In last week’s post on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s excellent City of Lost Children, Adam mentioned that the cover art of the VHS tape is what led him to rent and enjoy this highly original cult classic. At one time or another, I would have to believe that this has happened to every cinephile. When it comes to film, adventure is in our blood and I, of course, am no different. Giving movies a chance strictly based on its cover art has been a practice of mine since I started renting film from the mom and pop’s video rental places that dotted the South Carolina landscape where I grew up. This was pre-Blockbuster, before the once dominate, unholy, corporation ran the interesting and offbeat offerings of small-business owners out of town, sanitizing—and by doing so greatly reducing—what type of movies one could easily get their hands on. A corporation as colossal and visible as Blockbuster wouldn’t be able to offer its clientele bat shit insane B movies or the Grindhouse offerings of yesteryear like the small-time stores I had come to love. By stocking movies of this nature this one-time rental giant would anger conservative organizations tied to funding, possibly lead to a limitation in their customer base and, sadly, wouldn’t make the corporation money. However, if you had a sudden hankering to view The General’s Daughter, staring John Travolta, Blockbuster would be more than happy to help you ruin the next 2 hours of your life for 4 bucks. That being said, it wasn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility for one to “slip past the goalie” every once in a while, but even so, the checks and balances within the company were strong; oftentimes, the films that they would stock—seemingly by accident—would come with a dreaded sticker alerting the minimum wage high schooler/college student behind the counter to the content it MAY contain, thus denying anyone under 18 the right to rent any movie that carried their version of The Scarlet Letter. More often times than not, this label would show up on unrated or director’s cut versions of films. James Cameron released a cut of Terminator 2 that gave fans an additional 17 minutes of footage, the main purpose of which was to flush out backstory and character motivation, in particular that of Sarah Conor and her unresolved feelings in relation to Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), her love interest and hero of the first film. The new cut offered nothing scandalous—nary an extra gunshot or boob were added—and yet, there was that sticker, denying me that extra 17 minutes until I was able to catch up with it on a DVD release 10 years later.
Frankenhooker was another one of these films. I found the movie by accident at a time I was not yet versed in horror films, and frankly, this was due to the fact that the cover art would oftentimes scare the shit out of me. The photos and drawings accompanying the tapes for this particular genre were incredibly vivid in the 1980s and early ’90s, prominently displaying the death and dismemberment you would get for the price of a rental. In particular, I remember the cover art for the remake of The Blob and Wes Craven’s vampire tale, The Serpent and the Rainbow, giving my fledgling brain fits of terror and anxiety as I lay down to sleep at night. While the artwork adorning the box for Frankenhooker was certainly vivid, even as a youngster it always struck me as more tongue-in-cheek, and the tag line, “A terrifying tale of sluts and bolts,” certainly made me laugh (I was 12, for God’s sake). The VHS box for the film was also well known due to its unique, interactive qualities as the customer could press the subway lamppost on the cover and the box would emit the line, “Wanna date?” which added to the overall awesomeness of the presentation and, by extension, what surely lay within. Much to my chagrin, there was no way my parents were going to let me rent this, the title alone would have caused them to look at me like I lost my mind, and that damned sticker would make it next to impossible to rent on my own. So sadly, I wouldn’t be able to view a movie that Bill Murray once said of, and I quote:
“If you only see one movie this year, it should be Frankenhooker.”
And yet, every once and a while, karmic realignment happens. In this case, it took roughly 20 years, but occurred nonetheless as I was fortunate enough to find a copy of this cult classic on Blu-ray for less than 10 bucks. I plucked it off the shelf in a rapid fashion, hurried over to the checkout line with my debit card in hand, weathered the weird looks from the worker behind the counter, returned home, and giddily placed the disk in my PS3. With the lights turned down and the volume turned up, I sat for 85 minutes correcting a wrong I had lived with for most of my life.
After his fiancee Elizabeth (Patty Mullen) perishes in a horrific remote-controlled lawnmower accident, med school flunkout and amateur inventor-scientist Jeffrey Franken (James Lorinz, who looks like Andrew McCarthy’s 87% more cracked out twin brother), consumed and racked with guilt, hatches a hair-brained scheme to rebuild her in his backyard laboratory. Hurting in the worst possible way for spare parts as most of her was turned into “a tossed human salad,” Jeffrey, who dwells in New Jersey, decides to make his way over to a pre-Giuliani New York, where hookers roam the streets in packs, searching for johns in every nook and cranny of Times Square. Soon upon his arrival, he’s lucky enough to stumble upon a hooker honey-hole, a full city block that contains a flophouse run by a pimp named Zorro and populated with his loyal army of crack-addicted call girls. While Jeffrey lacks the capacity for murder, his morals still wouldn’t win him any awards; instead of getting his hands bloody, he falls back on his background in science to create Super Crack, a designer drug with explosive side effects. Once his hooker jamboree is over, Jeffery has a cornucopia of lady parts to choose from, allowing him to not only bring Elizabeth back, but also make the perfect version of her in the process. With just the right amount of lightning strikes to reanimate her, she’s alive and kicking again, but Jeffrey didn’t plan on Elizabeth’s personality taking on some of the hookers more, ahem, enterprising qualities. Just as quickly as she’s brought back to life, Elizabeth 2.0 is off to 42 Street to hustle and turn tricks to bring home that hard-earned bread. The only problem is her lady parts seem to remain electrified, effectively flash-frying any customer that happens to be unfortunate enough to cross her path and get turned on by her rudimentary advances.
Director Frank Henenlotter drops most of the darker aspects and the splattery nature of his prior films, the Basket Case series and Brain Damage, and focuses on pulling out all the stops when its comes to depraved comedy and absurdist humor. For most of the runtime the dialogue remains tongue in cheek with enough one-liners to fill the runtime of a Marx Brothers film. Henenlotter allowed Lorinz to throw out any improvised confabulation he could think of, resulting in an avalanche of mad-cap gems sure to keep any viewer with a dark sense of humor howling. The result is a brilliantly cartoonish film from the director’s unhinged imagination; cinema that is in on the joke from the start, just waiting for its audience to catch up with the proceedings. It’s almost as if the director is waging war against himself in one of the most dastardly games of one-upsmanship ever committed to celluloid. With its quick pacing and tight script, the film never gets a second to slow down, much less drag. The makeup and creature designs sprinkled throughout are elegantly detailed and psychotically unglued, a true treat.
I’m sure this is the first time I have ever typed the following sentiment—and I’m almost positive it will be the last—but former Penthouse Pet Patty Mullen couldn’t have been better cast. And no, I’m not just saying that due to her physical gifts, which are ample and certainly are called for in a role of this nature. Mullen’s flair for physical comedy is impressive; she pulls off the facial contortions and staggering walk (think Lindsey Lohan on a legendary cocaine and alcohol bender, you know, a normal Tuesday morning for her) perfectly, a trait I’m sure would accompany a reanimated corpse shocked back to life by an electrical charge. She’s even proficient at delivering her lines with a decent sense of timing, particularly when spitting out clichéd hooker speak, much like a perverted parrot.
All in all, I would say that Henenlotter’s demented take on the Frankenstein story was well worth the wait. Surprisingly enough, Frankenhooker looks fantastic on Blu-ray, making it a must own for any film lover with a taste for the absurd or the unorthodox. It may have been 20 years coming, but I’m happy to have filled this hooker-sized hole in my film proficiency.
Take that you jerks.