Greetings, readers. The issue of remakes is a big one in the horror community at the moment, particularly with the remake/reimagining/rewhatever of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET coming out tomorrow. So at the moment there’s a lot of people in the horror community typing furiously on the topic of remakes — for them, against them, for being against them, etc. I’m not gonna touch all that. I was a latecomer to the slasher genre (the remake/reimagining/rewhatever of FRIDAY THE 13TH was the very first slasher I ever saw), so these films don’t have the same “holy cow” aspect for me that they do for others. I am, however, a rather keen connoisseur of schlock, old and new. And so tonight, I’d like to talk to you all about one of my favorite remakes, Frank “BASKET CASE” Henenlotter’s 1990 horror-comedy FRANKENHOOKER.
What’s that you say? You’re unaware of any prior film dealing with Frankensteinian prostitutes? Well, pull up your pants and read on! Spoilers ensue.
Meet Jeffrey Franken (James Lorinz), a young, largely-self-educated “bioelectric engineer,” who’s had issues with medical school and currently works at a power plant. An inventor, Jeffrey has invented a remote-controlled lawnmower for compulsive-eater girlfriend, Elizabeth Shelley (Penthouse Pet Patty Mullen). Unfortunately, upon being unveiled the lawnmower malfunctions, reducing Elizabeth to a severed head and hand, and a slurry of pureed flesh. An Elizabeth Slushee, if you will.
While sending one’s girlfriend through a 10,000 RPM meat grinder might get some men down, Jeffrey is undeterred. Saving Elizabeth’s head and hand in the freezer, Jeffrey gets to work. Since a severed head represents significantly-limited nookie options, Jeffrey opts to put his knowledge of electrical engineering and human anatomy to work, building a new body for Elizabeth, a beautiful, slender body, the “centerfold goddess of the century.” To do this he needs parts.
To this end, Jeffrey cooks up a batch of, shall we say, “modified” crack cocaine, and crosses the river (he’s a Jersey boy) into Manhattan. Here, he gathers a bevy of prostitutes, records their measurements — looking for the “best” breasts, legs, etc. The hookers get into his bag of Super-Crack, and upon consuming it, explore in slow-motion showers of sparks. I would go so far as to say that FRANKENHOOKER contains the best scene of hooker-detonation I have ever laid eyes upon.
Gathering up a big ol’ bag o’ parts, Jeffrey returns home and gets to work, piecing together severed limbs, sorting through piles of breasts looking for matches, and finally putting Elizabeth’s head and hand on to the conglomerated body. Left-over parts Jeffrey dumps in a chest freezer full of a special “Purple Kool-Aid” preservative he’s developed, for use with later craft projects.
Slamming a significant voltage through Elizabeth’s new body, she reanimates — but she’s not Elizabeth. Inside she’s a jumble of hooker-brains, through which traces of Elizabeth’s original personality occasionally bubble. This new creation, this Frankenhooker, escapes Jeffrey’s garage/laboratory, crosses into Manhattan, and starts turning electrically-charged tricks, leaving a trail of exploded johns in her wake. It is up to Jeffrey to track her down, get her back to the lab and rewire her…before Zorro, the overmuscled pimp of all those exploded hookers, catches up to Jeffrey.
I can hear some of you now. “What could FRANKENHOOKER possibly be a remake of?” Well, hold on to your hats, readers. Y’see, in 1962 a little movie came out that would change the world. I speak, of course, of THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE. Perhaps in saying that it changed the world I wax a little hyperbolic, however, it has become one of the most iconic examples of the “B-movie” of it’s era, up there with ROBOT MONSTER and PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.
In THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE, Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason “Herb” Evers) accidentally decapitates his girlfriend Jan (Virginia Leith) in a car accident and, spiriting her severed head to his lab, keeps her cranium alive in a lasagna pan via a serum he’s invented. Since, then as now, a head represents limited nookie opportunities, Bill immediately starts searching for a replacement body to graft Jan’s head on to. A perfect body. To this end, he begins cruising strip clubs, beauty pageants and fetish photography studios looking for the perfect girl to decapitate and reanimate. Before he can complete his plans, however, Jan lashes out with newfound psychic powers, directing the Monster in the Closet (Eddie Carmel, an acromegalic giant), a Frankensteinian conglomeration of Bill’s earlier experiments, to destroy the lab and kill Bill.
FRANKENHOOKER, as one might realize from this, is an updated splatstick retelling of THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE, as run through the mind-altering mayhem of the 1980s New York City Microbudget Cinema Scene (of which Henenlotter is a founding member) in which Jeffrey (filling in for Bill) successfully builds a new body for his decapitated dreamgirl, with unimaginable results. If similarities of plot don’t convince you of the relationship between these two films, well I’ve got one more argument up my sleeve, readers. Early on in FRANKENHOOKER, we see Jeffrey toying with a disembodied brain, which is happily swimming around in an aquarium. Curiously, the brain has a single large eye in the middle of one lobe, rather than connected to the underside of the brain via an optic nerve. Significantly, a brain with this same ocular singularity appears in the poster art for THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE!
THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE has a singularly sleazy feel to it — I’ve watched it probably a half-dozen times, and I always feel like I need a shower midway through. It’s a film that uses real strippers instead of actresses, and there’s just this atmosphere of greasy, desperate sexuality that clings to the viewer. As such, I’m glad it was Frank Henenlotter who tackled the task of updating the film. A moment ago I mentioned the 1980s New York City Microbudget Cinema Scene (I really need to find a simpler title for it). This scene consisted of a number of young filmmakers, inspired by the grindhouse cinemas of 42nd Street, who worked with extremely small budgets and produced extremely memorable films, characterized by a sense of gritty unpleasantness in the environs — the Big Rotten Apple, as it were. Henenlotter was at the forefront of this with BASKET CASE and BRAIN DAMAGE, though certainly of equal prominence in the scene were Greg Lamberson with SLIME CITY and Roy Frumkes with STREET TRASH. These men knew and saw the sick, oozing underbelly of New York City, and captured it on film.
From all the hundreds of films I’ve seen and read about, I think only a filmmaker involved in the 1980s New York City Microbudget Cinema Scene could have recreated THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE’s atmosphere. And Henenlotter nailed it.
Hoo boy, having gone through all that, I suppose I really ought to talk about FRANKENHOOKER itself, hmm?
Most prominently, I’d like to talk about Patty Mullen. I am extremely, EXTREMELY, displeased at how scant her filmography is. Miss Mullen demonstrates a magnificent sense of comic timing in FRANKENHOOKER, her every movement delivering the character, selling it perfectly. Additionally, she’s got a real talent for the sort of rubber-face antics that Jim Carrey built his career on. And on top of that, she doffs top on cue. Why haven’t more roles been given to her? While she shines as Frankenhooker, aggressively pursuing prospective clients with a grating, nasally “WANNA DATE?”, she likewise impresses as the meek, sweet Elizabeth, humbling munching pretzels at her birthday party as her mother berates her for overeating.
The rest of the cast is fairly lackluster, with only James Lorinz standing out in the role of Jeffrey Franken. Jeffrey is a PUTZ. If he were any more of a meek, nebbish figure, he’d have been played by Rick Moranis. That he’s mustered the cojones to detonate prostitutes to get parts to build a new body for Elizabeth speaks volumes about the depths of his feelings for her.
The make-up effects are at times marvelous and at others mediocre. Elizabeth/Frankenhooker looks superb, with detailed stitching/scarring and the sharp delineation between Elizabeth’s pallid flesh and the warmer hues of the hookers’ body parts — including a forearm from an African-American prostitute. A lovely touch. On the other hand, the dismembered parts that Jeffrey handles and assembles never look like more than latex props. The boobs are especially guilty of this, and being a breast fetishist to the degree that Russ Meyer would probably tell me to tone it down, this bothers me.
In the final analysis, FRANKENHOOKER is a delightful little black comedy that will tickle the funny bones (and for the heterosexual male portion of the viewing audience, other “bones” as well) of horror fans with a couple sly callbacks to films above and beyond THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE, callbacks I’ll leave the reader to find for themselves. Henenlotter scores another hit here, and quite honestly I like FRANKENHOOKER more than BASKET CASE, though I recognize I’m in something of a minority there. I’d say give it a watch.