Despite having not released a film since 1992’s Basket Case 3: The Progeny, director Frank Henenlotter is still beset by enamored fans and sexploitation junkies who dig up his home phone number and pester him at all hours of the night.
“It started way back with Basket Case,” he says. “Every misfit on the planet thought I was writing about them—or thought I wanted to hang out with them. Occasionally, people will leave these messages that really scare the shit out of me.”
Those obsessive fans would probably counter that what’s really nuts is that until this year, Henenlotter hadn’t helmed a film since George H.W. Bush was in office. But that’s a decision the 58-year-old appears at ease with, insisting that it was the broader movie culture that left him behind, unable to find a place for his mondo-weirdo brand of sexploitation-horror.
Henenlotter’s moviemaking odyssey began when, as a teenager living on Long Island in the mid 1960s, he took to riding the train into Manhattan and visiting its then-notorious Times Square, specifically a stretch of dilapidated movie houses sandwiched together between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. These early grindhouses, with their plywood archways stuffed with come-hither photo collages of barely-covered breasts and horror posters slathered with fake blood, became his safe haven.
So enamored was Henenlotter with 42nd Street’s dingy entertainments that he was soon ditching school to spend his days there and making no-budget 8mm shorts with titles like Lurid Women and Slash of the Knife. A nagging feeling began to take hold that, if given the chance, he could make exploitation features at least as good as the ones of his idols. By the end of the 1970s, he had begun brainstorming ideas for a 16mm shocker; it would have to be something with a punchy title that signified utter madness—perhaps something synonymous with “psycho.”
Basket Case, the story of a man and his gruesome, homicidal Siamese twin, was a bona fide cult phenomenon, embraced (Joe Bob Briggs) and derided (Rex Reed) by name critics and referenced in the works of artists as globally-known as The Rolling Stones. Though its success did little to secure Henenlotter financially, it did allow him to direct 1988’s Brain Damage, which led to a two-picture deal with indie company Shapiro-Glickenhaus. For that distributor, he was contracted to direct a much-anticipated sequel to Basket Case, as well as an original script about a man trying to reassemble his unfortunately dismembered girlfriend.
Although today he expresses great admiration for both Frankenhooker and Basket Case 2, their making, within a system of studio control and its inevitable compromises, was not to Henenlotter’s liking. Struggles over the content and ratings for each film further drained his enthusiasm, and a personal battle with cocaine was also complicating things by this point.
Eventually, in a decision he now regards as fateful, Henenlotter signed a deal to crank out a third Basket Case film and ended up locked into a nightmare production, plagued by money woes and creative apathy. His zeal for moviemaking had now begun to evaporate.
“I got trapped when I agreed to do Basket Case 3,” says Henenlotter. “It was a terrible idea, but it was a franchise, so it made sense. At the time the market was just falling apart; all of the exploitation companies were disappearing and the theaters were disappearing. I was writing the weirdest stuff—going in a different direction—and nobody would touch what I wanted to do. All I kept hearing was ‘We really hate this idea. It doesn’t make sense and it’s not commercial. But we’d love to do Basket Case 4!’ That’s when I thought, ‘You know what? Maybe it’s better for me to just disappear.’”
Which is exactly what he did. Going sans agent and turning down the occasional slasher script that passed across his desk, Henenlotter left his gallery of exploding hookers and talking brain parasites for fans to chew on while he turned his attention to other interests, including film preservation. Henenlotter’s laudable work in that area has resulted in the compilation and distribution of a number of lost 1970s exploitation classics. He’s also been busy prepping a documentary on exploitation maestro Herschell Gordon Lewis. The director’s chair has remained empty, however… until now.
Bad Biology is a suitably low-budget, cheerfully revolting tale of a young woman equipped with genetically evolved sex organs that make her both completely insatiable and able to deliver babies—writhing, animatronic puppet babies—to term two hours after being impregnated, which she gruntingly delivers in bathtubs and then blithely deposits in nearby dumpsters. Need I say more?
Ryan Stewart (MM): So, are you back to directing full-time?
Frank Henenlotter (FH): I don’t know if I’m going to continue. I’ve only made six movies, so it’s not like it’s been a career. This one just fell into place very nicely. I’ve known the producer of the film, R.A. the Rugged Man, since he was 19 and we both wanted to do something over-the-top.
I thought it would be fun to make a sex film that hadn’t been made yet… I remember having a line on a piece of paper: “I was born with six clits.” I showed it to R.A. and he said, “No, not six, that’s satanic; let’s do seven, that’s biblical!”
MM: Were you a fan of rap culture? A lot of it ends up in the film.
FH: I grew up on Frank Zappa, but R.A. is a very well-known underground rapper. He’s got a huge following and a lot of friends. He’s the one who asked, “Can we put some rap into this?” I thought about it and it didn’t really matter what the genre of music was—if it fits, it fits.
MM: Would you say that you’re a laidback director?
FH: Very much so. I like it very low-key, as long as everybody’s working. This one was a joy, because it was very much like the days of making Basket Case and Brain Damage, where I had virtually no crew… I was in the trenches every minute. It was very exhilarating to be back doing it that way. I loved operating the 35mm and solving the problems and doing all the shit right there on the spot with really nobody else that you could go to for help. It’s very guerrilla when you film on the streets of New York without permits.
MM: You didn’t get your permits?
FH: Nope. We applied to the Mayor’s Office and they heard that there was a rapper who was a producer and they gave us shit. They started in with, “Well, we need to know the name of every single rapper that’s going to be on the set and we need this and that…” To say it was unfair would be a mild statement. So I said, ‘To hell with you. I’m just gonna go out and do it.’ And we did.
MM: Your lead actress, Charlee Danielson, has quite a wholesome look—she reminds me of a survivor girl from an ’80s slasher film.
FH: She’s a very natural beauty. You wouldn’t expect her to be the star of a crazed-out, lunatic sex film. She doesn’t look like she would do nudity, let alone go ape-shit like she does, and I liked that about her. I thought that to cast someone who was more of a scream queen would go against the grain of the story.
MM: How did you prepare her for those sex scenes?
FH: What I did with her and Anthony Sneed was, we met once a week for almost two months before we started shooting. We’d talk over the entire script and rehearse and do line readings. I also told them where the camera would be for every single shot of every single nude scene and I didn’t change anything on the set. They already knew going in what the camera would see and wouldn’t see. They were very comfortable by the time we did it.
MM: This movie is definitely closer to sexploitation than traditional horror. Do you still identify with the label of “horror director?”
FH: I don’t cringe from it and run away, but I always did horror because it was a commercial genre. What I grew up with was exploitation films. It’s a wider area and it’s why I always tried to mix up my films so much, putting in horror and comedy. Bad Biology and Frankenhooker have obvious, gratuitous sex and violence, which is half the fun of it. Topless scenes for no other reason than, “Let’s have a topless scene!” I’m a big fan of that.
MM: Do you think sexploitation films as a genre are fighting a losing battle with porn these days?
FH: There was always that problem. I mean, real exploitation films officially died in the early 1990s. There was always a tease that was lurking there and you can’t tease somebody when they can go next door and get hardcore porn. It isn’t as teasing anymore, you know? So that all died a while back.
I used to be on 42nd Street six nights a week, seeing as many exploitation films as I could cram in, every single evening. This was back when 42nd Street was nothing but movie theater after movie theater. It bore no resemblance at all to the tourist trap it is today. I used to love that atmosphere. Those were the kinds of films I enjoyed, because you never knew what you were watching. You didn’t know if they took themselves seriously or if it was all tongue-in-cheek.
MM: Do you find it annoying that there’s not much of a theatrical venue for your kind of movies these days?
FH: Nothing annoys me. It’ll find its own audience. They all have. I don’t really concern myself with that. The people who loved Basket Case weren’t exactly the people who loved Brain Damage and Frankenhooker, but somehow they each found their own separate crowd and this one will find its own audience—if not in a movie theater, then on DVD.
We shot in 35mm, but we didn’t make 35mm prints, to save money. That’s a realistic decision and if we do show it, we’ll do it in a beautiful HD master. I’ve seen it projected from HDCAM and, my god, it’s almost cleaner than 35mm. There’s none of that dirt that accumulates around the emulsion of the plastic, you know?
MM: Speaking of Frankenhooker, I heard you’re talking to people about a possible remake?
FH: No, no. Some people were talking to me about it, but I haven’t liked the idea, so that’s the end of that! Actually, what I was asked was if anyone had expressed interest in doing another sequel to Basket Case or a remake, since everyone loves doing remakes. No one has, but over the past couple of years I’ve had a couple of different people call me up out of left field. Once, somebody called me up and said, “Oh, we want to turn it into a Broadway musical!” Really? Okay.
MM: A chorus line of Belials?
FH: I don’t know! I didn’t hear anything back. In a few cases, when I’ve heard that people had ideas and then I heard what they had planned, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a terrible idea.’ I’m not against it, but just because somebody wants to do something doesn’t mean they’re going to. It has to be something good, you know? Now, a Broadway musical based on Frankenhooker could be to die for. That’s the only pitch I wish had happened. With Frankenhooker, you’ve got a built-in chorus line of hookers. To see them explode on Broadway? That would be lovely. MM