Somehow, it seems wrong to single out two of Frank Henenlotter’s more “horror-comedy” films as examples of the writer/director’s style — which, in a sense, is fitting. Henenlotter’s a guy whose crew has abandoned him on two separate projects because they found what he was making to be in such poor taste that they refused to be a part of it. You can complain all you want about how his films are juvenile and gross and unpolished and what have you. But don’t you want to see a penis-shaped monster suck the brains out of a woman through her mouth like he were a very evil boner and she were giving the world’s worst blowy? Doesn’t the thought of seeing something so uniquely low and disgusting intrigue you? Don’t you want to see a man with no shame, no sense of good taste and no self-restraint at work?
The main pleasure in watching Henenlotter’s films is in watching an inspired caricaturist earn yuks through some genuinely vile horror-themed body jokes. Between 1982 and 1990, Henelotter, whose films are being celebrated at New York’s Anthology Film Archives this weekend, made his splatter comedies while David Cronenberg was at the height of his powers. Cronenberg made everything from “Videodrome” to “Dead Ringers” in the time it took Henelotter to produce three sloppy but invigoratingly scatological features: “Basket Case,” a valentine to the grimy Manhattan of the early ’80s and a slobbering tongue-in-cheek dramedy about a boy and the separation anxiety he shares with his evil, lumpen Siamese twin; “Brain Damage,” a Lovecraft-inspired comedy about a boy that gets hooked on the mind-altering secretions of a murderous, parasitic “H.R. Pufnstuf” monster from beyond; and “Frankenhooker,” a gleefully deranged story about inequality between the sexes that happens to star a slavering, undead prostitute who inadvertently electrocutes all of her clients. This piece focuses on “Brain Damage” and “Frankenhooker,” but not because they’re necessarily more worthy than “Basket Case.” On the contrary, while I prefer these two films because they are more accomplished farces, given the anarchic nature of Henenlotter’s comedies, that doesn’t make them better films.
Of the two Henenlotter-helmed projects I’ve singled out, “Brain Damage” is most similar tonally to “Basket Case.” Henenlotter makes a more concentrated effort to mix semi-serious melodrama with his eccentric brand of scattershot comedy, frequently crossing lines that other filmmakers, ones guided by more hands-on producers or advisors, almost certainly would not go near. For an especially gross example, see the infamous blowjob scene in “Brain Damage,” in which Aylmer (voiced by John Zacherle), the film’s bulbous, phallic monster, slithers out of the fly of Brian (Rick Hearst), his host, and devours an incautiously flirtatious woman’s brain. Henenlotter’s crew reportedly fled when it came time to film the scene, which revels in a proudly crass it’s-not-what-it-looks-like-but-it-kind-of-is sight gag.
If you are intrepid and depraved enough to seek out “Brain Damage” after reading this piece, you should thank your lucky stars that Synapse Films released a cut of the film featuring the aforementioned fellatio scene. That sequence was cut from both the film’s theatrical cut and, if you can imagine that such a thing exists, its television cut. It’s a particularly ugly and uncomfortable scene. Don’t miss it!
All kidding aside, “Brain Damage” is as weirdly funny as it is because it seems to have been made by a proudly deranged filmmaker. In one scene, Henenlotter shamelessly asks viewers to care about Brian’s addiction to the blue-tinted liquid Aylmer injects directly into his brain — “shamelessly” because that same addiction is the stuff of no-brow comedy in several earlier scenes, my favorite of which has Brian sitting in his bathtub, tripping out of his mind. Meanwhile, his roommate and his girlfriend are both worriedly standing outside the bathroom door, intently listening to him squeal with joy as Aylmer sprays hallucinogenic ejaculate all over his chest. So watching Brian in a later scene shiver and shake while he begs for a fix, soaked in fecal-colored sweat that stains his white cotton wife-beater and his oversized tidy-whities, is remarkably unseemly.
At least when you watch “Frankenhooker,” a feature-length put-on that advertises in its title Henenlotter’s commitment to a pointedly perverted scenario, you immediately know what you’re getting into. “Frankenhooker” doesn’t have a serious bone in its body, a fact which becomes apparent when the film breaks down during its half-assed Grand Guignol finale. Jeffrey Franken (James Lorinz), a young medical student in the tradition of Herbert West, loses his mind after Elizabeth Shelley (Patty Mullen), his fiancée, dies in a freak lawnmower accident. We hear the news of her demise as it’s covered by an opportunistic news reporter who facetiously pouts about callous community members who are more concerned with the macabre details of Jeffrey’s tragic loss than in the victims’ well-being. She says this just before she idly speculates that Mary’s disembodied head was probably stolen “by person or persons unknown.” Nobody really cares in this film, or at least, nobody really has emotionally stable or sympathetic responses to events. This is especially true of Brian, the film’s lead protagonist and a nebbish psychopath who cooks up a batch of homemade “Super Crack” in order to kill prostitutes so that he can chop them up and give Elizabeth a new body composed of his victims’ parts. Brian reflexively psychoanalyzes himself thusly: “I seem to be disassociating myself from reality. I’m becoming anti-social, dangerously amoral.”
That sentiment explains the off-kilter tenor of Henenlotter’s films, if only partially. They’re gleefully unsound films with charming volatility. This is best expressed in “Frankenhooker” when the aforementioned Super Crack causes a cabal of street-walkers to explode one by one in spectacular slow-motion. It’s like “Zabriskie Point” but with more prostitutes and less counter-cultural commentary. In other words: “Frankenhooker” is exactly what you’ve been jonesing for — you just didn’t know it until now.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, the L Magazine, the New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.