Saturday, October 27, 2012

Night of Terror #26: The Films of Frank Henenlotter

Hello basket cases! Sorry for the lack of posts yesterday - I was in the middle of watching a movie specifically for the blog when something came up and I had to go. In case I don't get to it this month - it's called Spooky Encounters by Sammo Hung. It's sort of a kung-fu horror/comedy thing from Hong Kong. It's delightful! See it!

Anyway, today's Night of Terror is from fellow ghoul Chip (who has a pretty cool blog here, and he's written a bit about director Frank Henenlotter. I've only seen one of this guy's movies (Basket Case) and I loved it so I can't wait to check out more. Here's Chip:

I first saw Basket Case when I purchased the used DVD from Tower Records as it was going out of business however many years ago that was. I had heard about it, but regularly got it confused with the Larry Cohen seventies horror film It’s Alive - due mostly to the similar wicker-themed cover. Instantly I loved it. It was too fanciful for what I was looking for at the moment, but there was still a disturbing, seedy, unsettling quality to the filmmaking that I loved. It would five years before I would revisit the DVD. I was even more ecstatic about the movie the second time. And so I decided it was time to explore the short and sweet filmography of filmmaker Frank Henenlotter.
It’s pretty easy to see how someone might find his movies off putting. The jokes alternate between cartoonish buffoonery and pitch black gallows humor. The violence is sudden, graphic, unrelenting, and not very convincing. The acting is uniformly unprofessional. The cinematography is murky. The sets are seedy, stained, sleazy, and shady. And the characters are reprehensible. And the body horror ... Henenlotter fetishizes scars, deformities, and mutations even more than Cronenberg. But his movies are so damn irreverent and fun. His movies are never scary, but they manage a powerful disturbing quality in their offbeat humor. Henenlotter embraces his shortcomings (which are mostly financial and taste-related) and creates a distinctive brand of horror comedy that no one else dares emulate.
A young man named Duane keeps his deformed and detached siamese twin (Belial) in a basket. Together they seek out the quack doctors who botched the separation operation and take revenge on each of them in turn. Duane is played by non-actor Kevin Van Hentenryck, who apparently never felt the need for a stage name. This guy is so charmingly terrible. Yet his loyalty to his foam, immobile sibling is completely believable. The Belial puppet is an astounding bit of cheap plastic whose hollow eyes, ever-perched arm, and guttural scream make it genuinely fucking creepy. It’s E.T. by way of Dead Ringers with hilariously incompetent bit players and gory violence. This movie is a brilliant statement on the destructive nature of family and familial loyalty.
Questions raised: Is Belial a family name?
A young man named Brian happens upon a small phallic creature named "Aylmer." Aylmer speaks in a cartoonish voice, lodges himself onto the back of his host’s neck, inserts himself into the host’s blood stream, and excretes a liquid that proves euphoric to the host. Brian becomes erratic trying to keep Aylmer in check while an elderly couple who once kept Aylmer in a bathtub, soon come looking for him.
Henenlotter continues his exploration of good looking young men and their loyalty to grisly creatures with dark agendas. Only this time, Henenlotter is more overtly sexual. When Aylmer inserts himself into the back of Brian’s neck, Brian grimaces, then moans with ecstacy as Aylmer inserts himself. Nothing sexual here, folks. On the surface, the movie is a metaphor about drugs and addiction. But the presentation is all about sex.
Typical death: When Aylmer shoots out of Brian’s open zipper and into the mouth of a morally questionable young woman attempting to give Brian a blow job. Aylmer then rips out her brains.
Questions raised: Why does one character make a point of spelling it "A-y-l-m-e-r" when the credits clearly read "Elmer," as did early posters. Did no one watch the movie before working on the credits?
Duane and Belial fall in with a group of absurd prosthetic monsters who look like rejects from McDonald’s advertising campaigns of years past. It seems Henenlotter got a bigger budget and got a fancier Belial puppet - compete with moving eyes. Although I’m going to miss the empty-eyed, barely movable puppet that screamed bloody murder (and occasionally broke into stop motion animation) from the first movie, the fancier puppet makes the mutant-on-mutant sex towards the end of the movie feel endlessly more disturbing than it would have been otherwise. While this movie is still not for children or anyone with any sense of taste or dignity, its sense of grotesquerie is less of the under-the-skin variety. It seems to go straight for the gross out humor. It’s still a pleasure to watch, but it doesn’t linger in the dark recesses of its audience’s psyche the way the first film did.
A young man named Jeffrey Franken accidentally chops his fiancĂ© to death with a remote control lawnmower. He then steals the head, feeds explosive crack to hookers, collects their body parts, and puts together a mottle of a hooker that asks "Wanna date? Got any money?" This is perhaps Henenlotter’s most mainstream movie. (I remember seeing the VHS box in video rental sections for years.) It’s less horror than out-and-out comedy. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t play it straight like his other films did. Don’t get me wrong. It’s fucked up, but it feels more self-aware than his others.
By the third film in the series, Henenlotter had fully embraced a slapstick approach to horror. (There’s one scene in this movie that feels ripped from a Muppet film). There are long stretches without violence or menace.
Duane’s motivations seem to change from scene to scene and in the end, there’s no resonance to his ultimate fate (which is pretty incidental). Regardless, this movie maintains the low budget, accidental feel of Henenlotter’s previous films. It’s less sexual than his others (the only sexual scene is a mockery of BDS&M). It may be weaker Henenlotter, but it still remains fully unique to his filmmaking talents.
Typical death: Belial leaps onto a police officer, half rips his face off (the sight of his upper teeth hanging out of his mesh of skin is particularly memorable), and then knocks his head off.
A young man named Batz has a giant sentient penis. Nothing can satisfy it. Not even the elaborate machine Batz has set up in his home to relieve himself sexually. He is constantly at odds with the erratic bulge in his pants. Then he meets Jennifer, a young woman with seven plus rabid clitorises that are never satisfied. She is driven to sex men to death, and then ditch the mutated baby that is birthed mere hours later. Batz’s penis soon proves not only sentient, but detachable. It scours the neighborhood and rapes all the hot scantily clad women lounging around their homes. The recurring image of the penis bursting through the paneling is a highlight. Eventually, the two sex each other to death - releasing a penis baby to the world.
This was the first movie Henenlotter had directed in sixteen years. He had spent the years since Basket Case 3 cultivating his home video company, Something Weird. He returned the to the very same tropes that he started with. Amateur actors. Sexualized monsters. Body image horror. And wonderfully perverted and deranged sense of humor. I’m glad he took off time to recharge his batteries. As one friend said to me after watching it: “I want to hug/punch you for that.”
There’s no other filmmaker like Henenlotter. He’s so wonderfully adept at being inept. He’s John Waters, David Cronenberg, and Andy Milligan all rolled into one. Wrong-headed, tasteless, gross, and brilliantly hilarious. So far, every other film he’s made has been a Basket Case movie – which means we’re due for another. But if he doesn’t get around to Basket Case 4, Bad Biology is a perfectly wrong movie to go out on.

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