6WH: Week 3 – Frank Henenlotter

The “Obscure Horror Auteurs” theme continues with the grossest auteur yet, Frank Henenlotter. With his trademark combination of shameless bad taste and an almost complete lack of self-restraint, Henenlotter made quite a name for himself in the 80s and early 90s, after which he became involved with Something Weird Video, a film distributer specializing in rescuing obscure exploitation films (most notably the gory films of Herschell Gordon Lewis). He made a brief return in 2008, but has essentially remained silent since the early 90s. In terms of what he goes for, it’s, uh, difficult to really encapsulate. His movies are generally set in pre-Giuliani New York, they go for sleazy melodrama, often touching on the intersection of sex and gore, and they are, of course, very low budget. I can’t say as though I love his aesthetic, but it’s sometimes fun to spend some time in the gutter, you know?

  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VII: The Thing and I
  • Horror Movie Daycare (short)
  • The X-Files: Humbug
  • Basket Case – As mentioned above, Henenlotter is all about the seedy New York city before it was cleaned up in the 90s, and this movie revels in that setting. A naive young man named Duane Bradley arrives in town with a wad of cash and a locked wicker basket, quickly taking up residence at the Hotel Breslin. You see, Duane was once part of a Siamese twin that was separated against his will. Now he’s reunited with his deformed brother Belial (who lives in the titular basket) to take revenge upon the doctors who so rudely performed the operation. Along the way, Duane meets a woman who, er, comes between him and Belial.

    What is in the basket?

    This is clearly pretty silly stuff, but while there is some sense of perverse humor here, Henenlotter is mostly playing it straight. The other folks at the hotel are colorful, Belial’s an amusing little monster, and Duane is weirdly, like, under-the-top naive. It’s one of those so bad it’s good kinda things here, which is good because it doesn’t really work without that added level of ironic detachment. You really just have to go with the flow on this one. Looking for meaning in these films is probably a fool’s errand, but hey, separation anxiety is a thing, so let’s go with that. The ending gets to be a little on the ridiculous side and one character is unnecessarily dispatched (rumor has it that Henenlotter’s crew walked out on him before filming that scene), which leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth, but then, I’m pretty sure that’s what Henenlotter’s going for. All that being said, this is the “tame one” of his films, so if this is too much for you, you might not want to explore more of his work. I find it impossible to rate these movies, so I’ll just use question marks instead of stars: ??

  • Shivers (trailer)
  • Slither (trailer)
  • Bad Milo (trailer)
  • Brain Damage – This is probably the Platonic ideal of a Henenlotter movie. It’s all here, sleazy melodrama, gross sex metaphors, perverse dark humor, psychadelic drugs, disturbing gore… This movie has it all, and while I wouldn’t say restraint was involved, the elements are kinda proportional here. Brian is just your typical guy with a girlfriend and a roommate… until he unexpectedly encounters a smooth-talking, brain-eating, slug-like parasite named Aylmer.

    Hello Aylmer

    Aylmer injects a highly addictive blue hallucinogen directly into the brain in order to control Brian, who takes Aylmer out to find unwitting victims. It’s an incredibly gross movie, featuring another infamous scene in which Henenlotter’s crew walked out on him (this one much more taboo than the previous instance, I must say), but there’s something at the heart of this movie that kinda clicks. As mentioned above, looking for thematic heft is probably a bad idea, but this is probably a better anti-drug movie than anything kids are likely to see at school. While the budget is still microscopic, this one actually looks pretty good, with some decent shots and not wholly incompetent acting (I mean, it didn’t win any Oscars, but it’s a big improvement over Basket Case). The voice of Aylmer, played by famed television horror host John Zacherle, is utterly brilliant, and it’s a testament to the performance that his generally evil actions don’t seem to matter much. We’re even treated to a quick history of Aylmer, who seems to have originated in the Fourth Crusade (though it’s implied he was a lot older than that) and passed from host to host.

    What is going on here?

    The ending goes to some batshit insane places (including, once again, the death of our protagonist’s girlfriend – one wonders about this recurrent motif in Henenlotter’s work), but the final shot is actually pretty fantastic, even if I have no idea what the hell is going on. ????

  • Bride of Frankenstein (trailer)
  • Frankenstein’s Fiancee (Robot Chicken)
  • Frankenweenie (trailer)
  • Frankenhooker – Yeah, so you know pretty much exactly what you’re in for just from the title alone. A mad scientist’s girlfriend dies in a freak lawnmower accident, so he seeks to bring her back. The only problem is that the lawnmower did a number on her body, so he’ll need to find some more viable parts to rebuild her… but he only has a short time to put all this together, so where’s he going to get the parts? Yep, let’s take a trip to New York and pick up some hookers. A pretty despicable premise actually, but Henenlotter’s in on it this time, and the ironic ending of the film puts a nice cap on it (even if it probably doesn’t actually make up for what came before). Not as balanced or gross as Brain Damage, this one leans pretty heavily on the comedic side of things. There are actually a lot of great lines here, and our mad scientist’s plan to lure crack-addicted hookers to him with his “supercrack” is inspired lunacy (if, again, totally disgusting). Here’s an example of some dialog:

    Jeffreys Mother: Oh Jeffrey! I’m worried about you.

    Jeffrey Franken: Yeah, well so am I, Ma. Something is happening to me that I just don’t understand. I can’t think straight anymore. Like my reasoning is all twisted and distorted, you know? I seem to be disassociating myself from reality more and more each day. I’m antisocial and becoming dangerously amoral. I’ve lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad. I’m scared, Ma. I mean I feel like I’m plunging headfirst into some kind of black void of sheer, utter madness.

    Jeffreys Mother: You want a sandwich?

    And another, from the news broadcaster describing the girlfriend’s demise:

    In a blaze of blood, bones, and body parts, the vivacious young girl was instantly reduced to a tossed human salad… a salad that police are still trying to gather up… a salad that was once named Elizabeth.

    So yes, lots of absurdist dark humor and even one-liners here. What initially seems like a deeply misogynistic is at least somewhat mitigated by the ending, if not completely. Like I said above, looking for meaning here is probably not wise. It’s fun batshit insanity, but yikes. ???

Well that was fun? Lets, uh, take a break from this whole Obscure Horror Auteurs thing and maybe go a little more lighthearted next week, shall we? I’ve got plans for some horror dummies and comedies, and perhaps even a currently playing post in the works. Stay tuned!

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