Thanks to our friends over at FromDuskTillCon.com, I got the chance to interview one of my heros, Frank Henenlotter. The creative genius behind some of my all time favorite films including Basket Case Brain Damage and Frankenhooker. He’s also responsible for helping keep trash cinema alive through Something Weird Video. Here., we take a look back at his classics, his most recent work, and what he has in store for his fans.
The Primal Root: As a young man I know you spent your formative years taking in the thrills to be had at the 42nd Street grindhouses. For those of us born far too late to take in these legendary theaters could you describe the experience for us? What was it like going to these theaters and taking in what are now beloved trashy exploitation classics?
Frank Henenlotter: Try to imagine a block in New York City in which both sides of the street were lined with movie theaters, one after another, and every one of those theaters was showing double or triple features promising sex and violence. In between the theaters was a scattering of stores, most notably porno stores (or, before the days of porn, “adult bookstores”). It was, of course, absolute paradise.
TPR: Growing up on a steady diet of these films which titles come to mind as your major influences? What movies or filmmakers got you interested in creating your own pictures?
FH: It was all of it. Not just a couple of memorable movies, but memorable moments in hundreds and hundreds of movies. And, just as exciting as the movies, were the come-ons: the one-sheets, the photos and, most notably, plywood archways that were fitted around the entrance to the theater lobbies decorated with blown-up photos from the film, usually enhanced with painted-on blood, and simple words like “Shock!” “Lurid!” and, of course, “Sex!” Gateways to the soiled treasures unspooling within.
TPR: The first time I saw Basket Case was on an old worn out VHS tape. I was a kid at the time and it immediately turned me into a fan of excessive violence, toilet humor and deformed freaks of nature. Needless to say, the effect was profound. What was the genesis of this project?
FH: Edgar Ievins had seen a couple of my homemade movies and suggested we do a feature-length film. And we decided to make a horror film since that seemed commercially safe at the time. Meaning, no matter how bad it turned out, it could at least play 42nd Street.
TPR: What still amazes me about Basket Case when I go back and watch it is not only how well it holds up but there’s still a very touching emotional core to the film. Basket Case is a film with a lot of heart. Was this part of your plan all along or did it develop as the movie went into production?
FH: It wasn’t really a plan. I just had a good visual in mind: a man carrying around a basket from which a monster would leap out when people opened it. The trouble was, *why*? Why would anyone carry around a monster in a basket? One night, while eating hot dogs in a Nathan’s in Times Square, it occurred to me that maybe they were brothers. That provided the answer and the hook and whatever emotion the film has.
TPR: Rex Reed’s quote from his review of Basket Case, “The Sickest movie I have ever seen…” was used in the marketing campaign for the film itself which was a stroke of genius. Was this your idea to turn what some might call bad publicity into a selling point?
FH: I had nothing to do with that. Analysis Films, the first distributor of Basket Case, had a good relationship with Reed and simply asked him for a quote since they knew he had seen the film at Cannes. And he provided that quote which, of course, was a great one.
TPR: Some have said Basket Case was the last great Drive-In / Grindhouse film. Did you have the pleasure of watching your film with a 42nd Street crowd? How was the experience?
FH: By the time Basket Case played 42nd Street it had already been in release for two and a half years on the midnight circuit, and slowly playing around the country for another two years, and I was sick of seeing it so I didn’t see it play on The Street. Instead, I was thrilled with how the theater was dressed with a garish plywood archway, full of spattered blood, which also gave away the plot: “His brother is a deformed twin!”
TPR: Kevin Van Hentenryck is really a stand-out as Duane. He makes the character completely believable despite his insane predicament. Did Kevin get the character right away? What kind of direction did you give him?
FH: Kevin immediately got the character of Duane. I don’t remember giving Duane must direction other than us working out individual shots and bits of business. He nailed Duane immediately and I remember constantly chuckling at how hilariously innocent he played him.
TPR: I’ve heard rumors that your crew walked off the set during the filming of one of Basket Case’s more grisly scenes. What exactly happened? Have you ever had to deal with a crew walking off the set since?
FH: Yeah, that’s true. We were shooting the scene where the monster humps the girl at the end. At first, nobody on the crew seemed to be bothered by it. Actually, just the opposite since Terri Susan Smith was lying there naked. But when I added the blood to Miss Smith’s groin, everyone got upset and pissed off and… I don’t know. It seems as crazy now as it did then. But they ended up walking off which was fine with me ‘cause I wasn’t about to wipe the blood off. So it was shot with just me, the two actors – Terri Susan Smith and Kevin Van Hentenryck – and Edgar Ievins under the mattress making Belial work. Virtually the same thing happened on Brain Damage with the “blow job” scene. Fine. Leave the set. And while you’re at it, go fuck yourselves.
TPR: So there’s a big Basket Case reunion coming up in September as part of the Horror Realm Convention. Beverly Bonner, Kevin Van Hentenryck and Terri Susan Smith will all be attending. How long has it been since you’ve hung out with the original cast? Do you have fond memories of working on the film with this group?
FH: I’ve always stayed in touch with Kevin and Beverly. As you probably know, Beverly’s appeared in every film including the latest, Bad Biology. Earlier this year, I was even a guest in one of Beverly’s “Gloria Glitter” comedy shows which was my first and last stab at live theater. And both Kevin and Beverly came to my 60th birthday party this past August 30. I wish I was doing a project I could have them both in again.
TPR: Your follow-up film was 1988’s Brain Damage about a young man named Brian who becomes dependant on an evil, blue, well spoken parasite named Aylmer. The film packs a pretty heavy message about drug abuse and addiction while also mixing in the gory, sick, toilet humor elements that make your films so enjoyable. What was the inspiration behind Brain Damage?
FH: Well, I liked how Duane and Belial interacted and I thought I could do a variation on it, this time with a monster that lives on the young man’s body rather than in a basket. But the same question arose: why would anyone willingly let a monster live on them? Even creepier, why would someone *want* a monster living on them? Came up with dozens of reasons I hated until one day I thought of addiction, especially since I was having problems with a nasty cocaine habit.
TPR: Rick Hearst gives a tremendous performance as Brian. How did you end up casting him and how was he to work with?
FH: Frank Calo, the casting director on Brain Damage, found him and, yes, Rick was perfect. This was his first film and he nailed it beautifully especially since it wasn’t a particularly easy part to play. I’d love to see him again. These days he stars on soaps and keeps winning Emmys.
TPR: Aylmer looks to be a bit more complex than the Belial puppet from Basket Case. Did this present you with a whole slew of new challenges during the production?
FH: Belial was basically a hand puppet. But Elmer (yes, technically “Aylmer” but I’m used to calling him Elmer by now) was an animatronic puppet that was operated by various cables and levers, all put together by Davd Kindlon and Gabe Bartalos. The main problem with Elmer was that it made all sorts of metallic noises, so much so that we had to dub all the dialogue when Aylmer was onscreen. Dave and Gabe also built an oversize Elmer head for closeups.
TPR: I’ve heard rumors that some scenes were cut out of the film altogether on its initial release. What scenes were the MPAA having issues with? Is the current DVD release of the film your cut?
FH: Well, the producers wanted an alternate unrated version for vhs release. That’s why I shot the blowjob and ear pull scene. I never expected that to get an R. But when the film was acquired by Cinema Group Pictures, they hated the film, wanted nothing to do with an unrated version and, anticipating trouble with the MPAA, made a whole bunch of cuts before even submitting the film. Once the MPAA saw it, they wanted more cuts. So the theatrical version as well as the version initially released on Paramount vhs was heavily heavily cut. The version currently on dvd is, finally, the uncut unrated version.
TPR: John Zacherle as the voice of Aylmer was a perfect piece of casting. His voice is so good-natured and disarming you can’t help but feel like you can trust the little guy. Not to mention, it also provides some comic relief. Did you have John in mind all along? What did he think of Brain Damage?
FH: While writing the script, I kept hearing the voice of veteran actor Ronald Colman – a friendly, intelligent, soothing voice that someone might blindly follow. However, Colman was long dead and certainly wouldn’t have done it even if he were still alive. So I went to an agent that specialized in voices. He asked me if I’d ever heard of Zacherly and I almost passed out. I grew up with Zacherly on TV. His show was where I watched my first horror films. I’m embarrassed that I hadn’t thought of him at first. Naturally, I jumped at working with him and it was a joy. He’s an absolute delight. So much so that I also had him do an on-screen bit in Frankenhooker. I never asked him what he thought of the film. I never ask any of the actors because… well, it’s kind of moot.
TPR: The ending of Brain Damage is still one of my favorite endings of all time. Just thinking about it gives me chills. Where did you come up with this image and how did you know this was how the film had to end?
FH: While writing the script for Brain Damage, I wasn’t sure how to end it. One night I was listening to the album Real Life by Magazine. When I heard the song “The Light Pours Out of Me,” I thought, “Yes! That’s my ending!” So you have Howard Devoto to thank for it.
TPR: Frankenhooker is one of the sleaziest exploitation titles I’ve ever heard. So, did the title come first and then the script?
FH: Edgar Ievins and I were up at Jim Glickenhaus’ office discussing another project with him. But he thought that project was extremely uncommercial so asked me what other ideas I had. I didn’t have any other ideas so I just started making up the plot to Frankenhooker. And Jim kept laughing so I kept making it up until finally he asked me what I wanted to call it. I panicked and quickly started running titles through my head at lightning speed: “Frankenwhore? No. Frankenslut? Awful. Frankenprostitute? Hell, no. Frankenhooker? Uh… yeah! Frankenhooker!”
TPR: When I watched Frankenhooker for the first time I couldn’t help but notice some overtones of Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator. Was there a little bit of an influence there as well as some others?
FH: Well, I loved Re-Animator and From Beyond. But we tried to go in a non-graphic, non-bloody direction in the vain hopes of escaping an X rating. So in some ways, I was consciously going in the opposite direction of how Gordon may have done things. It was all rather pointless, of course, since the MPAA still gave Frankenhooker an X rating. In fact, they hated the film. Richard Hefner, then the head of the MPAA, famously called executive-producer Jim Glickenhaus’ office and said to his secretary, “Congratulations. You have the first film rated S.” The secretary was confused, “S? You mean S as in sex,” she asked. “No,” replied the head of the MPAA, “S as in ‘shit’”! Which gives you some idea of the kind of ugly bullshit operation the MPAA was in those days.
TPR: Patty Mullen in the title role is a fucking hoot to watch and has become a bit of an icon in trash cinema circles. How did you end up casting Patty and how was she to work with?
FH: Patty heard about it, came in to audition, and I loved her right away. She was sexy and, at the same time, had that girl-next-door innocence. Plus, she could play comedy! And she was a joy to work with. Every so often she calls me out of the blue and she never says, “Hi.” Instead, she says, “Wanna date? Going out? Looking for some action?”
TPR: The infamous Super Crack sequence. How was that to film and did it turn out as well as you had hoped? Because that scene, exploding hookers and all, is pure magic.
FH: It turned out great. We really didn’t know what would happen. I mean, the artificial bodies Gabe Bartalos created were filled with explosives and what happened happened. At times, flaming hooker debris rained down on me and the crew while filming. The exploding hookers is the favorite scene from any of my films. I never tire of watching it.
TPR: Bad Biology marked your return to film after a decade of absence from the scene. How did you know this had to be your comeback project?
FH: I didn’t. It just happened to be the script I wrote with producer (and legendary rapper R.A. The Rugged Man). Once we decided to go non-mainstream, it just flowed.
TPR: Bad Biology seems to bring your full circle back to body deformation. First it was Siamese twins in Basket Case, now it’s a woman with seven clitorises and a man with an enormous detachable cock with a mind of its own. When and how did you come up with the concept for the story and its religious angle? What were you saying about faith by giving Jennifer a divine purpose?
FH: That’s somewhat complicated. But I’m sick of hearing the Holier-Than-Thou’s out there tell us what isn’t sexually permissible, who cannot marry who, and what can or cannot be done in the privacy of one’s own bedroom. They make it sound as if God is anti-sex which can’t be true since God created the world’s first penises and vaginas. The whole flow of nature is based on procreation so God is very very pro-sex. Taking that a step further, I thought what if a woman born with seven clits is not an aberration but, rather, a deliberate and holy act of God. The next step in human evolution. Hell, if He can make Adam and Eve, He can make a Penis Baby.
TPR: It seems like there might be more to tell with the story of Bad Biology. Can we expect to see a sequel or have you sworn off those? Will Penis Boy one day run into Belial?
FH: Basket Case 3 permanently ended the thought of any sequels in my future.
TPR: Where can fans find a copy of your retrospective film Herschell Gordon Lewis: Godfather of Gore? I can think of no person more fitting of paying tribute to the man who changed cinema forever with Blood Feast.
FH: The documentary will be released next year through Image Entertainment. In the meantime, it’s playing various festivals: Sept. 24 at the Somerville Theatre in Boston; Sept. 26 at the Philadelphia Film & Music Festival; October 10 at “It Came from Schenectady”; October 12 at The Cinefamily in Los Angeles; October 23 at the “Buffalo Screams Horror Film Festival” in Buffalo; November 12-13 at the “Buried Alive Film Festival” in Atlanta. And probably some others I don’t know about.
TPR: Exploitation and sleaze fans owe you a huge debt of gratitude for helping keep our favorite films alive with Something Weird Video. Can you tell us about the company and what you have in store for the future?
FH: I was recently pulling clips for a new documentary Something Weird is making, That’s Sexploitation, and a friend came over. I was sitting on the floor surrounded by pages and pages of notes and on the TV monitor were naked girls. My friend just looked at me and said, “You’ve got the greatest job in the world.” And he’s right. The company belongs to Mike Vraney but I got involved with it in the early 90s doing all sorts of things. In addition to two new documentaries we’re making, we’ve also got some new projects in the works with Image Entertainment including Blu-rays of Blood Feast and Basket Case. I’ll be doing a Hi-Def transfer of Basket Case early next year from the original 16mm camera negative which we thought lost. So the film should look a lot brighter and cleaner than it’s ever looked before.
TPR: The majority of your films were ridiculed by most mainstream critics but over time your films, Basket Case, Brain Damage, and Frankenhooker have all grown into cult classics with impressive followings. Do you feel a bit of vindication knowing now that your films are loved and understood by so many?
FH: What’s more important to me than the critics is how many people still love the old films. I honestly thought they were forgotten about. I was very reclusive for a good many years but making Bad Biology brought me back to the world of the living. Part of my reemergence was to go to festivals with the film. And I was floored when fans showed up with posters and videos and photos for me to sign. What I had forgotten was that a whole generation grew up on vhs and my films were part of that. So that really surprised me. Stunned me, actually. So I’ve made an effort to be more accessible which is why I’m attending Horror Realm, Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors, and going on Facebook.
TPR: What do you plan on working on next? Now that you’ve made Bad Biology are there any other stories you would like to tell? Because your fans are always champing at the bit for your next film.
FH: I don’t like to talk about future projects other than to say there are two I’d like to do and both are extremely different from the others I’ve done. In fact, one isn’t even a horror film.
TPR: Do you have any advice for young filmmakers setting forth and trying to create their own strange, sleazy film epics? Any words of wisdom to the new generation of filmmakers you’ve inspired?
FH: Oh, God. The last thing they need is advice from a guy who took 16 years between films. But, unlike me, if they’re serious, they’ve got to keep busy. Which means you’ve got to keep making things. And not just on video. Film is a very different medium and far more rewarding than video. But whatever you’re shooting on, keep shooting. Keep making ‘em.
Frank, it’s been an honor and an absolute pleasure talking with you. Take care of yourself and thanks for taking the time to talk with us here at the Trash Cinema Collective. Stay Trashy!