Synapse // 1990 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 14th, 2011
A terrifying tale of sluts and bolts
We like to think of New York City as a sophisticated place of culture, money, and luxury -- and it is...now. However, back in the 1970s, large parts of it were little better than a bombed-out Third World country. Lower Manhattan especially was a sea of fires, crime, and drug addiction. Still, ashes create fertility. Out of that wasteland came a whole host of artists inspired by their surroundings, from Sonic Youth to Jean-Michele Basquiat to Jim Jarmusch. The cultural flowering attracted people, which generated cash, which allowed Manhattan to regenerate itself (and its image) throughout the decade of greed. In between those historical moments -- between the times of NYC as dangerous and Disneyland -- there was a lot of latitude for filmmakers (and other artists) to ply their trade. Very few filmmakers captured the vigorous spirit of Manhattan, especially its seedier elements, quite like Frank Henenlotter. His films play out as both exploitation classics, but also as love letters to a bygone era of the Big Apple. Now that Frankenhooker (Blu-ray) is available, hopefully a new generation of film fans will be introduced to his mad brand of cult creation.
Frankenhooker is the story of mad scientist Jeffrey (James Lorinz, Last Exit to Brooklyn), a med school dropout with more ambition than follow-through. He's set to be married to the love of his life, Elizabeth (Patty Mullen, Doom Asylum), but she's tragically killed when one of Jeffrey's inventions -- a remote-controlled lawnmower -- goes awry. However, he's able to preserve his love's head. His only hope is to graft her head onto another body; the question is, how does he get a body? Using his scientific skills, Jeffrey finds a way to make super-crack with the hope of giving it to a bevy of prostitutes. When the prostitutes are laid low by the crack, Jeffrey can have the pick of the parts. Only his own conscience (and a pimp named Zorro) stand in his way.
I love Henenlotter's first film, Basket Case, but for me his masterpiece will always be Frankenhooker. Although Basket Case just oozes exploitation cred, with its gritty shots of the city and wonderfully dated gore effects, Frankenhooker is the perfect blend of mad comedy and exploitation grit. The film didn't do that well at the box office, but it gained a huge cult following, largely because people saw its VHS box, which responded to a button by playing a line from the film. It's in that context that the film really works. It's a goofy film that really wants you to love it. Because of that, it throws everything but the kitchen sink in. There's broad slapstick comedy mixed with copious amounts of nudity and random goofy gore. The film also loves to mix it up between strange interior sets and shots of the Big Apple where the prostitutes live. The mix of gritty realism and comically fantastic makes a beautiful blend.
Henenlotter isn't the only reason the film is a success. The film's two main actors are also perfectly cast. James Lorinz didn't have a lot of experience before taking the lead in Frankenhooker, but he handles the role with charisma to spare. He makes his mad scientist simultaneously manic, sympathetic, and funny. His acting here makes me serious wonder why he didn't immediately become at least a huge cult star in the 1990s. His opposite number -- Penthouse Pet Patty Mullen -- does an excellent job as Elizabeth as well. She's perfectly comfortable playing both the innocent wife-to-be and the dolled-up Frankenhooker. The guy who plays the pimp, Zorro, is also totally hilarious as both a really threatening guy but also someone who's pretty farcical as well.
I first saw Frankenhooker on an extra-less gray market DVD, and was quite pleased with the 2006 official release. That DVD has been ported to hi-def here, and the results are remarkable. Frankenhooker was never going to look perfect, but this AVC-encoded transfer looks better than I would have expected. There's a little bit of print damage here and there, but overall detail is strong, grain is well-handled, and colors are spot-on. There's a little bit of noise here and there, and black levels could be deeper, but this is way better than those who remember that old VHS would ever expect. The film comes with both a 5.1 and a 2.0 DTS-HD track. Both are excellent, with clear dialogue and great reproduction of the film's score. The 5.1 track adds a bit of low end and occasional surround use.
The extras come straight from the previous DVD special edition. They start with a Henenlotter commentary track (where he's joined by makeup guru Gabe Bartalos), and Henenlotter is his usual informative self. He dishes on the film's production, its problems, as well as its afterlife on video. Then we get a pair of interviews, one with Mullen and the other with Jennifer Delora (who played one of the hookers in the film). Both women seem quite happy with their time on the Frankenhooker set and are happy to share their stories. Delore also provides a "scrap-book" with photos from the set. There's also a nice 20-minute featurette on the film's special effects that's includes some nice behind-the-scenes footage. Finally, the film's trailer is included -- in HD, no less.
Frankenhooker is a low-budget horror-comedy-exploitation flick that feels like a remnant of another time. Fans of that kind of film will enjoy the slapstick comedy, copious nudity, and crazy gore, but Frankenhooker is an acquired taste. It's not nearly as extreme as other examples of the genre, but it's not the kind of film you'd spring on an unsuspecting friend.
Frankenhooker is not a great film, but it's a classic of the exploitation genre. Hopefully this Blu-ray release will draw the film some new fans as they discover the joys of Jeffrey's demented genius. Fans who didn't pick up the 2006 DVD should certainly treat themselves to this disc, and the upgrade in quality makes it an easy recommendation even for those who bought that previous DVD.
Jeffrey may be mad, Frankenhooker is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Not Rated