Auteur Theory: Volume 1
New York horror filmmaker Frank Henenlotter has managed to remain in relative obscurity thus far in his career, despite the notoriety his films have achieved. But for those who know his work, it feels as if his filmography is far more massive than just six films. His films are definitively schlock horror, dealing humorously with themes of sex, drugs, and surreal body-bending mutation, all taking place in a darkly weird perspective of New York City. The marriage between horror and sex has been a long one, but I’m going to go out on a limb and declare Henenlotter one of the masters. At least for anyone who is into goofy special effects.
As his influence, Henenlotter cites the exploitation films of the 60s and 70s he watched as a young teen on 42nd street. He is also notable for his massive collection of old film prints of exploitation films, and often spoke of as a scholar of these films. Taking this into consideration, his brand of filmmaking is not the conventional pristine one might expect from what is commonly identified as good cinema. The acting is awkward. The dialogue and camerawork are loud and comical. Realism is thrown out entirely; special effects are big, strange, somewhat sloppy hunks of foam latex glued together, trembling and spasming on screen. The effects serve their purpose well due to the absurdity and indescribability in their appearance, but it’s not hard to laugh at. When you’re craving schlock, who cares? If you get excited over a title like Frankenhooker, I’m pretty sure it’ll be a good pick for you.
At face value, his films work on gimmicks. Frankenhooker’s gimmick is in the title. It’s about a Frankenstein-esque mad scientist rebuilding his dead lover with pieces of hookers. Need one ask for anything more than that? Henenlotter made it back to back with Basket Case 2 in 1990, splitting a three million dollar budget across the two films. It remains my favorite of the bunch, considering how colorful and fast paced it is. I highly recommend picking up the R1 DVD release by Unearthed Films, the special features are great and it looks excellent. This is the next best thing to the original VHS release, which had a voicebox that spat out “Want a date?” upon pushing a button. But despite how gimmicky it all seems, the film triumphs on its sympathetic characters and surprisingly righteous morals on drug use, prostitution, and body image. That, and exploding hookers.
And I can’t talk about Henenlotter without bringing up Basket Case, his first feature and the most popular of his films. The Basket Case trilogy has grown into the most elaborate piece of the Henenlotter universe. This super low budget film, shot guerilla style in NYC on 16mm and released in 1982, was Henenlotter’s true introduction to the B horror world. Basket Case is not really intended to be a comedy. It is of the most brutally gory of his films, next to his second feature, 1988’s Brain Damage. But where Brain Damage has an evil, talking brain stem, Basket Case has the iconic Belial. Belial is a ravenous living blob of flesh with a head and arms, kept in a basket and carried around by his normal human brother. Belial kills people, his brother freaks out. Belial is involved in what I believe to be one of the most awesomely ridiculous sex scenes ever in a movie. Crappy stop motion animation, poor puppetry and all, Belial is just plain awesome. And somehow, there were two sequels, although the basic formula changes entirely and a whole world of mutant freaks develops. Henenlotter has spoken quite poorly of the third Basket Case, and I’ll have to take his word on it considering it remains unavailable on R1 DVD.
Then, after a sixteen year hiatus, Henenlotter returned last year with Bad Biology. He decided to make this after approached by rapper R.A. the Rugged Man, who proposed writing a script and offered to get funding. Bad Biology manages to be one of the truest sex horror films I have ever seen, in that the horror is derived purely from the sex. It is such weird and graphic depiction of sexual deformities that it rivals Brian Yuzna’s film Society’s shunting sequences, except it’s continuous throughout the whole movie. At a brief eighty minutes on 35mm, it focuses only on two characters, a woman with seven clitorises and a man with a mutant sentient penis. The entire film is a build-up to their meeting, and although feeling somewhat like a punch line, the climax (no pun intended) is thoroughly worthwhile. It’s chock-full of porn and violence, and the gore and special effects are still as unreal as ever, even with a few CGI shots. The really wonderful thing about this low budget hip-hop infused sex freak show of a film is how interested you get in the two characters. Their mutations, albeit extremely goofy, make them really fun and exciting to watch on screen. They are both likeable outsiders, and much of the comedy comes from witnessing their interactions with the regular world. When the ending hit, I was not ready to turn it off. It’s funny, bizarre, and a great addition to the world of Henenlotter’s films. It has been touring the festival circuit for the past year, and hopefully this will hit DVD soon where the sentient penis can reach a larger audience.