Patty Mullen, Louise Lasser, James Lorinz. Joseph Gonzalez
US DVD: 8 Nov 2011
UK DVD: 8 Nov 2011
If John Waters and Herschell Gordon Lewis had a bastard love child, it would be Frank Henenlotter. Considering himself one of the last great exploitation filmmakers, his movies have spurred both devotion and derision. After the initial success of his killer conjoined twins epic Basket Case, the noted writer/director dived into psychotic psychedelic parasites (Brain Damage) and a broadening of his initial monster mythos (Basket Case 2). By 1990, he was looking for some new inspiration. Glancing backward, he decided to recast Mary Shelley’s modern Prometheus as a sleazoid sex romp. Grabbing indie icon James Lorinz from Street Trash fame and former Penthouse Pet Patty Mullen, he came up with the hilarious horror spoof Frankenhooker. While not well received in its day, two decades have been very kind to this quirky comedy. In fact, looking back on its now, it’s one of Henelotter’s best.
Jeffrey (Lorinz) is a medical school outcast, master electrician, and budding mad scientist. He is engaged to the sweet, is slightly overweight Jersey girl Elizabeth (Mullen). On the occasion of her father’s birthday, our hero’s betrothed ends up mulched by a radio controlled lawn mower. Devastated over the loss, Jeffrey decides to reconstruct Elizabeth - he has her head, all he needs is some additional ‘parts.’ One night, he comes up with a brilliant idea. He will drain his Christmas Club fund and buy the body accessories he requires from nearby New York hookers.
Striking a deal with hulky pimp Zorro (Joseph Gonzalez), he winds up in a dingy hotel room filled with pert prostitutes. Initially, Jeffrey has second thoughts, but when the tramps find his homemade ‘super crack,’ they start smoking…and exploding. Soon, he has all the limbs, legs, and torsos he needs. When he finally brings Elizabeth back, however, something shocking has occurred. She’s become a zombie streetwalker, killing her Johns with a specialized internal gift. Jeffrey must try and rescue her less she become a victim of the profession - or a still angry Zorro.
Frankenhooker is such a throwback, such a frisky retro delight, that it’s slightly difficult to appreciate, initially. After all, there aren’t many movies made during the height of the direct to video trend that feature exploding prostitutes, super crack, and a last act mélange of moving body parts that have to be seen to be believed. Unlike Basket Case, which was a pure attempt at creating a recognizable grindhouse type (and succeeding), this is a goofy gore comedy with just an undercurrent of terror. Trading on the ‘nu yawk’ honk of Lorinz and the ample ‘assets’ of the rest of the cast, Henenlotter delivers an unusual experience, one where love and lust collide with electronics and a superfluous Louise Lasser (as Jeffrey’s Mom) to continuously keep your jaw dropping. This is the Weird Science John Hughes would have made had he the balls, and the backing from his money-minded major studio.
For his part, Lorinz is a bit of a letdown. Granted, after battling a maniacal Mafioso and a bad batch of Tenafly Viper, he can be forgiven for a less than snarky portrayal. But Henelotter clearly hired him for his proto-Jersey Shore chutzpah, but he provides very little of that here. Instead, he actually tries to portray Jeffrey as lost, lonely, a bit loony, and locked into recreating his deceased girlfriend. This isn’t some semi-serious riff on the ridiculousness of a film like The Brain that Wouldn’t Die. In this case, the kitsch is crafted on purpose. Ms. Mullen is also a hoot as the reanimated harlot with a series of severe facial tics, a hulking gait, and a body that men will literally die for. She’s got a gift for this kind of material, and makes the near hour long wait for Elizabeth’s reappearance all the more special.
As a filmmaker, Henelotter is not the most inventive artist behind the lens. Sure, he can get the special effects onscreen with deliberate ease and loves the look and feel of old celluloid, but unlike Sam Raimi or others he’s inspired, there’s no flash. Scenes are set up and pay off with precision. Shots are never wasted, even if an exploding mannequin fails to fire on cue. Even more impressive is his choice in actors. Many come with a built in 42nd Street feel, and more than a couple were probably picked up directly from some back alley. This is especially true of Gonzalez, whose Zorro looks and acts like a reject from a muscular all-male review.
At the time of its release, Frankenhooker was widely anticipated…and considered a bit of a letdown. Basket Case was a cruel, clever joke while Brain Damage exploited the dying drug culture and growing AIDS crisis in the inner city with diabolical glee. As someone who seemed right at home in the filth and fury of a bleeding Big Apple, Henenlotter became a geek god. And then - Frankenhooker. Perhaps fans were expecting more. Maybe they couldn’t cotton to the apparent MPAA mandated manipulation that removed some promised gore. Perhaps it was the whack job tone which tied a classic horror legend to brazen Bronx squawk street hustlers. Whatever the case, it would take years before Henenlotter was forgiven, Frankenhooker finally taking its rightful place among his very best.
With the recent Bad Biology (absolutely a must-see) and his tenure as part of the preservationists at Something Weird Video, Henenlotter has secured his place in outsider cinema. He remains a joyful, jubilant presence in a practice not universally known for such. While many may prefer the more mean-spirited debut or its Freaks inspired sequels, Frankenhooker deserves its place in his pantheon as well. Twenty plus years ago, it felt like a minor misstep. Today, it plays like a terrific time capsule to an era when anything and everything was up for grabs. The late great exploitation god David F. Friedman used to call the original purveyors of drive-in debauchery “the 40 thieves.” Henenlotter is clearly number 41 - and offerings like Frankenhooker are the reason why.