A striking-looking former Penthouse Pet of the year for 1988, Patty Mullen only appeared in one film of any note, but puts in such a memorably deranged performance of macabre physical comedy during “Frankenhooker”, Frank Henenlotter’s riotous, slapstick, proto-feminist soft-core tribute to drive-in schlock and Grindhouse sleaze, that it would be difficult to imagine her in any other role. Shot back-to-back, on a 12 week schedule with Henenlotter’s disappointing “Basket Case 2”, for a combined total of $5 million put up by former director-turned-producer James Glickenhaus, after Henenlotter plucked the Frankenhooker concept out of thin air when placed on the spot to come up with an idea in Glickenhaus’s office, the film combines John Waters-style bad taste comedy with a surprisingly astute exposé of the dubious misogynist sensibilities seemingly lurking behind some of the practices of the modern-day medical profession. With its implicit objectification and commodification of the female form promoted through the ubiquity of cosmetic surgery, the satire on the industry is made all the more hilariously effective given the fact that the film’s self-styled ‘fixer of the female body’ and male protagonist is a socially maladjusted depressive who failed med school and lives with his mom, rousing himself from secluded bedroom torpor only through routine bouts of self-administered trepanning -- drilling holes into his own head with a power drill to provide him with sufficient stimulus and clarity of mind to create ‘the Centrefold Goddess of the Century’ using the jumbled remains of his dead fiancée and numerous crack-addicted New York prostitutes!
Henenlotter’s influences are laid bare in the opening scene, when failed doctor-turned ‘Bio-Electrical Technician’ Jeffrey Franken (a bravura performance by James Lorinz, who comes across more and more like an increasingly mentally disordered, insomniac Michael J Fox as the film progresses) is shown tinkering with a piece of brain that sports a large, mobile, Cyclopic eye ensconced in its middle – an image filched from the poster art of the 1959 b-movie “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”. The self-involved experimenter is actually conducting his bizarre research in the kitchen of the parents of his obese fiancée, Elisabeth, while they prepare for a special Birthday Barbecue, arranged for her dad in the back garden. The family indulge Jeffrey’s deranged tinkering with the very stuff of life as though it were simply a slightly annoying and obsessive hobby -- like that of a model railways enthusiast. However, Jeffrey has also put his electrical skills to more productive use, inventing a remote controlled lawnmower that unfortunately goes slightly awry when Elisabeth thoughtlessly gets in the way of a demonstration, and gets diced into a million pieces! A year later, and Jeffrey is in a bad way -- endlessly re-watching a prurient local newscast about the incident (secreted inside his copy of the medical student’s essential textbook bible Gray’s Anatomy) in which it is revealed that some of the pieces of the ‘Elisabeth Salad’ seemed to go mysteriously missing soon after the tragedy. Despite the fact that her increasingly anti-social son’s bedroom is decorated in an elaborate smorgasbord of pictorial collages that feature photos of Elisabeth’s head attached to detailed anatomical sketches, Jeff’s doting mom sees little wrong with him that getting back into the dating game wouldn’t put right. But Jeffrey Franken has other plans …
In the garage, he’s built a makeshift laboratory (based on the lab set seen in James Whale’s “The Bride of Frankenstein”) and the freezer unit has been filled up with purple preservative gloop for storing the miscellaneous pieces of Elisabeth collected from the family lawn that fateful day. Every now and then, Jeffrey gets all dressed up in his best jacket and tie and removes Elisabeth’s head, foot, arm and remaining chunks of finger etc., from storage, to accompany him on a romantic dinner date in the house after Mom’s gone to bed. Jeffrey professes his undying love for Elisabeth with wine and flowers; and to prove it, not only does he promise to bring her back to life, he also offers her a choice of possible bodies, assembling hastily created mock-ups in a scrapbook and pasting photocopies of Elisabeth’s head onto a variety of nude centrefold images -- then asking her unresponsive frozen remains to choose which one they’d prefer! This deranged medico-porno-based body shopping had already been presaged earlier when the pre lawnmower-diced Elisabeth (Patty Mullen needed to be encased inside a fat suit for this opening scene) confided to her friend at the birthday party that, though an unqualified medical school dropout, Jeffrey had been helping with her efforts to lose weight for their wedding by stapling her stomach! The head-drilling fruit loop’s helpful scrapbook examples of female pulchritude all seem to owe a great deal to the preferences of the average teenage- or twenty-something male, but Jeffrey still has to deal with the fact that his plan needs other women to die in order for Elisabeth to live again.
So, Jersey boy Jeffrey sets out for the seedier corners of New York City -- with his pockets crammed full of Christmas Club money with which to tempt the Big Apple’s crack whores & hookers, telling the scantily clad, gum-chewing streetwalkers who cluster round the drizzly, graffito-daubed sidewalks of Times Square (sporting names like Angel, Crystal and Chartreuse) that he merely plans to hold a beauty pageant party for his paraplegic brother. Beauty contests are one obvious means of male objectification of women, but the prostitutes have already been horrifically branded with the mark of a preening, iron-pumping pimp called Zorro (the resultant circular scar a grotesque symbol of ownership they appear to accept with the same indifference as they display towards all the other humiliating demands made upon them) – from whom Jeffrey must first seek permission before being allowed half-an-hour to select his preferred examples of female perfection.
There follows an absurd comic sequence, beautifully played by Lorinz -- who’s scatty dialogue and bizarre asides were often born from ad libs earlier worked out in rehearsals -- that manages succinctly to make the feminist point that the female body has become the site of a supermarket checklist of supposed improvements and augmentations in the name of surgical enhancement, while gleefully having it both ways in very obviously revelling in the ensuing opportunities the scene affords for dwelling on the bodies of young, well-endowed former centrefold models and porn stars -- as Lorinz, clad in white coat and wielding a case-full of surgical-looking implements, sets about measuring, cataloguing and comparing the bodies of his potential ‘donors’ in a grotty upstairs New York hotel room, while Zorro paces outside. Earlier, a daytime talk show about the relationship between the prevalence of crack on the streets and the spread of prostitution, provides the motivation (after another round of inspirational power-drill trepanning that is) Jeffrey needs for finding a way to absolve himself of any guilt for his role in the coming deaths of the women whose limbs he must harvest to bring Elisabeth back from the dead. After determining for himself that ‘this stuff is really killing them’ Jeffrey concocts his own brand of ‘super crack’ convincing himself that it’s not his fault if the women who take it end up dying because ‘they would have died anyway’ and ‘I’m just speeding the process up a little bit!’ And anyway, he’s not actually forcing them to take the stuff. They could always ‘just say no!’
The hookers do indeed go wild for the massive bag of this ‘super crack’ they discover in Jeff’s bag -- and even though he attempts to warn them off (having by now recovered from the trepan-induced bout of amorality that led to him concocting the lethal drug in the first place) it’s not long before the deadly mixture takes its bizarre effect, leading to a room full of exploding hookers and one very bemused and angry pimp. ‘One minute they’re my bitches … the next there’s pieces all over!’ bemoans Zorro later in a local dive bar (having recovered from being head-butted by a hurtling exploded hooker’s head). ‘When a man loses his hoes -’ commiserates his sleazy associate – ‘he loses everything!’ Jeffrey, though, has suddenly acquired a host of female body parts, although it’s now more a question of selecting from his smoking, blackened hoard the least charred and deformed for his purposes, than putting together the ultimate female body. The result of his endeavours (after elevating the stitched- and bolted-together corpse above his mom’s garage on a trestle table, in imitation of the 1930s Universal Pictures movie) produces a purple-haired (and purple-nippled, we later learn) clockwork-like figure – a haphazard human jigsaw puzzle of New York hooker bits and pieces, with Elizabeth’s head perched on top. Unfortunately, tottering forward wearing the built-up stacked boots of a Boris Karloff monster (a less than subtle play on the ludicrousness of the stiletto heel as a fashion accessory, perhaps?), and after mimicking Elsa Lanchester’s first moment’s on screen as “The Bride of Frankenstein” (complete with mock wedding bells on the soundtrack), Frankenhooker (Patty Mullen) can only repeat phrases previously uttered by the hookers who now dominate her make-up, primarily the squealed enquiry ‘WANNA DATE?’ quickly followed by ‘GOT ANY MONEY?’
Here’s where the comic silliness of this movie goes into hyper-drive. Despite the cut-up bodies, exploding torsos and flying limbs galore, the movie is never remotely gory and is pitched always as a comic-book b-movie the whole way through, with even its bad taste humour seemingly delivered with a massively arched eyebrow and a camp wink. While the exploding hooker effects involve the extraordinarily seamless replacement of live actresses by their full-body sculptures, created by Henenlotter’s FX wizard Gabe Bartalos, the limbs themselves seem deliberately to mimic the artificial stiffness of store-front mannequin dummies, as if to drum home the unrealistic consumerist nature of the synthetically derived female body image latterly promoted in modern society through glossy magazines and cosmetic surgery. To Jeffery’s horror, Elisabeth’s mind seems to be in ambience as she goes clumping off in search of the hookers’ old clients on Times Square, causing havoc by tossing aside anyone who doesn’t have money to pay for her services. Fans of “The Exterminator” won’t be shocked to see David Lipman turning up again as yet another bespectacled New York sleazebag; this time he gets more than he bargained for after a session with the Frankenhooker that is quite literally explosive. Mullen carries this final act of the movie with aplomb, her exaggerated facial spasms and shrieked roster of rote hooker phrases (‘WANT SOME COMPANY?) a grotesque masterpiece of comic performance, but what Henenlotter has in store for the finale takes the selling of female body parts to its most freakish possible conclusion in a way that makes David Cronenberg’s body horror seem tame: after Jeffrey thoughtlessly dumps the remains of Zorro’s ‘bitches’ in the garage freezer full of preservative, the return of the repressed motif gets played out in its most ghastly form after the congealed body parts emerge, like some absurd tribute to the work of Picasso and Hieronymus Bosch combined, to take revenge on the man who sold them and branded them as his own property. Jeffrey doesn’t escape his comeuppance either, finding his own words delivered back to him verbatum after finding himself on the receiving end of his own experimental techniques with drastic and surreal results.
Available for the first time on Blu-ray, “Frankenhooker” in HD doesn’t come up to anywhere near the usual standards of Blu-ray transfers viewers will be used to -- but it does beat previous blurry DVD releases of this often ill-served flick by some distance. The print from which the transfer is sourced is still awash in speckles and numerous blemishes though, which seems odd given that this is not that old a film in comparison with many of the obscurities Arrow Video have put out in the past. However, the transfer is strong on colour, the purpley candy-neon hues and blue animated electricity-bolt optics really coming over particularly strongly in the latter half of the film. The audio is a vast improvement, too, over previous muddy offerings despite there being only a mono audio option available.
Arrow have really pushed out the boat though when it comes to the extras they’ve included with this release, gathering together a diverse set of both new UK exclusive features and three featurettes carried over from a previous US DVD. After a jokey introduction from Henenlotter and Lorinz, the duo go on to provide a full audio commentary exclusive to the UK Blu-ray (the US Blu-ray seems to offer a different commentary with Henenlotter teaming up with FX artist Gabe Bartalos instead) in which the two manage to keep up a fairly relentless flow of outrageous anecdotes and humorous banter while filling in all the expected background info on the making of the film, despite the directors periodic protestations that he’s run out of stuff to say. Similar ground is covered in the extensive forty-minute ‘making of’ documentary, “Your Date’s on a Plate: the Making of Frankenhooker”, produced by High Rising Productions, but with a much tighter focus than the commentary – here Henenlotter and Lorinz are joined by Gabe Bartalos, interviewed from the make-up room of his FX company’s premises. On both commentary and documentary, Henenlotter recalls the making of the film as one long trial, dominated by the bad atmosphere that blew up between himself and his director of photography Robert M Baldwin (“The Exterminator”). Another UK exclusive feature, lasting 20 minutes, sees Bartalos giving a personal tour of his FX studio accompanied by Calum Waddell, while explaining the kind of work that goes on there on a day to day basis; the place also turns out to be a treasure trove of horror memorabilia that includes the Jason Voorhees hockey mask created by Bartalos for “Friday the 13th Part 6”.
“A Salad That Was Once Named Elizabeth: Patty Mullen Remembers Frankenhooker” is an eight minute featurette in which the still divine-looking and bubbly Patty Mullen is shown in a conversation originally recorded in 2006. Here she reflects on her experiences while working on the movie and reveals she’s still apparently hoping for a sequel. “Turning Tricks: Jennifer Delora Remembers Frankenhooker” reveals the exploitation actress who played breast-baring hooker, Angel, to be something of a bit of a handful who doesn’t pull any punches in her assessment of some of her co-stars, whilst retaining a fierce loyalty to Henenlotter. Delora has plenty of colourful tales from her career in exploitation as well, but comes across as someone you don’t want to get on the wrong side of. “A Stitch in Time: The Make-Up Effects of Frankenhooker” is the last of the three previously released ported-over segments and features a bulkier looking Gabe Bartalos from 2006, explaining the fascinating detail behind how he achieved the bizarre sights which litter the film -- with some interesting behind-the-scenes footage adding much flavour to his explanations. A trailer reel of Frank Henenlotter films and the theatrical trailer for “Frankenhooker” round off the disc contents, but of course this being an Arrow Video release, the extras fun doesn’t stop there: Graham Humphries’ beautiful cover artwork can be reversed and replaced with the original poster art if you so wish, and there’s a free double-sided fold-out poster and an exclusive collectors’ booklet with brand new writing by Calum Waddell to boot (although this wasn’t available for review).
It all adds up to the best ever release of “Frankenhooker” in any format, with Arrow outdoing the latest US Blu-ray release by including oodles of exclusive extra material on top of the stuff both already share. Probably one of the first films to thrive on nostalgia for the good old days of the ‘70s Grindhouse circuit (a sub-genre in itself these days) and the kinds of films it hosted (although it never actually played 42nd Street itself), “Frankenhooker” is too self-aware to cause true offence and delivers its soft-core contents with a soupcon of feminist awareness at its own silliness. This ‘terrifying tale of sluts & bolts’ still holds up surprisingly well, delivering its colourful campy ludicrousness with exemplary assurance and providing an unparalleled showcase for Lorinz and Mullen, who both seem to excel in this outrageous, comedic environment.
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