Frank Henenlotter is a genius in thrall to the trash cinema of the 60s and 70s and Frankenhooker ably demonstrates him to be a wizard of exploitation cinema.
Frank Henenlotter is a genius. He was obsessed by the schlocky B-movie films of his youth and when he finally got round to making a few of his own, he ably demonstrated himself to be a wizard of exploitation cinema.
His demented ideas were so extreme it didn’t matter that they completely surpassed his budgets, the delight was in just how gleefully crazed he’d push his tales.
Henenlotter’s films were born out of the same gritty, monstrous 80s New York that led to the emergence of a bunch of transgressive filmmakers such as Abel Ferrara, William Lustig and Buddy Giovinazzo, all of whom revelled in the city’s seamier side. But none of them had Hennenlotter’s humour, and none of them ever made a film about a two-foot long, blue alien turd that administers highly addictive psychedelic drugs to people so they’ll fetch him human brains.
Hennenlotter did. He’s only made six films, three of those were the Basket Case series about a man and his excised, severely mutated, cannibalistic, telepathic siamese twin. The alien turd appeared in the first of his masterpieces, Brain Damage, a riotous depiction of the life of an addict who is pushed to depraved lows in order to get his next fix. Hennenlotter’s second masterpiece was 1990’s Frankenhooker.
Jeffrey Franken is a crazed genius, established from the off when he embeds an eyeball in a brain and brings it to life on his fiance’s parent’s kitchen table. It’s fortunate that he’s so adept at the biological sciences because minutes later his fiance, Elizabeth, has an accident with a lawnmower resulting in her dismemberment. Her head goes missing and the title lets you know exactly where all this is going, however I doubt anybody would be fully prepared for how its going to get there.
Franken is played by James Lorinz, a man presumably hired for both his incredible range of intense stares and the soft New Jersey burr that he persistently monologues all his activities in, no matter how shockingly insane. Lorinz’s dryness provides the hilarity that ensures everything is aimed squarely at laughs. When Jeffrey talks you through the use of a power drill to penetrate his brain so as to overcome his own moral compunctions you can’t help but force giggles through the squirms.
At the time, central New York was rife with sex work and riddled with the rattle of crack pipes as the drug took hold of the city’s gutters, Frankenhooker elevates itself through astute observations of this dark wave crashing through the streets. So when a room full of prostitutes, played by strippers hired from a local club, begin to explode in slow motion due to gorging themselves on a super strain of crack there’s an element of Dickensian social commentary to be had as the severed limbs rain about.
Frankenhooker never lets up in any way. It gets madder with every frame, funnier with every extreme and bizarrely more and more intelligent culminating in an answer to the rising vein of misogyny that begins to throb as Franken realises he can use the best whore parts to ‘fix’ Elizabeths’s flaws. When her senses finally kick into gear, realisation dawns and her retribution provides a fitting punchline to the whole tawdry affair.
Balls out insane exploitation fare that takes on the thorny issue of rampant misogyny via exploding whores? Like I said, Frank Hennenotter, genius.
For more spine-chilling thrills to watch over Halloween, check out our complete 31 days of horror movies list.