Saturday, October 13, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 13: Frankenhooker

October 13th: Frankenhooker (1990)

Once in elementary school a kid told me that he and his cousin had cut up a Playboy magazine in order to construct the “perfect woman.” This seemed really strange to me at the time, as I imagined attractive parts actually looking rather nightmarish when combined. Well, perhaps Henenlotter once did the same thing; if he didn’t, he gets to do it here. Protagonist Jeffrey Franken (get it?) is a failed surgeon who works at a power plant in New Jersey. When his fiancĂ©e dies in a freak lawn-mower accident, he gets to construct a new and improved version of Elizabeth Shelley (get that one too?) from scratch, utilizing his unique skill-set. Since most of Liz (Patty Mullen) is chewed to bits, he has only her severed head to work with. Jeff’s problem (and—in his mind—an opportunity) is that he needs to find replacement parts somewhere.

One thing that’s always struck me about Henenlotter is that his films are extremely economical. Here, you know all you need to know before the title card, and the rest of Frankenhooker is open for gags, gore, and plenty of stray ideas. Henenlotter here seems concerned with the same themes present in Brain Damage and Basket Case, and elaborates these ideas further and with greater clarity. Also, the tone of this film is quite different. The laughs are more genuine here, as the bleak tone of Basket Case is completely absent. This is a wild and thrilling film, well-paced and bursting with gross-out humor. The budget is also considerably higher, thanks to the investment of producer James Glickenhaus, the director of Exterminator, who brought much of his regular crew along.

The point is clearly made here that while Jeff wants his girlfriend back, he also sees her accident as a perverse opportunity to construct his own super-model fantasy. Jeffrey is a flawed character, but Henenlotter still clearly wants us to like him in spite of this. As Dr. Franken, James Lorinz isn’t a great actor, but he’s well cast here. Henenlotter’s protagonists are never played by the most talented performers, he seems to cast for some schlubbish quality rather than chops, which is fine. It works. While Jeffrey is quite average in many ways, there’s a heightened strangeness about him that Lorinz conveys nicely. How many mild-mannered med-school drop-outs regularly drill holes in their cranium to stimulate creative thought? This trepidation motif is nicely carried over from Brain Damage.

Come to think of it, Henenlotter’s protagonists are all well-meaning but totally selfish obsessives, dedicated to one strange goal: Duane in Basket Case is wholly devoted to the well-being of his brother Bilal; Brian in Brain Damage needs the parasite Aylmer to get high. Jeffrey’s quest to bring Liz back from the dead is both pathetic and touching. In his single-mindedness he never pauses to question his true motives. In one hilarious scene Jeff asks Liz’s severed head: “Honey can’t you picture yourself in this body, kneeling on ma’s couch in the basement?”, while pointing to a centerfold model. His world-view, like much in Henenlotter’s world, is candidly low-rent.

Where does Jeff go to find the “spare parts” he needs? Across the bridge to NYC of course, Henenlotter’s home and creative inspiration. Jeffrey sets out to find a half dozen prostitutes, whom together have the different body parts he needs. Jeff is conflicted in that he isn’t a murderer, but his stubborn determination forces him to rationalize and justify any wrong-doing on his part as an unfortunate necessity. “I can’t feel guilty now. I just wanna make life” He tells himself. In order to feel that he is not responsible, Jeff sets up a scenario so that he himself does not have to perform the act himself, he merely has to create the ideal circumstances. He finds an ally in the bane of the film’s prostitutes: crack cocaine. Jeff synthesizes a “super-crack” which causes the smoker to explode into a heap of junk limbs. Carrying a bag full of eviscerated bodies to his trunk, he promises he’ll bring them all back once he’s got Liz among the living.

With the introduction of crack into the film, a clear line is traced from the anti-drug themes of Brain Damage. While Brain Damage feels a bit short-sighted and reactionary, Henenlotter adds layers of complexity to what it still essentially the same argument here. While in Brain Damage avoiding Aylmer’s addictive juice is simply an act of initial will power, here the message is matured. Henenlotter admits the solution to the problem of addiction is much bigger than “Just Say No.” Jeffrey even, in a moment of intentional ignorance, even recites the slogan. Jeffrey himself, however, is an addict: he’s addicted to his power drill. He also uses drugs to manipulate others, and is mirrored by the pimps who populate the film.

Once he has the raw material, Jeff assembles Elizabeth and sends her on a raised platform into a raging storm. In a technically impressive scene, bolts of lightning bring the patchwork Liz back into the living world. She looks quite monstrous of course, her skin a mosaic of different color tones and textures, stitched together with huge medical staples. He hair is also bright purple, somehow changed by the bolt. Patty Mullen as zombie-Liz is both attractive and repulsive, much like Elsa Lanchester as the original Bride of Frankenstein.

Unfortunately for Jeffrey, she’s not the Liz he once knew, as all the women he murdered to recreate her have lent her pieces of their psyches as well as their bodies. She becomes a kind of ur-prostitute, bent only on drugs and money. Her mad mission is parallel to Jeff’s, in fact. Her mantra: “Got any money?” All of her lines are actually cribbed dialog from earlier in the film. As there is an unusual amount of characterization for a genre film, its even possible to notice individual personalities bubbling to the surface. Re-animated Liz leaves Jeff baffled and heads for New York, her clunking Frankenstein pumps a nice touch. The following scenes are great: sleazy, neon and wonderfully time-stamped (the Batman logo is everywhere).

(spoilers in this section)

After Jeff finds Liz he re-zaps her and manages to momentarily bring back the woman he knows and loves. In the film’s smartest scene, she chides Jeff for his mad quest, and realizes that his selective reconstruction has afforded him certain chauvinistic luxuries, granted without her consent or approval. This moment is short-lived however, as what follows is not only the film’s climax but its goriest moment. Sadistic pimp “Zorro” has followed Jeffrey home, and has finally figured out what happened to his “employees.” Zorro (Joseph Gonzalez from Brain Damage), in a surprising moment, cuts Jeff’s head clean off. After this, Jeff’s storage tank flips over, and the reconfigured prostitutes from earlier in the film spill into frame. Don’t ask how, but the parts have assembled themselves into monstrosities Brian Yuzna may have taken note of. Here the effects come courtesy of Henenlotter collaborator Gabe Bartoloz. The flesh-beasts drag Zorro into the tank and close the lid, leaving the rest to the viewer’s imagination.

(major spoiler here)

In the film’s final moment (which is also the final gag), Liz reconstructs Jeff. But since his mystery serum is estrogen-based (did I forget to mention that?), she needs the leftover parts of women to bring him back to life. Jeff’s lesson is learned here via his castration; it’s a great gag, yes, but it also sums up the entire film in a really smart way. Jeffrey’s quest to create the perfect woman at the expense of all others is reversed; he himself must become that ideal woman. Roles here are also reversed. While I don’t think Henenlotter is that deep, this scene brings into question the validity of essentialist ideas about men and women, at least implicitly. So much of 80s horror is informed by Reagan’s mad rule. While Frankenhooker was filmed in ‘89, as Reagan had left office, he feels present here. While Henenlotter has intelligent things to say here about the failed war on drugs, his strongest move is to cut the predatory yuppie male’s dick off.

It’s clear from the relatively few films Henenlotter directed that he knows his craft. If things had gone a different route, he could have parlayed his low-budget, less-is-more visionary talents to mainstream success, like Raimi or Jackson. He stayed true to his roots instead, putting his time into Something Weird, unearthing lost cult films for DVD. While I find much of Something Weird to leave a sour taste, I admire his commitment. A look on IMDb reveals he’s completed work on a curious new picture, one co-written by shock-rapper R.A. the Rugged Man and featuring many underground-rap stalwarts. While I now find Vinnie Paz and Reef’s faux-underground gun rap unbearable, I would have been hyped up if this film came out five years ago, when I couldn’t get enough of underground “horror-core” hip-hop. We’ll see.

Slime City tomorrow! Black Roses soon!

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