Some years back I came across the movies of Frank Henenlotter, director of classics Basket Case, Brain Damage, and Frankenhooker. I saw the first couple a while back, and though I was impressed, but 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.
AFITFOG: 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 whack material. We didn't want a couple in bed, just grinding. Boring! What we want are those shots where, like, 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 in 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 theatre 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—kerching!— 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 – giant movie screens, and there was a pair of tits, and it was GIANT TITS! And they were moving! 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 this weird gurgling sound] Haha. 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, and right away I could tell the photography was amazing and this thing was smart. It was my first Russ Meyer film, Lorna. I remember leaving the theatre, stood in front of the poster for Lorna, trying to memorise 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, no books; you didn't have books on sex films back then, how do I know?
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's doing 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 dumbed everything down.
Yeah, yeah, yeah… and I get that. How can anybody watch a movie on YouTube? Everything I saw back then was in the theatre 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 outta the realm. So I would see them over and over like I was trying to memorise them, 'cause I knew one day it's gonna be gone and I'll never see it again, lemme get in as much as I can now.
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, that's what I was very happy doing. 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 Ievins, 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,' 'cause 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 42nd Street and some other Skid Row theatres 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, the film was, 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 ‘Whoooaaa! 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 and I remember thinking ‘Wooow!’ This is very cool.' I didn’t want to eat them any more but I thought 'That’s 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 favourite 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.
Yes! How did you get to the movie's insanity-inducing finale, then?
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 this up.
Really? So how far did you get before you realised, 'Hey, this probably needs an ending somewhere.'
Well, 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 this up? Everything else was easy, but those were two serious problems and I kept thinking, 'Well, if he kills them with a meat cleaver, man, 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 horrible. It was an epidemic, at the time, and everywhere I was turning I was seeing crack, crack, crack, and I thought 'Wow, wait a minute. What would be worse than crack would be 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 were very lucky to have cast your movies very well, because 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!
So, lastly, Bad Biology. I was saying to you the other week that I wanted to see it before we did this interview and while watching it the other night I realised when I got, like, half an hour that I had already watched it a year or so ago and never finished it.
Why did you stop watching it? Was there not enough sex for you in it?
You know what, it was almost like the first 15 or 20 minutes of it were like, ‘OK, so if there’s any posers in the room right now you’re all gonna leave within the first 15 minutes. The real fans are gonna be here through the rest of it—
And by the way, that is exactly how it played in theatres. That’s exactly what you would see. You would see people get up and leave right in the first 15, 20 minutes. And you would also see the audience very uncomfortable for the first couple of minutes, until that shot of her banging his head up and down on the ground. They burst out laughing and then in it was like, "Oh, OK, we’re allowed a laugh now". In fact, any time I appeared with the film I would tell people, "Please, feel free to laugh. I want you to laugh. You’re allowed to laugh! Don’t be uptight about this, come on, you know, I’m laughing, you should too!" But it’s a very strange film. Don’t you sit there wanting it going, "What the hell am I watching?"
To be honest, yeah. It was a little bit like when I first discovered John Walters movies, actually.
Well, you know, I think Bad Biology is a bit disorientating at first. I think you don’t trust what you’re watching—is this deliberate? Is this crazy? I’m not sure I get it? Is there anybody in control of this film? Do they know where they’re going? Well, yeah, it plays so out of the norm that I think it scares people right away.
I like the fact that it eventually gets to the point where you think, almost hope for some reason, that these two will meet and...
No! No! No! That would have been so expected, you know. And that's funny too, because before we even knew most of the plot I always knew that was the ending. I always knew that was the last image I wanted to do and I wasn’t sure how to get there, but I knew that was the last shot I wanted.
All stills from Frank's movies come courtesy of the astonishingly in-depth Hotel Broslin.