in other tins and I found The Curious Dr. Hump. It was very exciting. We were in this one vault for two days.We loaded up a truck with a couple hundred films. We didn't think we left anything behind, and just as we are walking to the door, I look back... and I see the negative for Cotton Pickin' Chicken Pickers. If I didn't save it, no one would - despite the obvious: that no one did want it. I can't let any exploitation die, not even Cotton Pickin' Chicken Pickers.

What are some of the other films that Something Weird has coming up that you are really excited about?

We don't know yet. We have a list of titles we are playing with because we have the negatives. We have to make a decision by November. Every day that Mike and I talk, we change our mind about what we want to put out next. I know we want to do Bloody Pit of Horror and Horror of Spider Island. I know we want to do Godmonster of Indian Flats and She-Freak. I know we want to do The Wizard of Gore and The Gore-Gore Girls. We don't have negatives on either of those, so we have to find the best-looking theatrical print, and of course there will be people who will complain that [lowers voice secretively] there is a frame or two that has a scratch. 

[For the remaster of Two Thousand Maniacs] we went back to the negative - as soon as we opened the can, we smelled vinegar. The original negative of Two Thousand Maniacs is no more. That is why we had to go to a print. So if you don't like scratches, maybe we should have just not put it out. Of course, every person who ever saw Two Thousand Maniacs at the drive-in saw tons of scratches. That's what film is! Emulsion on plastic!

Especially with exploitation films - you want and expect that "dirtiness."

It was a part of life. I think we've gotten to a silly stage of denying what film is. Can you imagine, back in the day, if I was on 42nd Street and went running to the manager, demanding my money back because I saw a speckle? He would have had the ushers throw me out! It's just unrealistic.  

So far the advance numbers on these three discs have been exceedingly good, so we are hoping we can keep going for a while. Put some masterpieces out on HD. At the same time that we are losing negatives - turning to vinegar and whatnot - we are finding stuff. You know, like a lab will put a negative in the wrong can, or it gets separated. We found two Dave Friedman films that we never put out because we didn't have the negatives. Starlet and Thar She Blows. That would make a great double feature. Then Image wants us to do the Chesty Morgan films. They were best-sellers for the company. So there are lots of rancid and despicable entertainment coming up.

I'm looking forward to it - those are my two favorite genres.

Ha! That's right! Those are actually my lawyers: Rancid & Despicable.

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