To know Frank Henenlotter is to love him. If you consider yourself to have a love of horror movies, a slightly twisted sense of humor, and a deep abiding love of all things grindhouse, then Frank Henenlotter is a filmmaker you must become instantly intimate with (and if you read that to be sexual, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind). We horror-heads are all familiar with the classics, and it’s likely that any and all readers have either seen, or seek to see, the important movies that ensure our status as gorehounds and well-educated lovers of fear cinema. But the hardcore seek vaunt the oblique, the bizarre, the extreme, the wacky. Frank Henenlotter leads the charge of this vanguard.
Born in 1950 in New York, and shaped by endless trips to the grimy 42nd Street grindhouses of the ’60s and ’70s, Frank Henenlotter became obsessed with film at an early age. Just as Quentin Tarantino was influenced by kung-fu movies and spaghetti westerns, Henenlotter became the child of cheesy exploitation flicks of the day. His films all have a seedy quality to them, and sex is very much at the forefront of all of them (especially BAD BIOLOGY). He is a combination of goremaster Herschell Gordon Lewis, wacky R. Crumb, and off-the-wall Ralph Bakshi, but with a more colorful, energetic, Saturday Morning Cartoon edge. His films are like classic monster films hyped up on sugar and caffeine. He doesn’t see himself as a horror director, however, and his films may more accurately be described as horror comedies, or merely exploitation films.
Henenlotter took a long break from filmmaking at one point to curate and work with Mike Vraney’s Something Weird Video (a subject previously covered in the pages of Blumhouse) and brought a few rather notable films to the fore. He also worships Herschell Gordon Lewis, and I can think of no other person with such an abiding admiration of the man.
He has only directed six fiction films, but each one is a notable classic in its own right. Here is our chance to look at them all.
BASKET CASE (1982)
In BASKET CASE, Kevin Van Hentenryck plays a put-upon schlub named Duane who travels into the bowels of New York City carrying a large covered – and padlocked – laundry basket. This is where he keeps his twin brother Belial, a lumpen creature that is littler more than a head, a pair of arms, and a massive maw. The two brothers resent having been surgically separated years before, and are back in town to elicit revenge. Duane, however, finds that he can feign at a normal relationship, which infuriates Belial. Belial is like Duane’s anti-conscience, using shrieks and psychic influence to convince him to do immoral things. I would call BASKET CASE a subtle psychological study of the id, but it’s more a down-and-dirty horrorshow.
BASKET CASE was clearly shot on the cheap, although the low-fi photography and clunky special effects make it all the more charming. Henenlotter, while still polishing his craft, is already working with the ideas he would stick with his whole career. Belial is an immoral monster, of course, but we are constantly asked to relate to him, to see the world from his perspective. To see the twins less as monsters and more as mere outsiders. Henenlotter, like the best of exploitation filmmakers (John Waters especially), has a genuine affection for his freaks.
BRAIN DAMAGE (1988)
Continuing Henenlotter’s themes of immoral influence by an outside freak monster, we have BRAIN DAMAGE, a twisted sex fable involving a hapless white guy named Brian (Rick Hearst) and a malevolent slug-like brain parasite with slimy black skin and a voice like a used car salesman. The slug, named Aylmer (horror recording luminary John Zacherle) can feed a powerful hallucinogen directly into Brian’s mind, but requires human victims in exchange. I don’t know if Henenlotter has ever battled addiction himself, but this is a pretty apt metaphor for the way a substance can push you around. But featured in a film that boasts a scene where a woman is forced to fellate a slug monster.
Of Henenlotter’s films, BRAIN DAMAGE seems to be the most intimate. But don’t get him wrong. It’s still a celebration of all things gross and slimy.
BASKET CASE 2 (1990)
Working with a bigger budget and bigger ideas, Henenlotter returned to the well of sputum with BASKET CASE 2, a slicker, better version of the first that may be considered one of the best of all cult movies. Seriously, BASKET CASE 2 needs to be talked about the same way we talk about EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN or any of the other great horror comedies. BASKET CASE 2, although made eight years later, takes place immediately after the first as Duane and Belial are being carted off to the hospital. They are, however, taken from the hospital by a kindly old woman named Ruth (Annie Ross) who runs a home for orphan freaks outside of the city.
The creature design on the freaks is endlessly creative, and the domestic scenes of these monsters dining together is surreal and awesome. Belial also finds a lump woman about his size, while Duane begins a flirtation with Ruth pretty granddaughter. This time, it is Duane who is jealous. The message here is perhaps more subversive than in the first movie. Perhaps that monster inside of you is actually correct, and its influence over you would only lead to a positive world of outsiders. This is a film about family. Complete with two lump creatures getting it on.
1990 was a banner year for Henenlotter, as he not only made the near-perfect BASKET CASE 2, but this cult tentpole. Although often noted merely for its funny title (Bill Murray once called it the best film of the year, although I doubt he has seen it), FRANKENHOOKER is just as rambunctious as Henenlotter’s previous two entries. The film stars Jeremy Lorenz as a mad doctor whose girlfriend is killed in a freak lawnmower accident. He proceeds to hole up in his lab, eventually concocting a plan to reconstruct his ladylove using parts harvested from New York’s streetwalkers. To stay sane, he drills holes in his head. Which seems counterintuitive to me.
FRANKENHOOKER may be about the insanity that love can drive us to, and is once again about otherworldly influence (although this time it’s madness), but more than anything, it’s a love letter to the underbelly of New York. Henenlotter saw a lot of art in the underground, grew up in grindhouses, and wants to show that there is a twisted carnival of bloody celebration going on. Also, Patty Mullen as the title monster is pretty amazing in the film’s climax.
BASKET CASE 3: THE PROGENY (1991)
Although only made a year later, there seems to have been a distinct dropoff in budget and freedom this time around. Frank Henenlotter’s spirit is still alive, however, even if his film doesn’t have the slickness or sickness of the previous marathon of classics. In BASKET CASE 3, Duane is on the outs with Belial (who has shut him out) and with Ruth’s brood. Duane has become the worst thing in a community of freaks: A kind of normal guy. I appreciate the message that being normal is seen as a handicap, while being freaky and deformed is a superpower.
Despite a few highlights – the birth scene is amazing, as is the violent climax in the police station – BASKET CASE 3 feels hastily slapped together. The first BASKET CASE was charming for its shabbiness. Part 3 feels like a deterioration. Despite this, is a pretty awesome flick, and I giggled like a gore-soaked schoolgirl when I first saw it.
BAD BIOLOGY (2008)
Why did it take Henenlotter 17 years to make his next feature? Well, he was distracted with archiving and curating for Something Weird during this period. He fled back into the objects of his affection, and began his earnest attempt to legitimize his favorite sleaze and gore films. He never got so far as to garner some nationwide theatrical releases, but he did manage to curate Something Weird for a little while there.
One Henenlotter film nearly got off the ground during this period, including SICK IN THE HEAD, which was to be produced by Fangoria, but which collapsed due to money troubles. His response was to made BAD BIOLOGY, a sex-soaked monster feature that could be made for an extremely low budget. It may have been 17 years, but Henenlotter’s weirdness was still in tact, even if the low budget shows.
BAD BIOLOGY is about a sex-starved young woman (Charlee Danielson) with an unknown number of clitorises who tends to accidentally murders the men she sleeps with. She also gets pregnant with ease, and gives birth only hours after the deed, leading to a weird string of monster babies she constantly slays. She is destined to meet a young man (Anthony Sneed) who has been injecting steroids into his penis for years, and not has an uncontrollable monster where his genitals should be. It takes a long time for them to meet, but when they do, it’s pretty explosive.
Since BAD BILOGY, Henenlotter has appeared in a few documentaries, including on about Herschell Gordon Lewis, and a tribute to the importance of ’80s and ’90s VHS culture called REWIND THIS! He has completed a film called CHASING BANKSY, which is a more personal film about the struggles of the New York art world. That film has not yet been released as far as I have been able to find.
Henenlotter may have burned himself out in 1990. Or, perhaps making weird-ass monster films with decent budgets is just impossible to do these days. I just know that, should I find myself commanding untold millions, I would certainly bequeath some of it to my favorite cult filmmakers who have had trouble securing financing. The thought of Henenlotter working unfettered, with an unlimited budget, makes my skin tingle. Perhaps the day will come when he shocks the world again. Perhaps the day for his cartoonish brand of surreal monster movies has past. Wherever he is, however, he has left behind six movies that will get under your skin. Seek them out.