Frank Henenlotter made his first feature, the 42nd street classic (and possibly one of the last of truly great exploitation films from the 80s) Basket Case. With crude stop-motion animation and a highly downbeat ending with the concept of brotherly love twisted on its head the film screamed cult classic to me. It felt (during my first viewing) like a dirty little secret, almost as though I was not supposed to watch it , I mean any film that centers around a man carrying his deformed twin in a large wicker basket and known as the “Bradley Twins” (who are murdering the doctors that originally separated them), is not going to be a “normal” viewing experience.
The low budget and use of rundown grimy interiors just adds to the cheap appeal of the feature which contains a certain appeal through its crudeness and generally dark comic tone , due in part to the over the top violence. The particularly unperfected stopmotion to animate the deformed Belial in several instances (which Henenlotter admitted to not having the patience for) again adds to the low budget charm and for me includes something oddly compulsive as he goes on a killing rampage for vengeance. As high concept exploitation films go it’s a simplistic concept but one which works amazingly well within its limited budget, still remaining one of the best examples of a trashy horror classic.
It took Henenlotter 6 years before he released yet another cult classic this time with Brain Damage and in my opinion is the best of his directorial features (and certainly his most accomplished). There is no difficult second feature syndrome here. The story concerns that of Brian who, while ill in bed has an alien like slug attach its self to him, injecting Brian’s brain with a blue hallucinogenic fluid causing him to trip out and see bright lights. But like any kind of drug dealer Elmer (or Almer as he is revealed to be called) only allows Brian another hit if he takes Elmer for a “walk” or to correctly put it find hapless victims he can suck the brains out of while Brian trips the light fantastic. It isn’t long before Brian clocks on to his plan, but is he powerless to stop Elmer from taking Brains?
The film has an interesting take on drug addiction particularly concerning a campy horror film made in 1988, and even more interesting that Henenlotter decides to use the calming tones of veteran creature feature host John Zacherle for Elmer.
The little tete-a-tete between Brian and Almer (during the formers need to kick the habit) is as engrossing as any of Henenlotter’s other scenes within the film. It is clear he has an eye for interesting character. His sly and dry wit shines through his scripts, particularly in the case of Brain Damage (his sophomore effort) with its allegory on drug addiction mixed with a side order of satirical humor.
There is one truly glorious un-pc moment that generates more laughs then disgust (certainly is the case on repeat viewings), as it concerns Brian in a New York club under the influence of the blue fluid. He suddenly gets the attention a local clubber leading to a making out session, but with a difference just as she is about to give him a “happy ending” Elmer shoots out of his trousers and straight into her mouth causing her to go backwards and forwards as he eats her brain from inside.
The effect is amplified with the use of blood and slime make-up, some could see this in poor taste , but the effect is so funny to behold that in all seriousness it ultimately adds to the camp appeal of this particular B-movie. All of which is combined with a brief cameo by Dwayne Bradley and his mysterious wicker basket, adding to what truly make this a campy genre classic
In 1990 he released the darkly comical Frankenhooker, his take on the frankenstein myth this time focusing on a young man whose girlfriend is killed in an unfortunate lawnmower accident. He decides to reassemble her from various parts of , yes you guessed it , street hookers. Cue comical pimps, explosive crack and a purple haired monster wondering the streets of New York constantly saying; “Wanna date?” or “Got any money?”. It as though it is a completely different beast to the previous Brain Damage, feeling more intentionally broad with its dark humor. One particular scene has Jeffery having a twisted dinner date with the head, arm and foot of his dismembered girlfriend, commenting on how radiant she looks. It just shows how fantastically warped Henenlotter is with his execution of visual sight gags and wordplay.
Basket Case 2 followed in the same year (both features subsequently filmed back to back as part of a 2 picture deal) and it becomes clear that the emphasis is less on horror and more on humor. Replaying the final moments of the original, the Bradley twins having survived the fall from the hotel room. Dwayne and Belial awake from their joint coma, as they escape the hospital confines they are picked up by Granny Ruth and her granddaughter Susan.
Finally they are taken to a safe haven for similar ‘special individuals’, but their once safe existence is jeopardized they have to fight to keep themselves hidden from the public view. It also contains one of the most foul and downright un-pc sex scenes ever committed to film, as Belial gets his grove on with the similarly deformed Eve. Dwayne also gets a potential love interest in the form of Susan, but is she really as normal as she seems? Well in a Henenlotter film that is rarely the case.
It does contain a few moments of darkly comic violence that hark back to the original, as well as a interesting reference to Tod Brownings Freaks (with the dastedely news-reporter getting physically deformed by Belial). It also ends on a warped and perversely twisted ending, as Dwayne decides in a fit of hysteria (after accidentally killing Susan by pushing her out of a window) to solve his problems is sow his brother back onto his body. We are left with Dwayne bleeding and laughing manically at his successful, DIY operation.
Thankfully fans (and believe me there are a few for Henenlotter) only had to wait for a year before the third and so far final Basket Case film was released (aka Basket Case 3 : The Progeny ). This installment seems to bypass the more horror-like elements and dark humor in favor of gross-out belly laughs. The premise is undeniably silly, even by Henenlotter’s standards as Belial’s girlfriend Eve becomes pregnant and all of Granny Ruth’s ‘Special Individuals’ take a road-trip for the birth event. Turns out Granny Ruth’s son is also of the freakish variety and along with her ex-husband they are the only set of people who specialize in this type of abnormal pregnancy.
In the mean time Dwayne has been in isolation from the rest of the freaks, due to his minor breakdown in the second film. He eventually gets arrested and sadistically teased by the local sheriff’s dominatrix-like daughter. Convinced these freaks are bringing disorder to the quiet town he steals Belial’s pups (because they are certainly not children) and kills Eve. Understandably Belial is rather upset as he goes on a kill crazy rampage to get his offspring and brother back.
While it is far from his best feature his does contain some notable moments of over the top make-up effects (the police station massacre is one such highlight), as well as a interesting take on Belial taking on the sheriff in a custom made robot. For all of its faults it does contain a few worthwhile elements, but as an ending to a trilogy it is probably the weakest entry.
It took a long over due 15 years before Henenlotter got back behind the camera for Bad Biology (he had spent the intervening years lecturing and setting up his own video label). Many fans thought it lacked that certain something that was present within his earlier work. For yours truly it was welcomed with blood splattered open arms, it felt as decidedly twisted and perverse as anything the great man had made before. After Basket Case 3 it certain feels like vintage Frank.
The demented story concerns two star crossed lovers who don’t actually know of each others existence, but are a physical match made in heaven (or hell if you rather). Jennifer is cursed with having multiple clitorises which is dangerous for any man when she orgasms (usually resulting in a small case of death for the young gentlemen). Unfortunately this leads her to being mostly unfulfilled by any sexual contact, that is until we are introduced to Batz. A young man who, after an accident at birth, cursed with a small penis. That is until he starts injecting it with growth hormones and steroids, leading to an over grown, uncontrollable trouser snake which detaches it self from his body looking for women.
This is probably one of the only horror features in recent memory which uses stop-motion animation (so prominent in Henelotter’s earlier work) for its creature effects. It reeks of a throwback to 80s high concept horror and it is all the better for it. Its disturbing, nauseatingly funny at points and quite possibly Henelotter’s third best feature. Those with a love for the sick, twisted and unashamedly stupid will revel in its balls to the wall brilliance.
I just hope that Frank decides to make another feature soon and not leave it 15+ years before we (as cult film fans and horror enthusiasts) are blessed with another of his twisted delights. For those who have yet to view any of his work seek it out and find what you have been missing that feels fresh within the horror genre. For this cult film fan, Henenlotter is the soul reason I am so enamored with cult film now. I tip my hat to you good sir.
How is Dominic O’Brien?
Dominic O’Brien is a film school graduate and cult film fanatic. He seeks to find the strangest and unintentionally hilarious cult films ever committed to celluloid. It was while at university his passion for the more obscure taste in film really began to flourish. He only started blogging to pass the time after graduating but now finds he enjoys it a little too much. Currently he writes for his own film blog which covers all genres of film as well as writing for various other film sites.