Part two of the Frank Henenlotter Q&A at IFI Horrorthon 2014. Read part one here.
Frank Henenlotter: I had a film I wanted to make after I made Basket Case called Insect City, but nobody wanted to touch it, nobody liked it. So I learned that Jim Glickenhaus who’s probably best known as the director of films like Exterminator, Shakedown, The Soldier, a really good actor and director, he started his own company called Shapiro-Glickenhaus and I thought maybe he’d like to do it, so I sent him the script and we spoke on the phone and he said to me, “Well… come in and talk” and I didn’t know if that was good or bad, but anyway I went in and he said, “I really like the script Insect City, and I will never in my life put a penny into it.” I said why, and he goes, “No one would ever pay to see this.” Now I think he’s right, ok, but at the time I was like, oh ok so… and then he said to me, “What else do you have?” That was it, I had Insect City, I didn’t have anything else, but I realise I’m sitting across from a guy who wants to make a movie with me and can afford it so I said, “Oh well I got this story about, you know kind of like the movie The Brain That Wouldn’t Die only kind of an updated version where this guy’s girlfriend gets killed…” and Jim went, “How does she die?” and I said, “Oh, in a… lawnmower accident.” Before long, it felt like I was doing a stand-up comedy act, I was describing a script that never existed before, and telling it to him, and he knew I was making this up too, and I guess we did about forty minutes of the story and I couldn’t go any further and I said, “Well you know where it’ll go from there…” I didn’t, and he says to me, “Oh that’s great, what you going to call it?” “I…” So right away you know your brain goes fast, and I’m going… Frankenprostitute, no… Frankenslut… Franken this, Franken that… Frankenhooker… “Frankenhooker!” He went, “Oh, I love it!” And then he said, “Anything else?” And I said, “Well, we could always do a sequel to Basket Case.” Because I know that was one that people always ask me about. So he said, “Oh, I like it, which one do you want to do?” And I said, “Why don’t we do both? Shoot them back to back.” And that’s what we did, he gave me three million dollars, back then you could spend that kind of money and get it back from a film.
So I shot two films back to back in New York, and we did very serious pre-production planning, so we knew for instance that Jeffery’s lab would also be the attic used for the freaks because both had to be elevated so we could have the puppeteers underneath, and Gabe Bartolis who did the special effects, he was doing the makeup effects for both movies simultaneously. Anyway we shot Frankenhooker first because it needed time for the special effects to get printed and made, you know pre-CGI, although Basket Case 2 was released first. Frankenhooker, which was actually my third film, was released after that.
This is a film that I never intended to be a horror comedy really, there’s no blood or gore. It irritated a lot of people back then, but it wouldn’t have worked like that, they wouldn’t have laughed. I wanted laughter for this film. I don’t watch my own movies but this has the one sequence I watch… if I’m going to be remembered, I want it on my tombstone to say ‘This is the man who exploded eight hookers with super crack in a hotel room.’ I just find that hilarious and I can watch it every minute of the day and I have tears coming from my eyes laughing.
Post Screening Q&A
Paul Duane: The music was by an Oscar winning composer…
FH: Yeah, Joe Renzetti, he won the Oscar for The Buddy Holly Story. How he got involved with this, I don’t know! No, he was a friend of Jim Glickenhaus. Jim Glickenhaus was responsible for the songs they played during the crack party, they were singing, ‘Never Say No’, in fact that’s Jim Glickenhaus’s voice saying ‘Russian rouletters never die.’ Everything we can do to irritate the MPAA, the ratings board.
PD: To talk about Frankenhooker we have to start by talking about The Brain That Wouldn’t Die which underlies this film and is one of my favourite exploitation movies of all time.
FH: The Brain That Wouldn’t Die was made in 1959 but not released until 1961, and even when it was released in the States, American International released it, they cut it, they removed some gore scenes that were pretty transgressive at the time. A guy gets his arm cut off and manages to smear his stomach across an entire wall, goes into another room then turns around and comes back down and resmears the wall before he falls down. They had a monster that’s a giant pinhead that comes out. Eddie Carmell who was a real life giant, he comes out of the closet, I mean literally in the film, the closet of the mad doctors mistakes, and he comes out and bites the back of the mad doctors head and holds up what looks like raw bacon and throws it, and it was enough that they got it cut. It was a film I grew up and loved and always thought it would be fun to do a kind of remake of it without doing a remake of it, you know. So I just borrowed the idea of a woman dying and the fiancée tries to bring her back. But years later, after Frankenhooker was out, the director of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, Joseph Green, he thought I had done a direct remake and he was not happy with me. So we set up a screening and met and I said, “Hi Joe, I’m a big fan.” and he said, “Yeah, well I haven’t seen my check yet.” So he watched the film and he just laughed from beginning to end and the first thing he said to me was, “Oh my God, you had money!” And he had no problem with it, “Oh Frank, I love it, I love it.”
PD: The big element that you took from it was the idea of this guy trying to create a new body for the girl, but he’s also looking for the best looking body parts.
FH: Well that’s what he’s doing in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, he’s going to strip clubs, and that’s what I started doing. This was one of the few union films I made, it had to be because we were very visible filming in Manhattan at the time and filming out in the streets the way we were we would have gotten caught, so we went to the unions and it was a Screen Actors Guild production. So I tried to do it the way they wanted me to but when I was casting hookers the women that were sent to me were either, they were beautiful but “I won’t do nudity for you!” or… you didn’t want them to do nudity. So I did this for a couple of weeks and I called up SAG and said I did it your way, it’s not working, so fine me, punish me but I’m going out and finding the cast. So I didn’t really know what I was going to do but I thought I’ll go to strip clubs to find the cast for the film, figuring strippers would have the least problem, they look beautiful and they wouldn’t care about nudity. The first place I went to was a place called Billy’s Topless on 23rd St, it’s not there any more, but how blunt is the title – Billy’s Topless! I walked in there, I’d never been in the place before and I look up and see this long runway for the girls, and I look over at the bar and who do I see sitting at the bar but the guy who wrote Frankenhooker with me! Bob Martin, he used to be the editor of Fangoria, and Bob says, “Frank, what are you doing here?” I said, “I’m trying to get women for our movie.” I said, “What are you doing here?” he said, “Staring at the unobtainable…” So we hired the blonde girl with the Swedish accent, once we got her, she basically said, “I’ll get you some of my friends.” She got us everybody and it was great, this one’s in Penthouse, this one’s in Playboy. My favourite of course was Patty Mullen who played Elizabeth and she was a Penthouse Pet of the year, one of the sweetest, most charming people, I loved her because she didn’t look like a ‘Scream Queen’ per se, she looked like a girl next door and I thought she had that innocence that was just marvelous, delightful person and three days before I came here she just happened to call me, and whenever she calls me, I have an answering machine on all the time, she never gives a name, you know, leave a message, beep, and she goes, “Goin’ out? Wanna date? Lookin’ for some action? Want some company?“
PD: How did you direct her? Because she was so brilliant.
FH: I told her first of all, I showed her Boris Karloff and said I want that lumbering and then I said, “Can you do anything with your face?” and when she did that weird face I started laughing and I said, “Patty, as long as you can make me laugh, you’re doing a performance.” And she was a delight to work with, so was James Lorinz, I was so lucky that I had those two, unfortunately they had almost no screen time together but that was the fault of the script. James Lorinz made it look like he was making it up on the spot, and for a good chunk of the film he was. He never ad libbed on camera because that’s unprofessional, but as we were working out the scenes he would do additional lines, as long as I laughed, and if I didn’t laugh he didn’t want to do them. So he’d try out a line then go, “Alright, skip it.” he’ll do another one and I’ll start laughing, and he always made me laugh, and even when he’s doing dialog that’s exactly scripted, he made it sound like an ad lib. So I had a wonderful cast, it’s what the film needed.
I don’t know if anyone here saw Brain Damage the other night but the voice of Aylmer was the TV weatherman, horror host Zacherley. I couldn’t credit him in that one because it was non SAG, and he was SAG, but this was SAG. And Shirley Stoler, she showed up on set one day, literally, I’m in my office and hear a knock on the door, “Frank, Shirley Stoler’s here to see you.” I love The Honeymoon Killers, I love Seven Beauties, I love Shirley Stoler, I was intimidated meeting her and she said, “I heard about the film, I just popped by to see if there’s anything I can do” and I said, “Even if you’d been here the first day, there’s really not big parts to give you” she said, “Doesn’t matter, I’ll do anything” so I said, “You can be the bartender.” She said, “I’m happy to” and we had a great time. And what’s weirder, I never wanted my parents to see the films, when I was growing up my parents were Irish Catholic conservatives, I always had to be home early, so I didn’t think Brain Damage and Basket Case were films that they should see. With Frankenhooker, my mother informed me that they’re going to the premiere in New York. When the film was over, my mother stands up and she shouts, “Oh it’s nothing, it was just tits!” At the party about an hour later I look around and there’s my mom and Shirley Stoler sitting there shooting the shit.
PD: The film feels like the perfect grindhouse movie, something that was made for 42nd St.
FH: Absolutely, but it never played there. I thought, if this film had played in Times Square it would have run for ten years. It would have been the perfect Times Square film. By 1990 all of that was dead already, America lost three quarters of it’s movie theatres in a very short period, just went out of business, and most of those were smaller theatres that catered to the grindhouse and exploitation film market, so when they died so did all the companies that catered to them and made these kind of films and so did Shapiro-Glickenhaus, and most shocking of all, 42nd St disappeared, so it was the last gasp of something.
PD: It was also a period of cultural puritanism in America.
FH: Oh it always was, you can’t escape that, there’s always a right-wing, usually Christian element that is eager to tell you what you’re doing wrong, that’s just the way it is there. And I mean to irritate them. When I was growing up Catholic, they had the Legion of Decency, that was how Catholics controlled the ratings of films because if they condemned a film they would have the priests tell the parishioners not to go see it and films would lose money that way. You had to take the Legion of Decency pledge at mass once a year and all I would do is fantasise about what I was missing and I remember thinking if I ever got a chance to make movies I would have so much gratuitous nudity just to make up for this!
The MPAA attacked Frankenhooker with a vengence, even to get an R rating. Get this, even to get an R rating they made us cut the scene where Jeffrey is examining the hookers with a magnifying glass. What, are you kidding? It’s not even sex! He’s just looking at naked women for medical purposes! We had to cut that part for an R rating and etc etc. They made us cut the scene in the crack bar, that was based on a real bar that was right around the corner from 42nd St, and that’s what that place was like, I mean slightly exaggerated but not by much, ok. And when we were shooting it there was one shot which I thought, I remember joking on the set, this will be my anti-drug, shock film, this is my message film, and we had Ari Roussimoff in a tuxedo, big heavy guy who’s also a film maker, he’s smoking a crack pipe and I pan from him to this emaciated thin guy and we put heavy sweat on him and I thought, ‘before and after.’ That’s the one shot that the MPAA was specific about cutting because they said I was glorifying drugs! I mean, you cannot deal with them. We were in battle with them on this film, we thought this was an R rated film. We sent the film off to be rated and the head of the rating board calls up Shapiro-Glickenhaus and gets the secretary on the phone and goes, “Congratulations. You have the first film rated S.” “S, you mean S for Sex?” He goes, “No, S for Shit!” Well, you’re not supposed to review the films you assholes, you’re supposed to rate them. So Jim Glickenhaus went public with that quote and embarrassed the hell out of the MPAA. We had a long running feud, they gave us an X rating and we said we’re not taking it, we want an R and we fought and fought and fought till finally Shapiro-Glickenhaus said you know what, f*ck it, f*ck the R, we’re going to go out unrated. They eventually wanted an R rated version to sell on VHS to get it into crap places like Blockbuster which is another one of those things that, “Oh if it’s unrated we don’t want it in our store.” Well if it’s unrated I wouldn’t get it from your store, I wouldn’t be a member of your store if I couldn’t buy unrated films. They banned The Last Temptation of Christ, they said it was offensive. So those are the enemies you avoid. We made such a stink, we were always concerned when we did Basket Case 2 whether we could show Belial and the mutant monster screw. Why not? But you’re dealing with an irrational censor board, that’s what they are, they’re censors and they’re also funded by the majors so the majors can get away with anything, it’s the independents that get slammed so they can therefore say, “We gave X ratings to x amount of films.”
PD: There’s nothing in there that Woddy Allen or Mel Brooks couldn’t have gotten away with if they chose to do it.
FH: When we were fighting the censors I said to them, “You’re talking about violence where there isn’t a drop of blood, yet you just gave an R to Die Hard 2 where he sticks an icicle in some one’s eyeball! That’s ok? What are you talking about?” “Well we are not here to discuss Die Hard.” So in some ways it’s a lost cause.
PD: Things have changed and you can do what you want now.
FH: I won’t submit anything to the ratings board, I never will again. If I have a film and the distributor wants it sold, let him pay for it, let him do it, I can’t be bothered with it.
Question from audience: <First part inaudible> Is there anywhere in the world where if you had to film it again, you would film it there?
FH: Well no, but even back then, you couldn’t film on those hooker streets, it would have been too much, we faked that, except for at the very beginning, when Jeffrey is in his car driving, those are real hookers that you see him looking at, those are real working girls. We knew where they were and we shot in that area because it was lit enough for us to record, but the second time the car passed they were already savvy and they ducked away, so we didn’t get much. But we ended up filming on really decent streets that we cluttered with garbage. You really can’t film in the locations you want to, trust me. When I did Basket Case I shot on 42nd St, so much of the footage I couldn’t use because it was interrupted. You know by people who, “I wanna be in your movie!” Well, “No you can’t, good bye!” I was just filming in New Orleans last year and we had the camera set up by the side of the street, it was in the street but any car could easily go by, and this car comes charging right at us, and I’m thinking, oh God, this is it, and the woman stops right in front of the camera and she goes, “Can I be in your movie?” And I said, “You already are!”
Question from audience: Were you ever approached to make a sequel to Frankenhooker?
FH: Well not by SGE [Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment]. To me I felt the story was complete. Even though I’m the guy who made three Basket Case movies, I don’t particularly like sequels. I like Basket Case 2 because it was a total rethinking of the first one, but I don’t like Basket Case 3 because it was just more of the same old shit. But we get asked about this all the time, I get e-mails a couple of times a year going, “I want to turn Frankenhooker into a musical, can I have the rights?” “Well, sure, what do you think… no!” I get that a lot. The woman who played the head hooker who gets her head blown off, she informed me that she already wrote the sequel and it’s about Jeffrey collecting body parts from a whorehouse and she’s the head whore there and I said that sounds horrible and she said, “I already got the money.” I said, “You don’t have the rights and you’re not getting them from me!” And she was not happy.
Even if I wanted to do a sequel to Frankenhooker, which I don’t, but even if I wanted to, there’s no market for it. I would have to shoot it for something so cheap and pathetic that it wouldn’t even resemble the first film. I always wanted to make a Frankenstein movie, I love Frankenstein, and to me it’s a good Frankenstein movie if it’s got a good lab scene. I love the Hammer films, and I was so pissed off that Frankenstein Created Woman didn’t have a lab scene. Otherwise it was a good film. So I love lab scenes and we were lucky, we got all that equipment from Con Edison, but that cost money, it just does, I needed money for a budget, I needed money for an art department and all that, I needed money to get those parts and the opticals, and you’re paying a pyrotechnic guy a lot of money to blow up hookers.
What’s funny about that, if I can go into that for a minute, we didn’t know how many explosives would blow up a hooker. We did something clever with that, this was pre-CGI, so how do you blow up a hooker? The idea we came up with is, we would have them come to a pose, a death-pose, like this or like that, and once we decided what that pose would be we’d take pictures of it, and then Gabe made these beautiful statues of them, took body casts of them, we brought them in, we filmed the scene, cut, and while they were still there we would trace them on a TV monitor and put the model in and hope we get it right and then cut right on the frame of light of the explosion. So some of it looked great like when the asian girl’s head was flying off, but I wanted them to all look like fireworks, I wanted this to be like some idiot fourth of July celebrations. So the pyrotechnic guy starts conservative, so with the first girl, we bring in the dummy, “Ok, action!” and it goes pffffft… and there’s this little splutter and a little bit of smoke and we realise that her lips are on fire, and that was about it. So I said, “Put in everything you have. Do two hundred times more.” That’s how we got these great explosions and it was wonderful, the flaming hooker parts were falling on us, actually flaming and falling on our heads as we were filming this, the crew were freaking out, I was loving the fact I was getting burned by this, it made it real, I dunno, I just thought it was wonderful. We had the fire department we had to have there and all this other nonsense because it was a union job, the guy from the fire department’s watching this and he was not amused, “People could get seriously hurt, you’re blowing up hookers.” I’m going, “Ha ha!”
Question from audience: At the time this was on VHS which is just a bit of plastic with some magnetic tape, and really cheap. Has the new technology made making films too expensive to do, compared to the three million that you made this on?
FH: No it’s all about distribution. Once upon a time you could make a film for a million five, like this one, and you’d get that money back. Now you’d have to make the same film for three hundred thousand, a significant drop. Even if I shot it on high def, I still wouldn’t have the budget to match the look, it’s not the film stock, it’s everything else. There isn’t a lot of money in distribution now, you really have to be Hollywood, you can’t be independent or you’re not going to make it, the margins for making money as an independent is not what it once was. But you talk about the VHS, the VHS on this film is what made it. The film was an enormous hit on VHS, and it had nothing to do with me or the movie, it had to do with Jim Glickenhaus coming up with the greatest promotional gimmick to sell VHS; he had talking boxes made. It was thicker than an average box, because it had a little battery and a little speaker inside and you press a button, and you hear the box go, “Wanna date?” I was in video stores in ’91 and all you’d hear in the store is, “Wanna date? Wanna date?” because everybody’s pressing those goddamn boxes. Sales went through the roof, it was like the greatest William Castle gimmick he ever came up with.
PD: I think you’re doing yourself down a bit because you did a great movie, with a great title.
FH: But it was his ad campaign that got it seen. People noticed the movie not because I directed it, but because the box talked.
PD: And there was a sexy girl on the cover!
FH: And she looked like a monster, and she was saying “Wanna date?” I do, I do!