Through the ten year period between 1982 and 1992, Frank Henenlotter put his own stamp on the exploitation movie with a slew of twisted creations. Revelling in a world of freaks, gore and gratuitous nudity, Henenlotter crafted a midnight movie classic with his debut Basket Case before taking the weirdness to extreme new levels for follow-up Brain Damage, adding a sexploitation spin to a classic piece of literature with Frankenhooker, and upping the freak quota considerably for Basket Case’s two sequels. Honored with a retrospective the director made the journey from his beloved New York to Paris for L’Etrange festival, delighting fans with tales of working in the low-rent side of cinema. Full of fascinating insight into the weird world of filmmaking, Frank was a charming guest - just don’t mention the MPAA…
Tell me about how you first started getting into exploitation cinema.
Well, I would go see anything, anything quite honestly. I would see art films, whatever I could, I just loved movies. I didn't really discriminate although I loved the exploitation films.
Were there any restrictions on you getting into those movies?
No, no, no. On 42nd street there usually wasn’t. When things switched over to porno then you had to look like an adult; well, you had to be eighteen. It was the height of the Vietnam war and you had to show them your draft card and that proved it. They didn't care in New York City if you looked eighteen, they’d let you in, but in Long Island where I saw most of them there was only one theater were they showed adult movies because it was still not acceptable. The shock was you didn't see nudity in Hollywood movies then, so to walk in and look and see bare breasts was amazing! You didn't even care what the plot was, actually that was what the plot was! Tits! That's the plot. Anything else that followed who cares!
Midnight movies were few and far between because usually they lasted at midnight for ages you know. I mean, when Basket Case played midnight at a theater a couple of blocks from me, which is how it first opened, it lasted for two and a half years.
Yeah, I know right? It’s crazy.
In fact me and the producer actually took it out of the theater because the company that put it out went bankrupt, though not because of my film! But the company went bankrupt and we wanted to give it to another distributor and have it play normal hours across the country, which it did. Otherwise it would have just kept sitting there playing because it was making money so why get rid of it, you know?
Things were a lot different in those days because there was really no home video so that's why everybody went to the movies. One of the problems I always had was, can I get a seat up close? They were always packed theatres. Especially on 42nd street, because in those days they didn't care when you entered the film you could walk in any time you wanted, they didn't tell you the film was already in progress, so people would walk in ten minutes before the end and sit through it and leave ten minutes before the end when they got up to where they saw it from. That’s the way it was back then.
What influenced you to make Basket Case, what were the films you were watching?
The influence simply was that was I doing my own little crazy movies for myself. I wasn't showing them, I just liked making movies for myself. I was doing one and I met Edgar Ievans and he said to me , he was a friend, and he walked over to me one day when I was on the floor making some kind of model or something and he asked what I was doing and he laughed and said if he could get some money he wanted to make a feature film. And I thought, “Sure, why not? Let’s do it” Because I thought if we could get a little bit of money then we could at least get it shown on 42nd street. I didn't take it seriously about making a great film or anything but I just thought it would be fun to do. Turns out he couldn't raise any money but between the two of us we got a little and started shooting and then we got a little more. I just thought that commercially, making a horror film would be the cheapest and easiest thing to get sold. I figured it would play one week on 42nd street and that would be it. I knew the deficiencies the film had. I knew I had no money. I mean, I knew how it was turning out. And it was also one of the reasons I kept adding comedy to it because I thought we wouldn't be able to sell it any other way. So I was very surprised when we were able to sell it to a company that wanted to put it out as a midnight film and when they did they thought it would play better as a comedy. So when they first put it out they cut out all the gore, cut out all the blood. It was a disaster and I begged them not to do it. I said the blood is part of the humour, part of what makes it funny. And they didn’t listen, so they put it out and it played two midnight theatres, one in New York, one in Texas, oh, and one in San Francisco. And it died. No one went to see it. It stunk and then about three months later they wanted to open it Dallas so they asked a gentleman named John Bloom who writes under the name ‘Joe Bob Briggs’ the drive in movie critic. His column was very popular so they asked him if he would host the premier. He was the guy who first watched Basket Case because he saw it at the Cannes film festival. When he heard that it was cut he said wouldn’t show it. He wouldn't do it unless they saw the uncut version. So they did, they left the film playing in Dallas and all of a sudden it started selling out. They thought, “Oh, wow” and they never told me but all of a sudden they replaced all the cut prints with the uncut print and suddenly, I was surprised because I walked past the theatre one night in New York and the line was going around the block. And I’m thinking, “What the hell is this for!?” I didn't think it was for my film! So it had a few growing pains but once it got out it did well.
Nowadays everyone has camera phones, everyone has editing software on their computers, and it’s much easier to make a movie on a low budget. How did it go about getting a feature together back then?
We made Basket Case in 16mm. and by then I already had experience with a 16mm camera; they were accessible. You could still edit 16mm at home, which is what I did. But once I finished Basket Case and was editing it with sound and everything. There were places you could rent editing equipment and sit there and edit until any hour of the day, which is necessary if you’re adding soundtrack to it. Same when we switched to 35mm for Brain Damage. I was editing that myself and it's a great way to learn, I thought it was better to learn how to do it with film because it taught you the value of every frame. You had to make sure every cut worked because it was a pain in the ass to reassemble. I mean, I’ve now done five movies on the computer, and I look back and think “My god, this is a thousand times easier”. But that was the way it was and that's the evolution of things you know.
I love movies set in New York in the eighties, the city looked so violent and dangerous, not even just in exploitation films but in mainstream stuff like Ghostbusters. The city looks so wild.
Things were bad but that's exaggerated. Nevertheless, there were areas of New York City you didn’t walk through. You didn't. You just avoided it. The whole city has been gentrified and taken over by the rich so these poverty struck areas where crime was prevalent have been replaced by a bigger menace, which is tourists and rich people. I’d rather go back to the days of junkies than rich people! But yeah, it was a crazy atmosphere it was wilder, it started in the seventies and it just kept going. When you’re a New Yorker you have a sixth sense, you always know what’s around you, what’s going on, so I didn’t have any trouble. But I can see why it was scary, especially for a tourist coming in.
What was it like filming there for Basket Case and Frankenhooker?
The only problem I had with Basket Case was filming on 42nd street. There were a number of problems with people getting in front of the camera and things like that. Of course you couldn't complain cos’ then you’d get a knife in your belly! I‘ll tell you how crazy it was; we did the scene where you first see the character walking down the street, Kevin Van Hentenryck holding the basket. I think it's the first time we were filming on 42nd street and we’re following him in a van as he’s walking down the street. It's a beautiful shot as you can see right into stores and everything. I’m behind the camera and I was focusing on Kevin and all of a sudden this shape appeared in the van! It was some guy who worked at the porno store and he jumped, he literally, physically jumped into the van because the side door was open in order to get the shot, and he started screaming that he was, “Going to kill us” and “Who the fuck are we?” And Kevin calmed him down, he said ”Woah, woah, woah, we’re filming a horror movie we’re not filming your store, we’re filming a horror movie.” The guy thought we were from a local news channel which had been around earlier that night and when he heard that we were just shooting some stupid horror movie he was so apologetic, “Oh, I’m sorry guys, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” he was like a different guy! I even said to him, “If you want we can shoot the shot but we won’t show the store.” and he was like “It’s fine, it’s fine!” Scary things like that you know!
We had Kevin Van Hentenryck run naked down the street in an area that was deserted at night and now it’s one of the richest neighborhoods and it’s never deserted, but then it was all empty factories and stuff.
Do you miss that kind of scuzzy vibe it all had?
Like anyone, you miss the area that you grew up with. I loved 42nd Street and Times Square area because I loved the movies so much and I never thought it would end. And the New York I grew up in is completely gone. There were stores where you could buy lobby cards, movie posters and stills. Just in my neighborhood there used to be 40 video stores. Much of what I loved has now disappeared. I live in a New York that is not the New York that I grew up in and it’s not the New York I loved anymore.
You prefer the term exploitation filmmaker over horror filmmaker or any other term. What is it about the term ‘exploitation’ that appeals to you?
I think its more accurate description but, I’m not offended by the term ‘horror movie director’. The word horror doesn't bother me it’s just that I think none of the films I’ve made were intending to scare anybody. They were all wacked out comedies. I love the comic aspect of everything. And you know I tried to put gratuitous nudity in everything. And I love the gore, you know I have the elements of exploitation in all of my films. It gives me a certain freedom if I had to make a movie where I had to worry about making an audience jump I wouldn't be interested, I like the fact that I can make them laugh or get grossed out. That to me is more fun. That's the only distinction I put into it, you know.
How did you come up with the creature design for Basket Case?
I wanted a head with arms, and a misshapen body, I had some ideas but a makeup effects guy called Kevin Haney, a young kid from Ohio, he wanted to get in the business. He came up, we bought a load of clay and we molded it and he did a spectacular job. I would just come and say things like, “Oh, make that look like intestines or at one point he stuck a soda bottle in the clay he was going to mold and I said, “Make it a bone” and he laughed and did it. But it’s Kevin’s design and it’s Kevin Van Hentenryck’s face in one of the designs. It was all through having a great makeup artist that I was able to do it. From us he got a job working on Saturday Night Live. Your effects are only as good as your effects people, you know? I was lucky to start with Kevin Haney.
In Basket Case 2 you up the freak quota considerably and incorporate some really imaginative designs, how did you come up with them? Was it another collaboration?
I always work very closely with Gabe (special makeup effects artist Gabriel Bartalos) but again, you have a weird thing, we always look at the effects in the film and I think they’re mine and he thinks they’re his. And that's the way it should be. We both feel like they’re our own but the truth is they’re a combination of us both. It’s mostly Gabe, I had ideas, I would say “Let’s make a person with giant teeth and he would burst out laughing and go “gotcha!”. You know that kind of stuff, and then he had an idea we’d go with that. When we were working on those films he always did the makeup on our sets or nearby so I was always able to go there and check things out and every time he’d have a new idea he’d say, “Frank, when you get a chance to come by…” he knew that if I started laughing it was great. We worked very well together, it was great.
Did you have a favorite amongst those characters?
No, they all made me laugh. It was crazy directing a room full of mutants like that, it really was because it was hard to take it seriously, it was so funny. And all the freaks, it was so difficult for the actors because their visibility was so limited and in some cases air was limited too. Every freak was assigned a freak wrangler, as we called it, and that was a person who guided each one of them on the set. If they were thirsty they provided long straws that they could drink from and if it would get warm we had those little hand fans they could stick inside the mouth so they could get some air. It was very rough for the actors. It was crazy, it was like directing a circus, I loved it!
Was there any reason you stopped doing films for such a longtime?
Well, the market drastically hanged. Many of the theaters in America disappeared and when they started disappearing exploitation films and the companies that made them started disappearing. I had a great relationship with Shapiro-Glickenhaus entertainment and a year after Basket Case 3 they folded because there was no place to sell the films anymore. DVD companies started disappearing. At the time I wanted to go more extreme, to make more experimental films at a time when the market wanted more realistic films. I realized I should take a break. I didn't know how to raise money for a film. I tried. Eventually I got involved with Something Weird Video and made that a career for 16-years and became a partner. That was wonderful. I could find tons of old exploitation and sexploitation films the world had forgotten about that we wouldn’t let them forget about! We decided to get them out there and what surprised us was how well they sold, it was extremely profitable. I made more money in the years with Something Weird Video than I ever did making movies, so I was much better off financially. That changed as well once the video stores disappeared almost overnight; once they closed we knew it was the end.
Do you that here at L’Etrange Frankenhooker is rated 12!
Oh I know! That film got an X-rating. An X-rating! By the MPAA, those motherfuckers. I have no idea what they’re like today because if I had a children’s film I wouldn't submit it for a rating. But they were so fucking corrupt back then it was unbelievable. In fact the guy who ran the ratings board, he actually called Shapiro-Glickenhaus to say what the rating was. The girl answered the phone and he said, “Congratulations, your film’s has just been rated S”. She was confused she said, “Like S for Sex?” He said, “No, S for Shit.
So he was just calling to insult you?
Yeah. And James Glickenhaus went public with that and publically humiliated the MPAA at the time. They were embarrassed that they got caught harassing us. Stupid idiots. I mean after that you just wouldn't trust them. And we didn't put it out with an X, you didn't have to accept the rating. We just put it out unrated. My favorite was the film Mario Van Peebles directed, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.When it got an X rating he put it on a poster, “Rated-X by an all white jury”, I thought he really did that perfectly!. You see the MPAA is funded by the major studios, that's why an act of violence in a film that Paramount releases gets an R, an act of violence from an independent film gets an X. Fuck them. Fuck em’. Fuck em’. Fuck em’. Fuck em’. Fuck em’.