Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, September 8, 2016

Director Report Card: Frank Henenlotter (1990) Part 2

4. Frankenhooker

1990 was a good year to be a Frank Henenlotter fan. Not only did that year bring the long awaited sequel to “Basket Case,” it also saw the release of “Frankenhooker.” Once the film got through the MPAA, it quickly found a cult following equal to, or perhaps even exceeding, the director’s most well-known previous films. Thanks to a hearty recommendation from Bill Murray and a talking VHS box, the film almost immediately entered cult movie legend. Even without these things going for it, a movie entitled “Frankenhooker” was destined for a certain level of notoriety.

Jeffrey Franken is an eccentric genius, an inventor and self-dubbed electro-biologist whose methods have gotten him ejected from several medical schools. Despite his peculiar personality, he has earned the love of Elizabeth, his portly but sincere fiancé. However, an accident involving a remote controlled lawn mower leaves Elizabeth dead and in pieces. Despondent, Jeffrey immediately looks for ways to bring his love back to life. He touches upon sewing her head onto a new body. However, his quest for fresh parts leads him down a seedy path involving prostitutes and super-crack. Once Elizabeth is resurrected, as an electrified Frankenhooker, more trouble comes his way.

To call “Frankenhooker” a horror/comedy is not really accurate. Aside from a late in the film burst of Henenlotter’s beloved grotesqueness, “Frankenhooker” never attempts anything resembling scares. Instead, the movie is an incredibly broad, outrageous parody of the “Frankenstein” story. The movie’s approach is utterly farcical, the script inhabiting a ridiculous and cartoonish world. Its tone is loud, colorful, and very silly. Most of the jokes are of the politically incorrect variety. For his fourth feature, Henenlotter cranks the absurdity seen in his previous works way the fuck up. The result is a delightfully goofy exercise in over-the-top monster movie comedy.

In fact, “Frankenhooker” is ridiculous from its opening minutes. Against the background of a wholesome family cook-out, Jeffrey attempts to teach his latest creation – a brain in a jar with a large elbow expending outwards – how to see. His mother-in-law, with a plate full of hamburgers, is nonplussed by this sight. Elizabeth, played by former Penthouse Playmate Patty Mullen in a highly unconvincing fat suit, munches on pretzels.The accident involving the remote control lawnmower follows an extended gag of misunderstanding. This contrast between a practically “Leave It to Beaver” setting and grotesque horror gore is the earliest indication that “Frankenhooker” is a live action cartoon.

James Lorinz’ Jeffrey isn’t merely a mad scientist. He’s truly unhinged. An extended sequence, which amusingly goes unexplained, has him stimulating his thought process by drilling holes into his head. He lives with his mom, who responses to his confessions of increasingly antisocial thoughts by asking if he wants a sandwich. He has romantic dinners with his deceased fiance’s decapitated head. Keep in mind, all of this is before he decides to murder a girl and cut up her dead body. Lorinz’ performance is exactly on the movie’s wavelength, displaying an anarchic comedy energy. The best example of this is his frenzied delivery of several pick-up lines directed at a guinea pig. He also somehow manages to retains Jeffrey’s gee-whiz innocence, despite the character’s increasingly amoral actions.

One of the criticisms I had for “Basket Case 2” was the lack of Old New York sleaziness that had characterized the original. This atmosphere, in a round about sort of way, makes a return in “Frankenhooker.” While searching for parts for his Frankenstein Monster, Jeffrey spends a lot of time on filthy back alleys and by-the-hour no-tell motels. By this time, the porno shops and grindhouse theaters of 42nd Street that Henenlotter loved so much were extinct. In their place was a far more sanitized Times Square, made for families and tourists. This change is illustrated in the scene where the titular character, screaming for johns and cash, wanders into the newly family friendly Times Square, scandalizing the businessmen and visitors. The film, in its own broadly comedic way, shows the spectre of sleazy New York coming back to haunt its shiny modern equivalent.

The film handles the issue of prostitution with all the nuances and tack you’d expect of a movie entitled “Frankenhooker.” In other words, this is not the most sensitive portrayal of sex workers. There’s a brief jab at the way society washes its hands of ladies of the evening. Jeffrey watches a Morton Downey Jr. style talk show, where an attempt to show how bad things are for sex workers is booed and mocked. Despite this moment, “Frankenhooker” is far too flippant for social satire. The disproportionately attractive street walkers parade around in revealing costumes, drawing attention to themselves by crowding street corners and loudly seeking customers. They have an enthusiastic and often stated fondness for crack-cocaine. Don’t be offended. “Frankenhooker’ isn’t meant to reflect the real world. Instead, it’s a ludicrous warping of reality.

If the movie’s handling of prostitution is insensitive and goofy, it’s approach to the crack epidemic is even more absurd. Zorro, the improbably named pimp of all the hookers, pays the girl in drugs. After realizing the sex workers’ weakness for ice/glass/rock, Jeffrey cooks up “super-crack,” a potent version of the drug that causes the user to explode. After the hookers find his stash, they loose all control of themselves, each smoking the drug immediately. This leads to one of “Frankenhooker’s” most delirious sequence. That is, a montage of prostitutes exploding after ingesting “super-crack,” their bodies bursting into flames, arms and heads tossed into the air. It’s certainly not the kind of thing you’re going to see anywhere else, that’s for sure. It’s offensive but hilarious.

Starring as the titular Frankenhooker is Patty Mullen. A former Penthouse Playmate, Mullen’s screen credits are limited. Beyond this film, she also appeared in obscure slasher flick “Doom Asylum” and an episode of “The Equalizer.” Despite the lack of experience, Mullen is hilarious in the part. She successfully creates two separate characters. As Elizabeth, she’s shy, self-effacing, and silly. As the Frankenhooker, she adapts a robotic, stiff body language which is frequently emphasize by ridiculous facial expressions. Her gruff, shouted delivery makes dialogue that probably shouldn’t be funny hilarious. It’s not subtle acting but it’s definitely amusing acting, not to mention just right for this movie. She also, it must be said, makes the purple hair, mini-skirt, and Doc Martins work for her.

“Frankenhooker” is sometimes stocked alongside other horror/comedies like “Evil Dead 2” or “Dead/Alive,” films that push the gory nature of the genre so far that the violence becomes funny instead of shocking. This isn’t entirely fair, as “Frankenhooker” actually features very little blood. It’s acts of violence are strictly on the cartoon level. When Jeffrey’s female friends indulge in the super-crack, their exploding bodies result in legs and heads flying across the room. Physical contact with the Frankenhooker causes lightning to surge through people, which often makes her male clients explode. One such sequence concludes with a guy’s head flying through a window. Another has a guy under a table going up in a smoky fireball. It’s very silly stuff and soundly entertaining.

Most of “Frankenhooker” is devoted to Lorinz and Mullen’s antics. However, a few memorable characters emerge from the supporting cast. Louise Lasser has several funny lines as Jeffrey’s mom. Jan Saint, reappearing from “Basket Case 2,” has a hilarious one scene cameo as a street preacher. Of the other hookers, Charlotte Helmkamp is fairly amusing as Honey, really digging into her goofball lines of dialogue. Joseph Gonzalez is essentially a walking, talking bicep as Zorro the Pimp. His bizarre accent and comical appearance combine to make the character good for several laughs.

“Frankenhooker” certainly cooks up some memorable images for its big finale. In a scene that recalls both the “Basket Case” flicks and “Bride of Re-Animator,” released the same year, a freezer full of leftover hooker parts gets struck by lightning. Emerging from the box is a collection of fused together mismatched body parts, crawling around and attacking. Such as an inverted torso, with a mouth at the crotch, and stumpy feet moving it around. Or hands, arms, and heads fused into a squirming pile. Considering “Frankenhooker” is mostly a ribald goof, the movie rolling out some genuinely bizarre body horror imagery in its finale is surprising. But, then again, I’ve learned to be surprised by Frank Henenlotter’s movies.

Besides Belial and his basket abode, a collection of body parts reassembled and screaming for a date is the second most iconic character from Frank Henenlotter’s career. The movie is consistently entertaining throughout, a series of brilliantly bizarre and inane sight gags. It’s the center point between art and trash, a low brow comedy that goes to any lengths to tickle the funny bones of monster kids’ everywhere. In short, “Frankenhooker” is exactly the kind of movie its title promises. And what horror fan with an appetite for the absurd could resist that? [Grade: B]

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