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Godfather of gore: Frank Henenlotter

Meet the director who gave the world a turd-like parasite and a head-crushing zombie prostitute in his era-defining body horror flicks

Taken from the May 2011 issue of Dazed:

The 1980s was, on the whole, a conventional time for Hollywood movies: vacuous big studio movies with predictable plots and the rise of impeccably ripped bodies on screen – from Schwarzenegger to Stallone – echoed the muscleflexing administration of the Reagan presidency. Meanwhile, the yuppie lifestyle was championed in the likes of St Elmo’s Fire and Working Girl, while horror movies begun to concentrate their wrath on destroying (gosh!) that unspeakable sin of promiscuous teenagers. 

And this is why we need to thank Frank Henenlotter. Making his debut with 1982’s raucous horror romp Basket Case – a movie oozing with the grime, slime and cool concrete vibes of New York’s impoverished 42nd Street district – the director scored a huge hit on British video cassette (it was distributed by Palace Pictures, who made themselves a fortune with The Evil Dead) and made himself a name-to-watch. But, more to the point, Henenlotter introduced a kind of cinema that was part John Waters, part-experimental, and totally his own with a series of shockers that tickled the funny bone and also confronted the right-wing ideology of the era. From heroic “freaks” of nature in Basket Case and Basket Case 2 to a drug-addled, out-of-control yuppie in 1988’s Brain Damage, this was unlike anything else being produced and it made Henenlotter beloved among his small but dedicated fan base. 

Even today a film such as Basket Case feels completely out of sync with anything else. In other words: it stands the all-important test of time. “By the time it got to Britain, Basket Case had been a huge hit in America,” enthuses Henenlotter – who was 32 when he completed the picture. “It played for a year and a half at one theatre in New York. I recall seeing the marquee for Basket Case on 42nd Street and I thought it was glorious except that they wrote ‘his brother is a siamese twin!’ I thought ‘Gee, thanks, you ruined the plot!’”

The story of an oddball young drifter (well played by erstwhile rock musician Kevin Van Hentenryck) who carries his gruesomely deformed sibling around in a wicker basket – only to unleash him on the doctors that forcefully separated them – Basket Case is weirdly touching, darkly comic and full of ambitious pre-CGI stop-motion special effects. Moreover, along with the aforementioned Evil Dead, it launched an entire subgenre in splatter-comedy movies – inspiring such fellow carnage-ridden classics as Re-AnimatorThe Return of the Living Dead and The Toxic Avenger.

Basket Case actually took a short while to catch on,” continues Henenlotter. “The distributor told me, ‘It would be much funnier if we took out all of the blood.’ I said, ‘But if you do that, you will kill half of the jokes.’ They didn’t listen and they opened this bastardised version in Houston where it did no business at all. Then they opened the uncut version in Dallas and it sold out. I also remember the wonderful night when the snob at The New York Post reviewed the film and wrote: ‘The stuff that you will see in this thing should not be permitted. In fact, it is the worst movie we have ever seen.’ I thought ‘Oh, thank you so much!’ When that hit the stands, the crowds were lining up around the block."

With Basket Case also raking up blockbuster business on British videotape (it reached number one in the UK rental charts) it looked, for a while, as if Henenlotter, much like Raimi, was on the path to celluloid superstardom. Yet, true to his Basket Case beginnings, the director would instead opt to remain completely independent – carving out a career in insanely original, bad taste, rubber-reality epics, while also initiating the Something Weird Video label (with fellow exploitation movie addict Mike Varney) and preserving all kinds of lost B-film treasures for a whole new generation.

“The only way I could keep making movies was to go more and more mainstream. I was not happy having to tone things down” – Frank Henenlotter

“The work with Something Weird Video really began in the 1990s,” explains Henenlotter. “Basically, I was not happy with the way things were going. The market drastically changed for the movies that I wanted to make, which were exploitation films. Theatres were closing in the United States, 42nd Street died, it was all gone – and the only way I could keep making movies was to go more and more mainstream. I was not happy having to tone things down.” Indeed, following up Basket Case with 1988’s Brain Damage – his finest 90 minutes to date  – it is difficult to see how someone as unique as Henenlotter could ever have moulded into the demands of the multiplex. Brain Damage, for instance, introduces viewers to an ancient, fang-toothed, pint-sized parasite called Aylmer who lives on human grey matter. Injecting a young New York blue collar professional with an addictive blue liquid, in exchange for him finding the creature fresh bodies, Aylmer is, perhaps, the most unlikely symbol of cinematic drug parables to date.

However, at certain points – such as a particularly nightmarish “cold turkey” sequence – Brain Damage hits harder than a hundred Trainspotting rip-offs. “A lot of people thought that Brain Damage was anti-heroin because we see this strange drug being injected into the guy but that reading is not quite true,” states Henenlotter. “In fact, my drug of choice was always cocaine so I had the guy ‘speeding’ more than I had him ‘downing’. That film was done during a period when I stopped doing cocaine and I wrote the script as a metaphor for it.”

As with Basket Case before it, Brain Damage was an instant cult hit – especially on video – although its heady mixture of sex, drugs and violence meant that it was censored in virtually every country it came out in (an uncut DVD is now available). Consequently, it never quite achieved the riotous reputation of its predecessor although – in almost every single way – it is the better film. 

“Maybe the reason Brain Damage wasn’t spotlighted early on is that Frank doesn’t sell out his ideas in exchange for a quick buck,” states Gabe Bartalos – Henenlotter’s longtime special effects ally, who worked extensively on Brain Damage. “All of his films stand the test of time and he has pride in his library of work. I think it is a great attitude to have because all aspects of his films are done for the right reasons. A movie with a giant release that is splashed all over the press may get that ‘opening weekend’ buzz, but doesn’t guarantee a quality product – especially nowadays.” 

Nevertheless, after the fierce originality of Basket Case and Brain Damage, fans may have been forgiven for thinking that Henenlotter had reached a creative high that could not be topped. Indeed, his next project indicated as much – 1990’s Basket Case 2, perhaps the least expected sequel of all time. “What happened is that I wanted to make my dream project: a movie called Frankenhooker,” reflects Henenlotter. “So I pitched this producer called James Glickenhaus the idea behind that – which is basically a Frankenstein story where a prostitute is resurrected by a mad scientist and takes to the streets of New York. The meeting went well and James said to me, ‘That’s great Frank. Now, what else do you have?’ I didn’t have anything else so I just replied, almost as a joke, ‘I guess I could also do BasketCase 2.’ He said ‘Let’s do them both then.’ I think it was the commercial safety of Basket Case 2 that got Frankenhooker made.” 

Best seen as the culmination of a bizarre body horror trilogy that began with Basket Case and Brain Damage, 1990’s Frankenhooker pushed Henenlotter’s gross-out sense of humour to its limits – with Penthouse centrefold Patty Mullen cast as an especially enthusiastic harlot-from-beyond-the-grave. “Wanna date? Lookin’ for some action? Got any money?” barks the grotesque title character in a Bronx accent before, typically, electrocuting or maiming her potential clientele. Along with Basket Case 2 – which with its cast of latex-covered “freaks” acts as a strangely powerful hymn to society’s most undervalued – Frankenhooker would further seal Henenlotter’s reputation as a cult darling. 

Yet, fans hopeful for a follow-up as original as Brain Damage were disappointed by 1992’s Basket Case 3. Certainly, Henenlotter himself was equally bummed out about moving in ever decreasing circles – choosing instead to take early retirement from the director’s chair and concentrating on the Something Weird Video label, which has since salvaged, and digitally re-mastered, such essential exploitation gems as  Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), The Defilers (1965), and Toys Are Not Just For Children (1972). “Let Scorsese save El Cid,” declared Henenlotter at the time. “And I’ll save The Curious Dr Humpp.” 

Clearly well within his element, it would not be until 2008’s Bad Biology that fans would encounter a new Henenlotter feature. In addition, once again showing his indie roots, the title would be produced – and co-written – by cult rapper RA “The Rugged Man” Thorburn. It was, perhaps inevitably, a recipe for more confrontational politics, gender-bending insanity and visual surrealism. 

Brain Damage was done during a period when I stopped doing cocaine. I wrote the script as a metaphor for it” – Frank Henenlotter

“It had been 16 years and I figured that my films had all been forgotten about,” laughs Henenlotter. “But then I found out I actually have more fans now than I had then which is, I assume, down to people finding them on video and then DVD.” 

Bad Biology is the hilarious, and sometimes shocking, study of a sexy New York singleton (essayed by newcomer Charlee Danielson), who has been born with seven clits, an insatiable libido and the ability to drop out newborn mutant offspring after every sexual encounter. 

“I think that if I had made Bad Biology back in the 80s it would not have been well received,” admits Henenlotter. “I think people would have said, ‘Oh, Christ, he’s back in the gutter again.’ I don’t think it would have stood out but doing it today, in this environment, has helped get it noticed. There is no umbrella these days for exploitation so people are looking at it and saying, ‘What on earth are we seeing?’ The reviews were generally very positive.” 

Moreover, it helped scratch Henenlotter’s creative itch once more – with the director recently completing a fulllength documentary on the often unrecognised, underground horror pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis. Entitled The Godfather of Gore, the feature plays out as a fun look back at a time long gone – where exploitation directors would often rely on garish trailers to get people into the theatre. 

“When I make my films, I don’t make them for my fans because I am not even sure what kind of fans I have,” laughs Henenlotter. “But I was always sure my stuff would find their audience anyway. I mean, if I enjoy something I can be pretty sure someone else out there is also going to enjoy it… Even I can’t be that weird…”

Henenlotter’s horrific hits 

Basket Case (1982)

Duane Bradley brings his deformed twin brother Belial to New York in a wicker basket, wherein they track down the medical professionals who forcefully separated them. However, brotherly love turns bloody and bitter when Duane starts to date a local girl.

Brain Damage (1988)

Brian (played by General Hospital’s Rick Hearst) becomes addicted to the juice of Aylmer – a singing, dancing, charismatic parasite who feeds on human brains. What results is almost unutterably insane – with the highlight being a particularly hilarious fellatio-turned-deadly sequence.

Frankenhooker (1992)

After his fiancée is killed in a freak lawnmower accident, Jeffrey Franken (James Lorinz) goes about stitching her back together with the body parts of various New York prostitutes (who are fed some exploding crack). Hence the title concoction – who promptly pulverises her way through Manhattan.

Bad Biology (2008)

A return worth waiting for. A girl with seven clits can never find her ideal man but she finally encounters love with a steroid- injecting loner who has grown a monster- sized member… with a mind of its own.

Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore (2010)

The ultimate documentary on the exploitation cinema of the 1950s and 60s, told through the eyes of one of its most audacious mavericks (Lewis created the first splatter movie with 1963’s BloodFeast).