It’s easy enough to provide an accurate impression of Frankenhooker. I could quote the tagline that appeared on original Medusa VHS sleeve, faithfully included on this new release: “A terrifying tale of sluts and bolts.” Or I could mention some of the key scenes: James Lorinz’s amateur scientist self-administering a lobotomy with a household drill; a guinea pig exploding after involuntarily ingesting some super-crack; an entire hotel roomful of prostitutes exploding after voluntarily ingesting super-crack. Need I say more? That tagline and those words are either enough to have you abandoning the rest of this review and running towards the nearest Blu-ray outlet or running as far away as possible. Given that Frankenhooker is actually on the receiving end of a Blu-ray in 2012 - and a bumper edition crammed full of goodies at that - it’s fair to say that the former number more than just a few.
Frankenhooker was writer-director Frank Henenlotter’s third feature following low-budget horror flicks Basket Case and Brain Damage. Both owed their cults as much to the video market as they did their blend of laughs and gore, with Basket Case deemed successful enough to warrant a sequel which was filmed back-to-back with Frankenhooker during 1989 and released the following year. (A second sequel followed in 1992.) The two films share a pretty much identical behind-the-camera task force, from producers James Glickenhaus and Edgar Ievins to composer Joe Renzetti, cinematographer Robert M. Baldwin and editor Kevin Tent. The key man, however, is special effects artist Gabriel Bartalos, whose career has somehow managed to encompass both Matthew Barney art films and a Friday the 13th sequel. He’d previously worked with Henenlotter on Brain Damage, unlike many of the crew mentioned, and with that comes a certain continuity. Whilst this is arguably a more polished work than his first two features it nonetheless maintains their ethos. Henenlotter may have a slightly bigger budget, but he’s lost none of his irreverence or sense of humour. (As an aside, it’s interesting to note that this marked the writer-director’s first dealing with the Screen Actors Guild whilst a number of his crew would soon go onto more obviously ‘professional’ films. Tent, for example, later cut The Golden Compass and, more recently, The Descendants.)
For an equivalent filmmaker consider John Waters at the time of Polyester. This was a work with fewer rough edges than Pink Flamingos (though some still remained), a more controlled narrative and with its bad taste slightly easier to swallow, but nonetheless Waters’ signature was immediately identifiable. It also was nowhere near as cuddly as its follow-ups Hairspray and Cry-Baby. Frankenhooker is much the same: the title alone proclaims that this isn’t a mainstream offering, yet as a piece of filmmaking it is clearly ‘better’ (that is to say slicker and more professional) than Henenlotter’s previous work. Furthermore, despite being a film with an exploding guinea pig and plenty of exploding prostitutes it’s also surprisingly gore-lite for the maker of the Basket Case franchise and even the nudity is on the restrained side. Certainly there are enough close-ups of nipples and arse cheeks to entertain the teens, but Henenlotter notes in the commentary and during the ‘making of’ that he toned down his initial plans for a number of scenes to make them less crude. Indeed, his film is hardly wholesome in a fun-for-all-the-family manner, yet neither is it particularly dirty nor downmarket.
Essentially what we have is a love story, albeit that’s as twisted as you’d expect from a comedy-horror entitled Frankenhooker. Bride-to-be Patty Mullen is quite literally mown down in the pre-credit sequence thanks to a remote control lawnmower intended for her father’s birthday. Pieces are strewn all over her folks’ New Jersey backyard, though fiancé Lorinz finds the time to collect her head, a hand, a foot and a toe. Being an amateur scientist in a knowing piece of trash science-fiction he preserves them in bubbling purple goo; all he needs are the remaining body parts in order to bring her back to life. His reasoning isn’t made entirely clear, but those body parts are garnered thanks to New York City’s prostitute population and Lorinz’s specially manufactured strain of super-crack. (Cue some fuzzy satirical pot-shots at the city pre-zero tolerance.) As a Frankenstein-derived tale, the film necessarily splits its running time between pre- and post-resurrection. And, as with all Frankenstein-derived tales, playing god doesn’t exactly result in the happiest of consequences.
Whilst all of this is undoubtedly amusing, Frankenhooker isn’t quite as funny as you would perhaps hope. The laughs have a tendency to come from Henenlotter’s audacity - at naming his film as he has, at blowing up a guinea pig, at blowing up a hotel roomful of prostitutes - rather than an endless stream of witty one-liners. If we’re talking mad scientist comedies then Carl Reiner’s The Man with Two Brains still reigns supreme. Then again, that film had Steve Martin at its centre and, try as hard as he may, Lorinz simply isn’t in the same league. (Though his previous experience on Jim Muro’s Street Trash no doubt helped him find the right tone.) However, I’m inclined to think that such flaws and rough edges are also part of the charm. Frankenhooker needs to be a bit trashy or tacky or what-have-you in order to work as well as it does. The silliness and the extreme qualities can thrive in such an environment; too much polish on the picture would only emphasise their flaws. In other words, it doesn’t take itself seriously and, as a result, neither should the audience. After all, how could we?
When Frankenhooker was last issued onto disc in the UK, by Optimum Releasing back in 2004, it came with just a handful of trailers (for the main feature and a few others 80s and 90s cult favourites) and a 4:3 presentation. The contrast with this edition is immense thanks to a mass of worthwhile extras, a faithful rendering of the original theatrical ratio and, this being Blu-ray, in high definition at that. Quite the upgrade.
The presentation is, for the most part, impressive. Indeed, when it’s good, it’s wonderful. The image is mostly pristine (some of the optical effects have understandably proven more difficult to clean up) and the exteriors, in particular, look excellent. Thanks to Frankenhooker’s low budget, however, some of the interiors suffer from poorer lighting than others, resulting in a heavier grain. And perhaps owing to the sheer amount of additional content on this BD50, that can result in some visible grain artefacts, as do those scenes involving either smoky bars or smoking corpses, or both. The colours are also worth noting as there is a definite tendency on this release to push the reds. At times this can be quite striking - most notably during the pre-credits garden scene - but at others it renders the flesh tones a little off. Perhaps the look is intentional; my previous viewing of the film came courtesy of an ex-rental video cassette, so that really shouldn’t serve as a concrete basis. The soundtrack, however, is hard to fault and presents the original stereo much as you would expect: no thrills thanks to the original budget, but no flaws either. Optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing are also available.
The extras package is absolutely superb. Frankenhooker is one of 2012’s very first releases and it looks likely that its special features will remain a highpoint come year-end. Henenlotter and Lorinz pop up immediately upon playing the disc to provide the briskest of introductions and they feature in the majority of the additions. The main pieces are their joint commentary and the 40-minute ‘making of’ entitled Your Date’s on a Plate. The former is a jokey affair crammed full of anecdotes and recollections; Henenlotter and Lorinz appear to be really enjoying themselves and, more importantly, the film they’re watching. The only disappointment is the recording of Lorinz’s voice which is rarely as crisp or as clear as Henenlotter’s. The ‘making of’ sees the pair joined by SFX man Bartalos for a lengthy and in-depth recollection of the film from conception to US’ ‘talking box’ VHS release. Of course, there is some crossover with the commentary, as should be expected, but there’s no doubting just how informative this piece is. The only flaws relate to sound issues once again with the film clips being much quieter than the talking heads and, as with other Arrow Video discs, the unnecessarily overlong animated opening sequence.
Given the amount of detail provided by the commentary and the ‘making of’, the additional extras cannot help but feel a little like footnotes. Bartalos takes us on a tour of his SFX studio for a 20-minute piece and happily this encompasses his film work besides the Henenlotter creations - there’s some discussion of his own feature Skinned Deep, for example, and the various Matthew Barney collaborations. He appears once more for a 21-minute featurette devoted entirely to the effects found in Frankenhooker. We also have individual interviews with Patty Mullen and Jennifer Delora, both of whom are still wonderfully enthusiastic about the film and provide us with even more anecdotes or back-up those already told by Henenlotter. (The various prostitute actresses, for example, split into rival cliques depending on their backgrounds; Mullen was a former Penthouse Pet.) Rounding off the package we also get the original theatrical trailer plus promos for Henenlotter’s Basket Case, Brain Damage and Basket Case 2. The set also comes with an illustrated booklet, although this particular addition was not available for review.