A Fist in the Face of God Meets... Frank Henenlotter
The lunatic genius of sexploitation cinema.
So Cannes is going on right now. Lots of people whose lives are inextricably bound up with the fortunes of the film industry are over in the South of France, lounging around on yachts, figuring out what movies are going to be making us cry into our duvets when they turn up on Netflix in a few months time, and watching Pete Doherty say pretentious things in an incredibly boring way.
One person who isn't there right now, and who is probably never likely to discuss the merits of Up the Bracket on an expensive boat, is Frank Henenlotter, director of such sexploitation classics as Basket Case, Brain Damage, and Frankenhooker. I saw the first couple a while back, and though I was impressed, it wasn't until my eyes feasted on the majestic latter that I came well and truly under his spell.
I couldn't find a decent interview with the man anywhere online, so I decided to do one myself. Frank is in the middle of filming a documentary about sexploitation, and I caught up with him on a day off from being surrounded by naked women for a chat about that and his life.
VICE: Hey Frank. So, tell us a bit about the documentary you're filming at the moment.
Frank Henenlotter: We started it about two years ago. It's called That's Sexploitation and it's 40 years of the non-Hollywood sexploitation underbelly.
That's with the Something Weird Video crowd, right?
Oh yeah. Mike Vraney [from Something Weird] and I spent about a year just picking clips. We didn't want wack material. We didn't want a couple in bed, just grinding. Boring! What we want are those shots where you have a naked woman standing in a living room wearing a scuba mask and fins. Yeah. It's like, "What the HELL were they thinking?" Or, a very plump young lady, lying in bed—she's reading before she goes to sleep. Now that's fine, but she's reading a book on the Winchester rifle. And then she falls asleep and when she wakes up, there's all these artfully shot close-ups of plastic cowboys and indians covering her body.
Exactly. How does one even react to that? But once it becomes porn I lose all interest in it. I like the tease, I like almost getting there. In the US, the first theatrically released features that had hardcore sex scenes were these phoney movies called "white coaters." They were phoney medical films: "We are going to help your marriage by showing the married man and wife how to do it." What horseshit! But it's fascinating stuff, even if some of them only last for a minute long.
And you're still fascinated?
I can't get enough.
Frank directing some blood for the opening scene of Frankenhooker.
So I guess the big question is how did you get into this?
In the late 70s, I made a short called Slash of the Knife. It was a parody of those sex hygiene films I was just talking about. I pretended it was made in 1952, extolling the virtues of circumcision and the horrors of being uncircumcised. I had a quack doctor and we had all this phoney footage, it was just ridiculous, lunatic, but I was into that long before I even met [B-movie legend] Dave Friedman. I was going to see sexploitation films before I turned 18. In all of Nassau County, which is the huge area I lived in, there was only one, count 'em, one theater that showed these dirty movies. It was called the Fine Arts Theater and was in Hempstead, Long Island. You had to show you were 18 or older but I was told by somebody that the old lady at the box office was blind as a bat. I looked about 15 when I was 17, but I went up to the box office and tried to act adult, by, like, frowning a little bit and having a little swagger.
Frowning? Is that what adults do?
That's what I thought. I thought if I looked a little mean I would look a little older. I just walked up, handed her the money and—ka-ching!—she gave me the ticket. And I went in and the first two nudies I saw—I've looked for them since, but never found them—were called House of Cats and Prowl Girls. I grew up on and loved exploitation films, because they were cheap and dirty, but this was even cheaper and dirtier. Also, I can't stress how shocking it was. We're talking the old days with giant movie screens, and on that screen was a pair of tits, GIANT TITS! And they were moving!
Did they show anything raunchier?
Back then, you seldom saw a pubic hair, but they always had a scene, usually in the shower, and as she's washing, she just casually—for a split-second, we're talking maybe nine frames—turns enough so you see some bush, and everyone in the audience would be like... [makes a weird gurgling sound]. It was the like seeing the the Holy Grail for a few seconds, you know? This was just part of this world of exploitation that I loved.
Did you have any heroes at this time? Was there anyone in particular that you looked up to?
I do remember seeing six or seven stinkers in a row, and finally I went to see this one and it opened with this crazy preacher on this road. Right away I could tell the photography was amazing and smart. It was my first Russ Meyer film, Lorna. I remember when I left the theater, I stood in front of the poster for Lorna trying to memorize his name, going [whispers] "Russ Meyer, Russ Meyer, Russ Meyer..." I remember thinking, "I wonder if he's made anything else?" You know, there was no internet or books on sex films back then.
When was your next encounter with a Meyer film?
Well, I'm reading the Village Voice a couple of weeks later and I look and I see there's a movie playing in New York called Good Morning... and Goodbye, by Russ Meyer, "Whoa, [makes an exploding sound] this guy's amazing." Another year later: Vixen, oh my God, then he did Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I was in heaven. I loved exploring like that. I loved the fact that nobody said to me, "Go see a Russ Meyer film." I loved the fact that I stumbled onto it, there was no internet to go to and say [puts on a really dorky voice] "What are the top five Russ Meyer films?" Fuck off, you know? Haha.
The internet has certainly made it easier for idiots and the fickle to scratch by.
Yeah, yeah, yeah… and I get that. How can anybody watch a movie on YouTube? Everything I saw back then was in the theater and I used to go there relentlessly because the films I loved were not gonna show up on television, and if they did, they were gonna be cut to ribbons. I was obsessed, especially if I liked a film. I never anticipated that some day we would own movies, that just was out of the realm. So I would see them over and over like I was trying to memorize them, 'cause I knew one day it was gonna be gone and I would never see it again.
So how did you get into making your own movies?
My dad had an 8mm movie camera, you know, for taking pictures of us at the World Fair and backyard picnics, stuff like that. I picked it up one day and made a three-minute movie about monster hamburgers. I thought, "Wow, this is easy." Of course, then, for the next couple of years, everything I made was out of focus, wrong stop exposure, etc. I loved it, I never envisioned making them commercially or for a living. I didn't want to—I liked doing my own crazy stuff and I liked having the freedom to go nutty. And then I made Basket Case and ruined my life.
How did you go from amateur to making Basket Case?
I was in the midst of making Slash of the Knife when I met Edgar Levins, and he said "Wanna do one commercially?" and I said "Sure, why not?" We thought "Let's make a horror movie." I had nothing in mind, because the movies I made were not horror movies—they were sick, twisted comedies. The first thought I had was a monster that lived in a basket and that is such a stupid idea I thought, "I have to go with this, because the visual is just too perfect." The whole idea of a malignant jack in the box, you open up the basket and [makes a crazy "being eaten" sound] you get eaten, I just thought that was hilarious.
How did you go about getting the cash together?
We literally couldn't raise a cent. I had $8000 in the bank and Edgar matched it with $8000 of his own and then, as we were shooting it, people started putting in—it cost $35,000 in 1981 to shoot. And also, that’s why the film looks the way it does. I never in a million years thought anyone would ever see the film, I just assumed it would play on 42nd Street and some other Skid Row theaters and no one would ever see it. It actually horrified me when it did become a cult film. I’m still horrified at it, but what the hell, you know? Listen, I’m thrilled people like it. I just don’t want to sit through it again. I keep wanting to change it and improve it, but that’s probably the wrong thing to do. I think the reason people like it is because it’s so primitive and dumb and sloppy. I don’t think anyone enjoys Basket Case because it’s good filmmaking, I think people enjoy it because it’s just a fun time, you know.
Gabe Bartalos having some fun on set.
There was a six year gap between Basket Case and Brain Damage—the special effects in that are completely insane.
Yeah, that’s all Gabe Bartalos.
The shot with the light coming out of his broken head was, for me, actually horrifying. It was like a bad trip.
Well, that was the point. I thought that was great. And at the time, I didn’t know how to end the film and I was listening to an album by Magazine, and they have a song called "The Light Pours Out of Me" and I remember thinking that’s my ending. Let me do that literally.
And the brains spaghetti?
Yeah, that’s something you don’t see often, but that’s based on a real hallucination I had one night. I was tripping and I was eating cherry-vanilla ice-cream and the little pieces of cherry started pulsating and looking like brains. I didn’t want to eat the ice cream any more but I remember thinking it was very cool.
Jeffrey Franken tries to work out the spec for Elizabeth's new body.
So, on to what I think is perhaps your masterpiece, Frankenhooker. It’s loosely based around the story of Frankenstein.
...mixed with The Brain that Wouldn’t Die. That was one of my favorite movies. In that one the head sits on the table and bitches while the poor guy has to go out and find the bodies, haha.
How did you get to the movie's insane finale?
Well, with Frankenhooker we didn’t know how it was going to end. I think we were on page 70 of the script and we still had no idea how we were going to wrap it up.
Really? So how far did you get before you realized, "Hey, this probably needs an ending somewhere."
I was writing it with Bob Martin, and there were two things we never knew in Frankenhooker: how does Jeffrey kill the girls and how do we wrap it up? I kept thinking that if he kills them with a meat cleaver, everybody’s going to hate him. So we needed to keep the audience’s sympathy. At the time, crack had just hit New York City hard. It was everywhere and you would walk down certain streets and crack vials would break under your feet. It was a horrible epidemic. Everywhere I turned I saw crack, crack, crack, and I thought 'Wait a minute, what is worse than crack? Super-crack." So I mentioned that to Bob and he went nuts laughing, but we still didn’t know how to end it.
Jeffrey examines his super-crack.
Did you consider yourself part of a scene in the 80s? I guess people would draw comparisons with your stuff and, say, the likes of Re-Animator.
I loved Re-Animator, but I never considered myself part of any scene only because I really didn’t see what I was doing clearly enough. To me it was just activity—I’m in the middle of it, you know?
So what movies blew you away in the 80s?
Well, you mentioned Re-Animator. That and From Beyond… You’re taking me off guard now. Most of the films that had an impact on me were ones I saw as a kid, you know, like everybody. The movies you saw as a kid growing up are the ones that did most damage to your brain. I was very impressionable as a kid. I took everything very seriously and I believed everything and I was just nuts. I was not the person who should be weaned on a diet of films like Circus of Horrors and Brides of Dracula, two films that just totally fucked with my head, big time. I saw Brides of Dracula when I was ten. Unbelievable. I thought that film was so sexy and I didn’t even know what sex was at the time. Same with Circus of Horrors. I just really found the girl and the obsession with scars very, very sexy. I’m ten, what do I know about sex, you know? But I remember thinking there’s stuff going on here that I don’t understand yet, but I love it!
Jeffrey tries to find some suitable tits for his soon-to-be-alive-again girlfriend.
While we’re on the subject of amazing performances, you cast your movies very well. Jeffrey Franken’s part was played impeccably, I thought. I guess that's how you saw it as well, right?
Oh yeah. The success of Frankenhooker really rests on the two leads—James Lorinz and Patty Mullen. They both nailed the parts and they really had to. Lorinz was amazing, I saw him in Street Trash and I remembered him from that. And Patty Mullin is just a delight. The one thing I didn't wanna do with Frankenhooker was have what they would call a "scream queen." I didn't want a big-titted bimbo, I just didn't want that, that's a cliche, you know? I thought it'd be far more interesting if Elizabeth was sweet and wholesome and looked like the girl next door, that kind of image, which is funny because ...
...she was Playmate's Pet of the Year in 1988?
Yes! But she didn't look like it!
No, she certainly didn't.
Yeah, and that's what I went with—her looks, not what label she got. She walked into the office and I thought, "Oh my God, I've found her." She was such a delight to work with. She was nervous, she'd only made one other film, and she kept saying to me, "Frank, I dunno how to act!" and I said, "Patty, you do. Let's just play it a bit." I lost touch with her for a while and just got back in touch with her, and whenever she calls me and gets the answering machine she never says "Hi, this is Patty," she's always "Going out? Wanna date? Looking for some action? Got any money?" Haha, that's how I know it's Patty!
All stills from Frank's movies come courtesy of the astonishingly in-depth Hotel Broslin.