Frankenhooker (US - BD)
Gabe takes a high definition date with Frank Henenlotter's sleazeterpeice...
When Jeffrey Franken’s (James Lorinz) fiancée Elizabeth (former Penthouse Pet Patty Mullen) is accidentally chopped to pieces by the blades of a remote-controlled lawnmower, he decides to use his dubious medical knowledge to bring her back to life. Jeffery hatches a plan to reassemble his beloved Elizabeth using the body parts of New York City’s finest prostitutes, and resurrect her during a heavy lightning storm. Rather than disassemble the hookers the old fashion way, he develops a ‘super-crack’ that causes the user to explode. Unfortunately, following her resurrection Elizabeth’s brain is scrambled and she runs amok on 42nd Street, turning tricks and bringing high-voltage death to her customers.
New York sleaze meister Frank Henenlotter is not a great filmmaker, but he is a singular filmmaker, and he’s got a lock on his wheelhouse. He is one of a small group of filmmakers (Larry Cohen and Stuart Gordon for example) that can mark themselves as horror/comedy auteurs, and masters of classic camp cinema. Henenlotter’s films don’t exactly cover a wide range of subjects and themes, but he’s great at finding fun, new ways to explore the same exploitation horror, physical deformity, raunchy sex, psychotropic drugs, and the delightfully disgusting creatures that stalked 42nd Street in the early 1980s. Though I own the original Basket Case, and quite enjoyed Brain Damage, I don’t count myself very high among Henenlotter’s fans, and hadn’t seen his Basket Case 2 follow-up, the tastefully entitled Frankenhooker until Synapse sent me this Blu-ray. My only memory of the film was the garish VHS box art that featured a button that would blurt ‘Want a date?!’ when pressed. Well, kind of. Usually the tiny speaker was overused, and kind of broken, so it sounded more like ‘Angga Ate!’.
Frankenhooker is a very Henenlottery take on both Mary Shelly’s classic motifs, and James Whales’ classic visuals, but beyond even that it’s also a pseudo-remake of Mystery Science Theater 3000 favourite The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (which was also informed by Shelly and Whale). As a director Henenlotter is at his best when he’s stuck in dark, dingy corners, or filming on the savage streets of New York, but he shines when filling these stages with eccentric characters, and bathing them in garish colours. I tend to find Henenlotter’s calculated camp brand moves a bit out of my comedy comfort zone, which leads me to consider the film’s basic concept not all that funny, but I enjoy the fact that somebody does. Frankenhooker’s sense of the absurd is relatively amusing too, but it’s the dry interactions, and surprisingly affecting characters that really make the experience. This is what is ultimately special about Henenlotter’s best films, and what sets his (let’s be honest here) unattractive films apart from a very busy low-budget late ‘80s, early ‘90s field (though apparently the budget on this one was somewhere around $2.5 million, which I find hard to believe). Actor James Lorinz gives a sometimes great, but generally uneven, performance that skirts the edge of ostentatious with frantic, sarcastic self-talk that flows so naturally I’m assuming it wasn’t scripted. It might be the best performance in any of the Henenlotter’s films. The rest of the cast is delightfully wooden in that specific fashion the director tends to cherish with thoughtful purpose, including some beguiling cameos from the Basket Case and Brain Damage casts.
The film has a relatively notorious reputation for being particularly dirty, but I think the people that adhere to this haven’t actually seen the film, they just read the box. The ‘unrated’ violence is plenty grotesque, but really more in theory than actual visual practice. For instance, Jeffery often whips out an electric drill to literally bore the morality out of his brain. This is a hideous idea, but the action is staged as ordinary, without any actual gore. Special effects artist Gabe Bartalos’ make-up and technical effects aren’t given much room to shine, at least not compared to Henenlotter’s Basket Case 2 (which was released the same year), where he was given a chance to create a bunch of cartoonish freaks. Eventually the violence picks up with a hilariously bombastic (though not particularly wet) sequence featuring a roomful of whores who take Jeffery’s ‘super crack’, and explode into sparking pieces. The ‘Frankenhooker’ make-up isn’t particularly impressive, but it adds to the strange sense of charm. The finale, which I’d rather not spoil, stops just short of the gnarled, gooey and outrageous practical effects Screaming Mad George produced for Brian Yuzna’s Bride of Re-Animator and Society. I also find the film’s sexuality, which I believe was cut for the R-rated release (which I’ve never seen, but which Henenlotter discusses on the excellent commentary track), relatively innocent to boot. Sure, there’s a lot of nudity, but it’s almost all of the ‘cheesecake’ variety, and outside a few brief shots of folks partaking in particularly icky toilet humping, there isn’t anything approaching actual on-screen sex.
Synapse continues doing its best with some pretty unimpressive source material. This 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer isn’t going to win any awards, and I’m unable to compare it to Unearthed Film’s anamorphic release, but given basic expectations I think there’s little more fans could ask for. Even by Henenlotter’s terms Frankenhooker is pretty unattractive, mostly because it went through three cinematographers, and was made under pretty heavy creative stress. But it’s a really colourful film, and colour tends to work in the film’s favour. The most gaudy lighting designs, which often include a wash of lilac, green and soft blue, are both reasonably clean, and vibrant. The colour schemes are never as bright or clean as, say, Blue Underground’s similarly hued Inferno, but are likely more striking than any DVD release of the film. Detail levels are inconsistent, but this is usually clearly the fault of the material, not the disc’s producers. Shots of the city streets feature generally more depth and variation, and tend to look better than the more stagy shots, which is pretty unusual. The heavily lit and smoky bars, hotel rooms and bathrooms are also comparatively sharp in the detail department. There is plenty of grain if you’re looking for it, but not an excess of the stuff, and the frequency of grain is relatively consistent. There are some minor aliasing effects, and edge haloes, but even the most excessive red-caked scenes are generally clear of digital compression artefacts and other impurities.
Synapse has done their best to reconstruct this 2.0 mix as a 5.1 mix, but the effect is a little strange. The disc’s producers have also included the 2.0 mix for comparison’s sake, and both tracks are presented in the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio format. The 2.0 track is a bit fuller, and features more natural element separation, but is also noticeably distorted at high volume points. The 5.1 mix is cleaner, and features more consistent overall volume levels, though it to is a bit inconsistent in terms of dialogue clarity. The 5.1 track doesn’t feature too many artificial sounding additions, outside of the more widely-stretched electronic noise, which is definitively artificial in the first place. Even during the noisiest scenes, like the one where the hookers strip and scream a bunch while smoking the super-crack, are generally centered outside of musical influences. Of course, the following scene where the women explode features a fair number of directional effects as body parts blast throughout the room. Joe Renzetti’s surprisingly layered and effective electronic score sounds significantly better on the 5.1 track. It’s cleaner, warmer, and features a more rounded bass feel. The stereo field isn’t all that much more impressive, but also doesn’t suffer from the minor audio bleeds found on the 2.0 track.
All the extras here were previously available on Unearthed Films’ special edition DVD release, and begin with a commentary track featuring writer/director Frank Henenlotter and special effects make-up artist Gabe Bartalos. Henenlotter is the main attraction here, and orders Bartalos, who acts as straight man/interviewer for most of the track, to cut in when he needs to say something about the effects. The pacing is fast and furious, with Henenlotter cutting through the entire production of the film with utter ease and a wonderful sense of storytelling. There’s surprisingly little on the internet about the film’s production (save maybe reviews, which I wanted to avoid in case they swayed me too much), so as a new comer I found the track incredibly educational. For instance, Henenlotter never wanted Frankenhooker to be a horror film, which lead him to exploding the prostitutes with super-crack, rather than having Jeffery rip them apart. I also learned that the film was pitched on the spot when producer James Glickenhaus politely told the director the other script he was trying to sell was unfilmable. This fun, and infectiously energetic also acts as a decent marker for the footage cut for the R-rating.
Next up are a series of interviews, starting with ‘A Salad That Was Once Named Elizabeth’ (8:50, SD), an interview with actress Patty Mullen, who recalls her experience on the film, including her opinions on Henenlotter, the fun of the role, and basic trials and tribulations. ‘A Stitch In Time: The Make-Up Effects Of Frankenhooker’ (21:00, SD) features effects artist Bartalos discussing his part on the film, and his history with Henenlotter. Bartalos appears to have set the camera up himself throughout his workshop, and in local a strip club, and basically interviews himself. A lot of behind the scenes video footage and continuity stills are spliced in with the discussion, a some of which feature sound. ‘Turning Tricks’ (19:30, SD) features actress Jennifer Delora basically interviewing herself, and buoyantly talking about her part in the film. She refers to herself as the best character in the film, and complains about the other actors way too much, but you forgive her hubris because…well, I’m not sure, she’s somehow amusing? Delora apparently took a lot of photos on set, and though some are included with the interview, the bulk are delegated to ‘The Jennifer Delora Photo Gallery’ (11:20, SD) – a narrated slideshow. All of the interviews begin with the an audio sync issue that is corrected a few seconds in. The extras end with the original theatrical trailer.
Frankenhooker isn’t going to convert anyone that has already decided they don’t like Frank Henenlotter’s film, and it isn’t the best place for those unfamiliar with his work to start (that would be Basket Case or Brain Dead), but it’s a fun enough camp comedy exercise, and more entertaining than I was expecting. Synapse has done as good a job as any of us could’ve expected from the source material, and there are both 5.1 and original 2.0 sound mixes to enjoy. Extras aren’t super-extensive, but do include an adorable commentary track with Henenlotter and make-up effects artist Gabe Bartalos.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 8th November 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English
Extras: Director and SFX Artist Commentary, A Salad that was Once Named Elizabeth, A Stitch in Time, Turning Tricks, Photo Scrapbook, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Frank Henenlotter
Cast: James Lorinz, Patty Mullen, Louise Lasser
Genre: Comedy and Horror
Length: 85 minutes
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