Monday, November 16, 2009

Frankenhooker (1990)

Directed by Frank Henenlotter
Starring Patty Mullen, James Lorinz
Rated R

"Wanna date? Looking for some action? Got any money?"

Frank Henenlotter was one at the apex of his curious career in exploitation when he made this seminal slice of 80's splatter-comedy. One of the all-time great NYC filmmakers, Henenlotter made his bones with 1982's Basket Case, and exceptionally twisted little tale of two Siamese twins, separated against their will, who get revenge on the doctors who split them up. One of the twins just happens to be a monster who lives in a basket. Basket Case was a gleeful celebration of the Times Square grindhouse experience. Filmed in the bowels of the city during the height of New York's love affair with sleazy cinema, the micro-budgeted film became an instant horror classic, and propelled Henenlotter from eccentric underground filmmaker to horror hero. He followed Basket Case with 1988's outrageous Brain Damage, an addiction allegory starring a wisecracking brain tumor, and Basket Case 2, a tongue in cheek sequel loaded with bizarre latex beasties. Henenlotter came up with the basic concept of Frankenhooker on the fly, during a pitch meeting. It wasn't until after he secured funding that he actually wrote a script for the film. Despite its inauspicious beginnings, Frankenhooker eventually became, next to the original Basket Case, Henenlotter's best-known and most well-liked film.

Part of Frankenhooker's considerable charm lies in its casting. Henenlotter smartly chose quintessential New York actor James Lorinz to essay the role of mad doctor Jeffrey Franken. An always-on improv comic with a superb sense of timing and a knack for playing fast-talking wiseguys, Lorinz was the breakout star of Street Trash (1987), a now-classic bit of low-budget splatstick centering around a group of winos in a junkyard and the poison booze they all swill. Lorinz played a mob-baiting doorman whose hilarious, impromptu asides are still repeated at horror-nerd parties to this day. Essentially Lorinz plays the raving lunatic version of his Street Trash character in Frankenhooker.

Patty Mullen stars as the Frankenstein-ian hooker of the title. A Penthouse Pet who had just begun dabbling in film - she also appeared in 1987's minor cult-horror obscurity Doom Asylum - Patty gleefully gobbles up the scenery as a twitchy, gum-snapping, undead prostitute. Although she's not given as much screentime as you might expect, given the title of the film, she's an unforgettable character, and a joy to watch.

Aside from the strong casting, Henenlotter also leavens the grotesque body horror with a consistently light tone. Whereas Basket Case and Brain Damage both walked a careful balance between horror and humor, Frankenhooker is just a laugh out loud comedy that happens to be peppered, every ten or so minutes, with flying body parts.

As our story opens, we meet Jeffrey Franken (Lorinz) a mumbling Jersey loser who aspires to be a doctor. Unfortunately, he's already been thrown out of three medical schools, so he is forced to conduct his "Bio-electrical" experiments in his garage. We find him there, poking a brain in a jar with a knife, trying to bring it to life. He is distracted, however, by his chubby fiancé, Elizabeth (Patty Mullen), who encourages him to leave the grubby confines of his make-shift lab and join her in the backyard for a family barbecue. He begrudgingly trudges out into the sunshine, but their joyful celebration soon turns to abject horror when Elizabeth is run over and mulched by a runaway lawnmower.

Jeffrey retreats even further into his own shell after the accident. He lives the life of a virtual hermit in his bedroom and garage, tinkering with mad science and, indeed, with madness. His long-suffering mother (Louise Lasser, star of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman), encourages him to move on, try and meet someone, or at least get out of the house, but Jeffrey feels he's gone too far over the edge to return to society. Besides, he's got a very important project to work on. He may also be harboring several of Elizabeth's missing body parts, including her head.

Jeffrey's day job is with New Jersey Electric, which affords him the opportunity to smuggle home expensive electrical equipment. He uses these three-foot tall spark plugs and other bits of mad scientist props to build a Frankenstein lab in his absurdly over-sized garage. He adjusts a few knobs and switches, and then pulls Elizabeth's head and a few odd appendages out of the pink "Estrogen bath" they're swirling in. And then he has dinner with his dead girlfriend's still-dead head. He gives her a little wine - naturally, it pours through her severed noggin and soaks into the tablecloth - and then tells her about his plans to resurrect her, using the body parts of centerfold models. And then he reads her a poem, which states, in part, "My heart is packed so love for you/That I dreamed I exploded, like cans of aerosol sometimes do."

Jeffrey hears a weather report on television (the cool ghoul himself, Zacherle, is the weatherman) and finds out a big electrical storm is due in two days. He decides that's when he'll conduct his resurrection experiment. First, however, he has to come up with a new body for the tattered Elizabeth. In order to clear out the nattering voices in his head and focus on the job at hand, Jeffrey utilizes his favorite relaxation technique - he jams a drill into his head to relieve the pressure.
Jeff figures that whores are the easiest way to go, so he cashes in his Christmas Club money and heads to New York City. When he finds a girl to his liking, he tells her that he wants to set up a hooker-filled party for his "sick brother". She introduces him to Zorro (Joseph Gonzalez), a greasy, muscle-bound pimp/crack dealer who promises to set it all up for him.

This business transaction is conducted in a strip club bathroom, which is packed to the tits with crack smoking whores and lowlives. Realizing the drug's potential, Jeffrey buys a baggy full from Zorro. He brings it home and synthesizes it into a powerful new drug, Super Crack. It's like regular crack, only it kills you a lot quicker. Seems valid.

A few days later, the party gets rolling in some seedy motel room downtown. Dressed like a porn movie doctor, Jeffrey measures all the hookers' various body parts, trying to find the perfect specimen.
Eventually, the girls find their way into Jeffrey's bag and discover the Supercrack. Naturally, they dig in and smoke it. A few minutes later, they all start exploding. Jeffrey did not expect such tragic results, and vows to put all the girls back together. So he gathers up all the chunks he can carry in a trash bag, and heads back to New Jersey to do exactly that.

Before he can help the other girls, however, he's got to build a new Elizabeth. He rummages through all the appendages and pieces he dragged home and stitches together a new body for his deceased fiancé. Then he staples her head on and waits for the lightning storm to start.

Amazingly, his cockamamie plan works. Elizabeth does, in fact, return to life, as a spazzy, stitched-together, purple-haired glamazon. However, since she's now at least 70% hooker parts, her natural instincts are to hit the streets, looking for action. She asks Jeffrey if wants a date, but when he tells her he doesn't have any money, she konks him on the head and splits for downtown.

Despite the fact that she's a monster, she quickly finds a willing John (immediately recognizable character actor David Lipman) to bone. They rent a room and get down to business, but Elizabeth discovers a potentially messy side-effect to rebirth - when she has sex with the poor fellow, he overheats and explodes. Meanwhile, Jeffrey hops into his car and heads to Times Square to find his girlfriend. He asks some of the locals if they've seen her - he tells them she's purple, and covered in fresh scars - but they are not much help.

After accidentally blowing up a couple dudes, Elizabeth wanders into a bar, where Zorro notices her Z tattoo, the very same tattoo with which he branded his stable of girls. Since he saw them all blown to bits, he is quite sure that mischief is afoot. He confronts her and, quite literally, punches her head off.

Luckily Jeff shows up in the nick of time and rescues his quickly unraveling creation. He brings her back to his lab, where she suddenly figures out who she is and what's she's become. She is not happy about it. Nor is the machete wielding Zorro, who followed them both back to the lab to reclaim his woman and exact revenge.

And let us not forget all those other reanimated hooker-parts, bubbling away in Jeffrey's magical Estrogen bath.

Suffice to say, things end weirdly for everybody.

Frankenhooker remains a must-see item on anyone's cult movie list largely because it actually delivers on its ludicrous premise. It's called Frankenhooker, and it really does have a Frankenhooker in it. It's also got gallons of goo, disgusting latex monsters, a generous amount of nudity, and the very welcome comic stylings of James Lorinz. Toss in the over-the-top 80's fashions - the 80's lasted until around 1993, if you remember - and Henenlotter's trademark assortment of downtown weirdos, and you've got yourself a very tasty midnight movie snack.

Sadly, Henenlotter's busy career stopped short two years later with the ill-starred Basket Case 3. That's not to say that he didn't keep busy. Henenlotter is personally responsible for the rescue and restoration for dozens of obscure exploitation and sexploitation flicks from the 60's and 70's. Under the banner of his "Sexy Shocker" series for Something Weird Video, Henenlotter has presented the world with unforgettable cinematic experiences like The Curious Doctor Humpp, Dracula the Dirty Old Man, and Terror at Orgy Castle, all grubby grindhouse classics that may have literally ended up in a trash dumpster, were it not for Henenlotter. Frank finally returned to filmmaking after 15 or so years in 2008 with the nihilistic Bad Biology, a typically bizarre tale of a girl with multiple vaginas who meets a boy with a mutant penis. While it clearly lacks Frankenhooker's sense of humor, Bad Biology is at least as disgusting. Probably more.

Surprisingly, after the masterful one-two punch of Street Trash and Frankenhooker, James Lorinz never really got that all-important big break. He did manage to snag bit roles in some notable films and television series - King of New York (1990), RoboCop 3 (1993), NYPD Blue - but his biggest post-Frankenhooker role was in 1995's sadly overlooked Jerky Boys Movie (1995), where he played the Boys' nemesis, Brett Weir. Weir was yet another spin-off from Lorinz stable of mumbly smart-asses, and his performance in the film is hilarious. Unfortunately, nobody really saw the point of a Jerky Boys movie, and the film died a quick and unceremonious death. Lorinz is still acting - as of 2008, he was slated to appear in indie horror flick The Eternal - and he makes appearances at various East Coast horror and movie memorabilia conventions.

Patty Mullen, on the other hand, quit acting completely after Frankenhooker. The still-gorgeous ex-centerfold turned suburban mom now lives in Florida. In a rare interview included on the Frankenhooker Special Edition DVD (Unearthed), she lamented the early end to her acting career, and mentioned that she called Henenlotter shortly before the DVD's release, asking him to make a sequel so she can "Get out of here."

So far, no sequel is planned. But if anybody's career deserves to be resurrected, it's Frankenhooker's.

- Ken McIntyre

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