Frank Henenlotter was the guest of honour at the IFI Horrorthon 2014. Frank presented four films at the festival – Basket Case, Brain Damage, Frankenhooker and his new documentary That’s Sexploitation. This is a transcript of Frank’s introductions and Q&A sessions. Thanks to Colin McCracken for putting the Q’s into the Q&A.
Frank Henenlotter: I’d intended to make kind of a more serious film, but when I saw we had nothing to work with I kind of encouraged everybody to give a broader performance and I threw the blood around a little too much, and I remember thinking to myself, well go ahead and finish it because no ones going to ever see it! And back then it was true, back then you could make a film, it would show on 42nd St. and similar skid row theaters and disappear and no one would ever know and I thought that’s fine with me, let me make it, we’ll let somebody show it, and I’ll walk away, and no one will ever… so you know, here we are, decades later and the curse still follows me.
One thing about this though is, this is from a HD master of the film, it finally looks the way it’s supposed to have looked. Somewhere along the line the film got the cheapest dupe negative ever made, and the film was too dark, and too much grain, and it didn’t look like the 16mm original, which at least had bright colours, it was at least… not a good looking film, that’s impossible, it’s Basket Case, but at least it had a more vibrant tone to it. And typically, we lost the negative, we lost the 16mm negative. How could we, me or the producer, lose the goddamn f*cking negative! And we did, and it was lost in plain sight, the whole time it was in a box labelled ‘Brain Damage Prints’. And I went in there one day, and I saw the 16mm cans and I went, oh my god, we’ve had it all this time. So I was able to make this HD from both the 16mm original and from, it wasn’t complete, it had some scenes missing, but from a beautiful 35 IP that we also started the same time. It’s why the film is in 1:33 (square) because when I made it, you know I hold up a camera, it was square, so I shot a square. I was appalled when I saw it theatrically and realised they cut off so much of the top and bottom to release it theatrically 1:85, so it’s a square but you’re actually seeing more rather than less.
Post screening Q&A
Colin McCracken: So Frank, I’d love to start off, if you could tell us a little bit about the environment and atmosphere of the place that led to Basket Case because it was such a fascinating time in history.
FH: Well New York at that time was really going downhill very fast. It was the era when the city was broke, and parts of the city were extremely dangerous to live in. The producer of the film had his office at St. Marks, right between 1st Avenue and Avenue A, across the street was Tompkins Square Park and you did not go into the park, and Alphabet City was further down, and it was really that dangerous, there were parts of the city you had to stay out of. And most people considered the Times Square area that way too, except for me, because that was where all the best movies were, and I would go from Long Island, from High School when I was 15 and get the train to Manhattan just to go to 42nd St. movies all day long and see as much as I could… women in prison movies – fine I love it, blaxploitation -fine I love it, martial arts – fine I love it, badass comedy, action films… as long as it’s a low budget action film, fine I love it. I love action films but I couldn’t afford to do action. So that was the element I grew up with. The audiences were crazy, the stories about the place being infested with such crime, that’s bullshit. And the audiences loved the films and were very… as long as you delivered… and delivered means you had to have blood, violence and tits, you know, and if there was a good dirty joke, they’ll go for that.
And that’s what it was, that was the atmosphere, and I loved it, I lived it and I never thought it would go away, and when I was writing Basket Case I thought, you’re supposed to write what you know and I thought, well it would be marvelous if it were set in some phoney baloney fleabag hotel on Times Square. No such place like that existed, they were mostly hooker hotels, there were some really crappy places where I guess you could… we were originally going to do it in a real hotel that wasn’t around the Times Square area, it was on 33rd, it was called The Star Hotel, doesn’t that sound beautiful, and we had spoken to the guy who ran it and we said we need privacy to do this we can’t have people know that we’re making the movie or you know, equipment’s going to go missing. As soon as we pulled up with the van, these guys were outside going “Oh, the movie people are here!”, and that was the end, we never even went into the building. I know how that works, pretty soon they’ll be charging you for watching your equipment that it doesn’t get stolen.
So anyway, that’s what the area was like then, it was a very comfortable city to live in, I hate New York now. New York is now a city for the rich.
CMcC: But you’re still living in the 42nd st. area?
FH: No, I live in Greenwich Village. I’ll give you an example, that area has been so cleaned up, it’s all been Disnified, Disney came in, that f*cking mouse, here’s what his deal was, and it’s not me making this up, he made a deal with the… whoever the stupid mayor was at the time, he would buy the New Amsterdam Theatre, which was probably the most ornate theatre on 42nd st, home of the Ziegfield Follies, beautiful history, and they would refurbish it and that would be their landmark theatre and that’s where they would open The Lion King, but what the Disney people said was, they can’t have a family coming in if there is anywhere within eyesight a porno place. So they couldn’t just throw them out, they had to slowly zone them out, so they had to wait till every single place that had leased a building, those leases had to run out, so it was a long horrible decaying process to watch it all die. But they won, and now Times Square is like a playground for German tourists, its horrible, it’s disheartening, and it’s all family fare. And it’s worse than any time I was… I can’t walk through it now, and the city itself has become a city of the rich. When I first moved into Greenwich Village, there were still the remains of the beatniks for Christ’s sake, there was bohemians, it was like gay central, now all gone, it’s all just rich people drinking in my world.
CMcC: So when you were seeing these films, I assume you started going when you were a teenager, so you were fairly susceptible to influence, how long was it before you decided you wanted to contribute to that, in a cinematic sense?
FH: Well I was always making films on my own, but they were like backyard movies with my friends. I started in 8mm, not Super8, regular 8mm, then I started doing 16mm shorts. But the important thing was, I was making them just to make them I wasn’t making them to show them, I had no interest in showing them, I never had any interest in being a commercial filmmaker, I still don’t think I’m a commercial filmmaker. I think I’m a guy who loves movies who happens to have made a few. This is not a career, it’s just something that’s happened, know what I mean? So I was always making these films and mostly what I was making was comedy, but with a lot of blood and gore in them that was so extreme that no one ever found them funny but I did, I thought it was hilarious. And Basket Case was the closest thing to those earliest movies I made.
But I’ll tell you a story about filming on 42nd st, because the footage of walking down the street, there were alternate takes, there was more footage, most of those alternate takes were not used because we couldn’t control the people there. But there’s one scene where you first see him walking down the street and we’re in a van with the door open and I was filming from the side of the van going along, and he walks past a porno store, and it’s such a great shot because you can see all the way in the store. On the first take, we went around, sometimes… when you have your eye on the viewfinder and you’re worried about keeping it in the box, something happens that you don’t even see right away, and there was something in the shot that was wrong and all of a sudden, by the time I realised it it was too late, there was a guy from the porno store who saw us, who charged from the back of the store and dove into our van threatening to kill us all! And I didn’t know what to say and it was Kevin Van Hentenryck who calmed him down. The guy thought we were CBS News, a local news channel, and we kept saying, “No, no, no” and Kevin was saying, “We’re just making a monster movie, look there’s a monster in here” and the guy’s like, “Oh, you’re not… you’re making a…”, and then he got so “Oh, I’m sorry guys, I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to…” and we said that’s fine, we’ll go around the block again, and he’s, “That’s fine, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” Wow.
CMcC: You described Belial as a malignant jack-in-the-box, so how did you develop it from this initial idea into the feature that we’ve just watched?
FH: I had the work of a very skilled make-up artist who was just starting out in the business, Kevin Haney who had just come from Ohio to meet Dykstra, and before long he was working on Saturday Night Live. In fact Belial was cooked in… we had two Belials; one was the animated Belial which I have at my home and one is the puppet, and one was cooked in Dykstra’s oven and one was cooked in the Saturday Night Live oven. But he did it and you know, I wasn’t sure what Belial should look like, I had some vague ideas, I said I wanted Kevin’s face for half of it, but it was one of those things where you’re working on it and I’d stop by and I remember one time we were running out of plasticine, so we just stuck this coke bottle on the top, and I look and I go, “That’s great! That’s the bone out of his back”, and he looks at me, he goes “Fine, you want a bone, you got a bone. ” And that’s that, and then Kevin put in some wires to make it work. At the time, Kevin, this is Kevin Haney I’m talking about, the makeup artist, at the time he had terrible contempt for the project, we just had no money.
CMcC: It was a long process shooting it as well…
FH: Yeah but he wasn’t involved in that. He delivered Belial and he said to me, “Ok, let me show you how the wires work.” He says, “Alright, you want to make his mouth, you take the…” and he pulls on them and rips them out, “The hell with it.” So now I had to take it home and figure out how to make it work, I took a gardening glove, painted it red and you know, that’s it’s mouth. I was operating Belial in almost all the shots. Back in those days, I was as thin then as I am fat now, and all the scenes where you see that wooden dresser, I’m inside the dresser. I mean, today I could play the dresser. But I’m in there and I have a mirror set up on the other side of the room, trying to practice doing it, you know, so I was playing Belial the whole time, so talk about the glamour of film making, I’m stuck in the dresser looking out through the thing, grabbing the TV set, breaking it off, that’s what you do with a low budget film. We had two gloves to make Belial move, sometime in the film if you look carefully you can see that there’s somebody in behind the Irish guy [Joe Clark], he was a character too, he owns a… oh my God, I didn’t know who he was, I was introduced to him from somebody else, he owned all these gay bars and bathhouses, and he didn’t really own them, the actual owner was in prison and had signed Joe’s’ name on it. He wasn’t aware of this, but remember that film Cruising, well we shot in there, and there were protests all over the city when they were shooting Cruising , the gay community was I think justifiably up in arms about it, and we shot in there the weekend they had just finished. That was one of the bar scenes where he’s sitting down with Beverly in the bar, and there were these giant handcuffs that we couldn’t… we had to shoot around the handcuffs, we had to shoot around… there was a sling, so we just shot around it, and that’s also the basement where the father falls down, and that I had, when the father’s walking there there’s all these objects behind him, I was hiding glory holes, that’s where we were filming, it worked, it looked great on film so why not. But anyway, Joe is a lovely man, he fled back here to Ireland when the Aids epidemic hit Manhattan. The mayor saw this as the perfect opportunity to clean up all the sex clubs in the city, gay or straight he didn’t care, so they were going after all these, and that’s how Joe learned, “Oh my God, they think I own all these?” And he fled back here and then he came back to the states maybe twenty years later and I ran into him again in the club where we filmed, he was back there again. Six months after I was back in touch with him he was crossing the street and hit and run, boom, splattered him all over the goddamn street.
Question from audience: I just wanted to ask you about the subtext behind the wicker basket, was it something that you…
FH: What subtext? There is no subtext my friend.
Q: Was it a way of looking at the dystopian nature of New York at the time, or was it…
FH: You know why? Because the film was called Basket Case!
FH: Nothing like a sex documentary to begin a Sunday afternoon. This is a very American film because the clips you’re about to see are all a reaction to Hollywood being unable to show sexuality in films. That all stared in 1934 when they had a production code that was heavily influenced by the Catholic church. We don’t go into it that much, but basically the Catholics had their Legion of Decency and if they condemned a film they would denounce it from the pulpits, so as a result the studios were terrified of having a condemned film, so they would bend over backwards. And the Legion of Decency wrote the actual production code, so that’s why married couples cannot sleep in the same bed, that’s why you can’t even show nudity in silhouette, and on and on and on. So what happened was, while Hollywood films were kind of neutered, a sub-industry developed of really rancid, trashy, gutter level films. Nudity was still… you know you could still get busted for that, so the early sexploitation films dealt with content, like God forbid, the a story is about a pregnant woman who’s not married! Dear god! And that’s what you had, or a film dealing with abortion and that stuff. And eventually by the time the fifties came around you started getting some lunacy like nudist camp films. What the hell is a nudist camp film? And then you started getting ‘Nudie Cuties’, and it just started getting crazier and crazier until by the sixties it was non-stop T&A, and it was a whole separate ghetto. I know when I was seventeen and I snuck into the first theatre to see sexploitation films I was thrilled. I was thrilled because it was the only time you could see a bare breasted woman on a giant screen, I didn’t need much else. I didn’t need plot, I just was like, “Woah!”, and that’s what they were about.
So, Mike Vraney of Something Wierd, he and I spent about a year just finding these clips and going through every film that Something Weird owned, and also all these loops and stuff and finding these little nuggets of gold, stuff that you wonder, who made this, I mean you’ll see a clip of a very plump young lady naked and covered with plastic cowboys and indians… what? You’ll see another naked lady indoors wearing a scuba mask and fins… am I missing something? And that’s what the joy of this film is about. Fortunately we got the legendary David F. Friedman, who was the producer of films like Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs, and then started his own sexploitation company and cranked out tons and tons of stuff, in fact he was head of the Adult Film Association of America, and he died a few months after we filmed him but he was in rare form in this, he’s very frail physically but his mind was so sharp, he knew dates, times, people involved and everything, he was a great asset to this film.
But one thing I want to warn you about is it runs two hours sixteen minutes, and that’s because we figured the life of the film is really going to be on home video, it’s not really for sitting in the theatre for two hours and sixteen minutes and watching it, but once we figured, I’d rather give people more filth than less.
FH: We’re not going to do a Q&A at the end of this one, so I’ll answer your questions if you have any and try to tell you what this was about. This was my second film, and I had a couple of dollars to spend this time, which is why it doesn’t looks as… you know, ratty as Basket Case. This was shot on 35mm and I had a dolly, oh my God! And I just thought I’d be fun to do a film about, well two things, one is, it’s the legend of Faust, and you can tell that story a thousand different ways and it still works, it doesn’t matter, the moment you sell your soul it just works beautifully. I thought mixing that with a subject which is seldom done in film which is addiction, you know, this was drug addiction but almost any kind of addiction . I’m not interested in, god forbid, I’m not afraid of vampires, or zombies or werewolves or anything, but addiction yeah, and I had a serious… I went through some serious addiction problems, which is why I understood what I was doing in the film. Some of it is a little more real than I care to admit ok, although I’m admitting it.
One of the things is the voice of Aylmer. In the United States his voice was a little more recognised, it was a man named Zacherle, John Zacherle, and when horror movies were first sold to television in the late fifties, they had TV horror hosts and Zacherle was the best of them, he was brilliant and I grew up watching horror movies with Zacherle on TV. He eventually became a DJ for over twenty years, beautiful, beautiful voice. The man turned ninety-six two weeks ago, just incredible, he’s still around, he’s always in a good mood, he’s always perpetually happy and he has the greatest voice ever. I know that when we were making it there was a moment where, when Alymer’s in the sink in the fleabag hotel, we needed to change the… to match the synch… he’s in the “sink” but we’re matching the “synch”. So anyway, we needed to redo it so I actually did it, I did a pretty good imitation of him and he loved it, and to this day I can’t, I don’t remember where that line is but you know it’s like, any time I meet him he goes, (in an Aylmer/Zacherle voice) “All right Frank, do one for me – hey Frank how are ya, how are ya, hahahahahahaha – oh you sound just like me it’s wonderful, wonderful!”
Question from audience: Did you write Aylmer’s tune?
FH: No, no, that’s a famous song, that’s an old song, apparently it was written by an undertaker.
Question from audience: Have you ever been asked can it be remade?
FH: I don’t want the remakes, I wrote these characters for a specific time and purpose. I get asked about Basket Case all the time but mostly Frankenhooker, ‘Oh, I want to do a musical about Frankenhooker’… go away! There was a remake of Basket Case that sounded like it could be worth doing, it sounded like I would get a lot of money till I saw what the terms were, then ‘Oh, I get twenty-five dollars, and a banana… wow it’s irresistible!’
Question from audience: Did you always know what Aylmer was going to look like?
FH: No, and I didn’t know what Belial was going to look like, I sort of saw Aylmer like maybe an eel, and it wasn’t until we started sketching it, we did an early sketch, and this is the first film I worked on with Gabe Bartolis who became my go-to guy for all the effects since then, and he started doing a large maquette of it and that’s when we started seeing the potential for it… give him suckers! I actually have the big Aylmer head and unfortunately he’s severely rotted, so am I in many ways.
Making Brain Damage led to me making Frankenhooker in the sense that, we filmed this in a button factory or a belt factory, I forget now, it was an abandoned floor below whatever factory it was. We rented two floors, one for the effects, one to shoot the movie, it was in a terrible location but what the hell. It was on 33rd St and… well, you don’t know Manhattan, but it was right across the street from the railroad tracks and this was hooker central at night, and this was particularly because the traffic would be guys in cars who’d come up and the gals would run out, and the cars would be lined up around the block. It was pretty fascinating. This was right around the time of the crack explosion in New York. I would come to work, come to the set, early in the morning, and all that was on the sidewalk were used condoms and crack vials. So you’d go (mimes stepping on used condoms and crack vials) ‘crunch! squelch! crunch! squelch!’ I mean there was no way around it. And then I’d go in many days I’d open it up and there’d be a gal in there with a pipe, “You know the sun’s already up?” “No, really…” “Yeah, better run…” So that led to crack on the brain when it came to Frankenhooker.
Question from audience: Are you working on anything exciting at the moment?
FH: Exciting? No… But I have a film that we’re finishing this December, it’s not a horror film though, it’s not even exploitation, none of my fans are going to like it, but it’s a true story about three Williamsburg, Brooklyn hipsters who are so enamoured of street art that they go to New Orleans to steal a piece of Banksy art right off the side of a building. I knew these kids and the story just fell into my lap so why not make it.
I’m also doing a documentary about comic book artist Mike Diana who was the first and only comic book… What?
Comment from audience: I’m a big Mike Diana fan.
FH: You should tell him that, he’s here.
Comment from audience: What?
Frank points out Mike Diana to general surprise.
FH: He’s the first comic book artist, maybe the first and only, ever to be arrested for obscenity in the United States in 1994. When he told me about it I thought this was so unbelievable so we’re doing a documentary on that and it’s pretty good. I went down to Austin, Texas to meet with the prosecutor who wanted to put him away for three years in prison for drawing what he thought were dirty pictures. Un-fucking-believable. I mean America, the land of the free, you know what I’m saying? You have to fight for your rights and that’s what this film is reminding everybody.
Frank will discuss Frankenhooker in part two, coming soon!