Cinema Wasteland: Frank Henenlotter

Cinema Wasteland:  Frank Henenlotter

Cinema Wasteland’s fall show was held over the weekend  just outside Cleveland, Ohio. As usual it was a slam dunk of an event with it’s extremely laid back and fan friendly fibe. This time the panel was home to the one and only Frank Henenlotter!  Frank was a convention first timer, and I can totally see why as he was quite possibly the most humble writer/director I’ve ever met.

Friday night was a strictly Basket Case panel, discussing Frank’s most popular trilogy of films.  Joining Frank on the panel was David Emge who played Halfmoon in Basket Case 2, Beverly Bonner who plays Casey in the trilogy, John Caglione Jr. who did special effects on Basket Case, Gabe Bartalos who did special effects on Basket Case’s 2 and 3, and Kevin Van Hentenryck who played main character Duane Bradley in all three movies.  As usual the mood was light with a handful of predetermined questions before opening things up to the crowd.

Highlights from the panel included talking about Frank’s beginnings  making short 8mm films for fun.  He never wanted to be a filmmaker, he only did it for fun.  He met Kevin back in the day and he played small characters on a number of the short films.  His friend Edgar Ievins asked Frank if he ever wanted to make a commercial film.  He said it sounded like fun, so began the journey to create Basket Case. Frank then met Beverly while she was working on a theatrical production called Women Behind Bars with the late Divine.  Frank loved her work and asked her if she wanted to be in a movie.  Frank was a fan of John’s work on SNL “back when the show was funny” and asked him if he’d be interested in working on Basket Case.  It was his first film as head of effects, only prior working as an assistant on Friday the 13th Part 2

 Basket Case started as only a title.  After originally having no idea what it would be about, he thought how funny it would be to have a monster in an actual basket.   The movie started with $8,000 of Frank’s personal money, and Edgar matching his start up.  The movie was filmed “whenever we had enough money to shoot”.  The longest consecutive shoot was 3 days, sometimes they would shoot for a couple hours then run out of film.  Finally after about a year it was complete.

Basket Case was released in April of 1982 by Analysis Films.  They saw the movie as a straight comedy (which Frank disagreed with) so they cut all the blood and gore and released it as a midnight film.  It was a total disaster, playing in empty theatres.  Somehow Joe Bob Briggs saw the uncut version and wanted to air it at a movie festival in Dallas.  After fighting with Analysis they finally decided to let him show it uncut.  It was a huge success and was selling out every showing in Dallas, while the cut version in Houston still bombed.  Finally seeing the error of their decision the movie was re-released in July uncut and immediately became a cult hit.  Frank actually had no idea all of this happened till he ran into Edgar on his way to watch Basket Case at the Waverly in New York.  Frank had given up on the product once it was cut, but he went and was surprised to see  that the show was sold out and the uncut version was playing.  It eventually played in New York City for 3 years, with McDonald’s getting involved in the advertising as they would give away free Big Mac’s with Basket Case ticket stubs. 

Another funny story that Kevin shared was about his famous streaking scene.  They found an industrial street that was completely deserted one night in February, and they had two vans.  Frank set up his camera, and Kevin jumped out of van #1, ran past the camera, and into van #2 which quickly drove away.  They were working without permits and were hoping no cops would come by.  Then Frank shared that when Basket Case premiered on the USA Network they were accustomed to looking for nude scenes of women to edit that they completely missed the streaking scene and it aired completely uncut.

Kevin had such a wonderful experience doing Basket Case that he wanted to do a sequel, but Frank said the story was complete. After making Brain Damage 6 years later, Frank finally decided to go back to the Bradley brothers.  With a larger budget (which Frank split into two films as Frankenhooker was filmed at the same time) work began on the followup.  Gabe took over special effects on Basket Case 2 since John had moved on to work on Dick Tracy (which he would win an academy award for).   He loved the idea of the Bradley’s living with a bunch of freaks and really liked the challenges of coming up with all the different characters.  David Emge (most famously known as Flyboy in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead) was one of the many actual actors that Frank hired to play the freaks.  He didn’t want extras with no idea what to do, but real actors to make them real characters.  The only catch was that all of the actors were told that they could not speak or make any noises whatsoever or else Frank would have to pay them as actors and not as extras.  David remembers the difficulties in the makeup, and each actor having two wranglers who would help them around the set as they were basically blind when in full costume.  It was also extremely warm and they had to deal with dehydration issues.

Reaction was still positive enough that Frank went back one last time for Basket Case 3: The Progency in 1992.  This was the end of the grindhouse and exploitation era in theatres and that really hurt the production.   He had no choice but “work” with the MPAA and they forced him to butcher his original script.  Cutting 11 pages, Frank was trying to write more pages on the fly during shooting, and caused some of the unevenness of this final movie.  Gabe still had some wonderful memories of all the glorious special effects created with the babies (even the stuff that they had to cut out). 

Finally they discussed the post Basket Case era where Frank was talking to numerous major labels about working on other projects including a meeting he had at Disney, and he finally realised he was looking at Huey Dewey and Louie wallpaper on the walls and wondered “What the fuck am I doing here?”.  Needless to say he eventually went in with his friend Mike Vraney and purchased a large vault of films which would eventually lead to what is today known as Something Weird Video.  They bought the entire lot for $5,000.  There are still boxes of films that they haven’t completely gone through.

Saturday afternoon was Frank Henenlotter panel Part 2 featuring the other movies from Frank’s repitore.  This panel once again featured Frank, Beverly (who was Casey in Brain Damage, Frankenhooker, and Bad Biology), and Gabe who did effects on Frankenhooker and Bad Biology.  Joining the returning guests was Charlotte Kemp who played Honey (the hooker with all the lines) in Frankenhooker, James Lorinz who played Jeffery Franken in Frankenhooker, and Anthony Sneed who played Batz in Bad Biology.

Panel 2 started with Frank explaining why there was a six year break between Basket Case and Brain Damage.  Frank talked about a script known as Insect City which was “a complete piece of shit and no one would make it” and the fact that he didn’t really know if he wanted to be a filmmaker.  He finally decided to do Brain Damage in 1988.  He then went into tales of the MPAA and fighting them for cuts in all of his later movies.  He says that so much of Brain Damage is cut and he is surprised that it is as popular as it is since he doesn’t consider it his full vision.  He then told a humorous story about the MPAA calling him after submitting Frankenhooker and them telling him that he would have the first movie rated S for shit.  They finally allowed the movie to pass as an R which he didn’t understand what he had to fight for .  Frankenhooker is his only true comedy, hence it having to blood and gore and instead having fireworks go off when all of the hookers overdose and explode.

Frank then talked about former Fangoria editor Bob Martin who did the novelization of Brain Damage and then helped him write Basket Case 2 and Frankenhooker.  He remembers that they had written most of Frankenhooker but hadn’t come up with how to kill the hookers, then Frank stepped on a crack vial while walking down the street and thats when he came up with the idea of “Super Crack”.  He then discussed having issues finding all the hookers for the movie, as either the actresses that auditioned wouldn’t get naked or they were people that you didn’t really wanna see naked.  So he finally gave up and went to Billy’s Topless strip club in New York and sitting inside is Bob Martin.  He gives Frank the name of one of the girls and within hours he has his full cast of hookers ready to shoot.

Next James talked about getting the job in Frankenhooker due to his work in Street Trash.  He said that Frank called him one night and asked him if he’d be in his movie.  Then he never heard from him again until months later when Frank was finally ready to make the movie and he once again called him to set up a meeting.  He is so thankful that he did it because it was such a fantastic shoot and he loves having that “one memorable role” that people still bring up when talking to him.  Also he talked about a lot of the onscreen dialog being adlib because his character spends a lot of time onscreen alone and he just started talking to himself to keep himself in character and it just stuck.

Charlotte then talked about her audition for Honey.  She is a former Playboy Playmate and she came in all dressed up.  Frank didn’t think she looked enough like a hooker so she left, she “slutted herself up,” and returned and easily won the role.  Someone then asked how Frank got Bill Murray to give him the quote, “If you only see one movie this year, it should be Frankenhooker.”  So Frank is editing Frankenhooker, but he is running low on funds so he got a deal to work in the studio in the evenings at a discounted rate.  At the same time Bill is working during the day on his lone directorial credit Quick Change.  He see’s the reels of Frankenhooker and started watching it but not in chronological order.  So one day Bill asks Frank for reel 2 so he can see the whole film.  Frank shows him the movie and they move on.  Word gets out to the distributor that Bill liked the movie so they start calling him and asking for a quote to go on the movie posters and advertisements but he never responds.  Frank had no part in this as he found it rude to call and ask for a quote.  So one day Frank is walking in New York and he notices ahead of him is Bill and his children.  So Frank slows his walk, and Bill without turning around slows his walk.  Finally Frank stops, and suddenly Bill stops.  Without even turning around Bill says, “Frank.  Whatcha doin?”  Frank immediately apologized for all the calls and said he had nothing to do with it.  Bill smiles and says now that I know that I’ll call tomorrow and give them your quote.  He’s never seen him since that day.

Finally they talk about Frank’s most recent work, Bad Biology.  It had been 16 years since Basket Case 3 when Franks friend and rapper R.A. the Rugged Man finally talked him into doing another movie.  Anthony then talked about the auditioning process and how nobody that was in the movie was given the full script, or even full synopsis until they were all on the set.  Gabe, who was still doing all the effects for Frank welcomed everyone by showing them the mutant penises that he had created for the movie.  Anthony said he had no idea what kinda movie he had signed up for, but was glad he stayed on.  Frank mentioned that he was happy to shoot Bad Biology because he went back to his roots and everything was filmed without the MPAA or even without permits.  Everything was filmed guerrilla style and that is the way that he likes to work.

The two panels were easily the highlight of the weekend, but what would a movie convention be without the movies? I’ll be back shortly with part 2 of my Cinema Wasteland write-up on the movies.


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Matt has been a fan of horror films since his first trip to the video store when he was transfixed by classic vhs cover art. Now he primarily enjoys films from the grindhouse era of the 70's and 80's, but holds a soft spot in in his heart for low budget flicks.

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