News Article

News Article

Frankenhooker (1990)

Director Frank Henenlotter’s delirious 1990 horror-comedy Frankenhooker is probably the cult fave filmmaker’s most purely enjoyable and accessible film (he remains best known for his Basket Case trilogy, though 1988’s disturbing Brain Damage is his best film; regrettably, the five films just cited comprise the entirety of his feature filmography as director). Interestingly, while the content of Frankenhooker would seem – in description – to be potentially the most transgressive and shocking material of Henenlotter’s generally extreme oeuvre, the tone of the film is so giddy and outrageous that the actual film emerges as pure, and surprisingly inoffensive, campy spoof. Unlike Henenlotter’s other work, Frankenhooker manages to minimize the gore and grotesqueries (yes, even within a film that contains exploding hookers and body parts fused together by a nitro-charged form of crack cocaine…) in favor of broad humor – while all of his films contain their share of satire, this is easily the most blatantly comedic work ever directed by Henenlotter. Frankenhooker is a somewhat difficult film to review: it’s unapologetically inane and absurd, and it amounts to little more than a one-joke film – a joke that you either find amusing or you don’t – but it has a winningly scruffy quality, several uproariously funny scenes, some strong comic performances, and a go-for-broke energy that is hard to resist. It’s where madhouse meets grindhouse, and I would venture to guess that’s a pretty desirable destination for most Fearnet readers…

Henenlotter has stated that he never really conceived of Frankenhooker as a gore film, or even a true horror movie, at all, and that the film was always constructed as a comedy, a fact made clear in the film’s opening moments, as a series of gags establish the movie’s over-the-top wit (some may wish to substitute “puerile, crass juvenilia” in place of “wit,” but that’s an individual call). Aspiring doctor Jeffrey Franken (ahem…), played to comic perfection by the amazing James Lorinz (Street Trash, King of New York), casually experiments on a Brain That Wouldn't Die-influenced mound of gray matter on the kitchen table of his fiancee’s family home. Called outside by his beloved Elizabeth (Patty Mullen, unexpectedly funny for a Penthouse model with little acting experience), Jeffrey accidentally triggers suburban family tragedy when the remote-controlled lawnmower he built for Elizabeth’s father goes haywire and chops Elizabeth into crimson gardening mulch. Jeffrey is able to salvage her severed cranium, though,

Post-opening credits hilarity, and Jeffrey – living at home with his whiny mother (Louise Lasser, in a fairly thankless cameo) – is determined to give Elizabeth new life by fusing her rescued noggin with the body parts salvaged from streetwalkers (improving upon Elizabeth’s original full-figured physique in the process). Setting up a classically Frankensteinian mad-scientist lab out in the garage, Jeffrey then crosses the bridge from Jersey over to Manhattan, prowling Times Square (which looked a lot different back when this film was shot than it does now, kids…) and searching for prostitutes to utilize for spare body parts for Elizabeth’s new centerfold-styled incarnation. Noting that the local hookers have a crack addiction, Jeffrey manufactures some homemade “super-crack” that causes bodies to detonate upon inhaling, and he arranges with Zorro the pimp to throw a party, with explosive results…

For a director occasionally criticized for both excessive gore and tastelessness, as well as misogyny (Baket Case’s climactic monster rape, Brain Damage’s parasite blow job surprise, et al), Henenlotter actually keeps Frankenhooker oddly amiable and jovial to the degree that it’s difficult to take offense at its admittedly monstrous content – the film is almost entirely free of the mean-spirited tone that often plagues some of the mayhem of the director’s other work. Despite the fact that – initially rejecting an R rating for the film – a MPAA ratings board representative informed the film’s producer that they would have to invent a new rating, “S for Shit,” Frankenhooker accomplishes the astonishing feat of delivering a good-natured farce that just happens to have a hero who spends his time trying to match up disembodied breasts and drilling into his brain to ease the tension. The comic strength of James Lorinz’s lead performance can’t be overstated: Lorinz is hilarious (frequently with improvised ad-lib cracks), and he makes Jeffrey a genuinely sympathetic protagonist (Henenlotter also notes that he had to eliminate the original plot conceit that Jeffrey would actually murder the prostitutes – in the film, he actually changes his mind and attempts to prevent them from smoking the fatal crack, but they restrain him and fire up the pipe anyway).

Unearthed’s DVD of Frankenhooker is outstanding, and probably one of the most significant horror DVD releases of 2006. The film is presented in a 1.85:1 16X9-enhanced transfer (with monaural sound) that looks…well, OK – which is probably exactly how a low-budget horror film from this period should look; in other words, the transfer is razor-sharp with strong colors and image detail, but there’s no getting around the fact that Robert Baldwin’s cinematography (Henenlotter remarks that he and the d.p. had a rather tumultuous relationship on set) is appropriately grainy and grungy at times. Frankenhooker is offered here in its uncut, unrated form, and the extra features are also excellent – there’s a great, lively commentary track with Henenlotter and make-up FX artist Gabe Bartalos, which is highly informative (the somewhat choppy nature of the film’s screenplay – co-written with Fangoria’s original editor Robert Martin -- can be attributed to the fact that Henenlotter literally made up the plot of the film on the spot during a meeting with executive producer James Glickenhaus, when the latter rejected another screenplay that Henelotter was pitching, but then asked the director, “What else you got?”). There are also trailers, production photos, and a series of featurettes: Bartalos recalls the film’s make-up FX (in a series of bizarre locations…), Mullen (who looks just as young now as she did in this seventeen-year-old film) talks briefly about her role as the eponymous creature, and actress Jennifer Delora, who plays one of the partying and exploding prostitutes, energetically (and, frankly, somewhat annoyingly) discusses the film and shows a series of photographs that she took on the set.

Frankenhooker is a highly entertaining horror-comedy and a great deal of fun – yet there’s also an unintended quality of sadness associated with looking at the film again after all these years. The film received some limited theatrical distribution at the time of its release, and it was arguably one of the last low-budget, independent American genre films to benefit from the grindhouse theater circuit that was its obvious home…a system of horror film distribution that came to a sad end around the time of Frankenhooker . As for Henenlotter, this change in horror film exhibition seems to have left him somewhat homeless as well – he hasn’t directed a feature film in fifteen years, spending much of those intervening years working with Something Weird Video on unearthing (no pun intended) classic exploitation cinema. Frankenhooker turns out to be a nostalgic tribute to Times Square sleaze in more ways than just its location shooting. Now if only the DVD case would shriek, “Wanna date?” when you squeeze it…

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