Reviewed by: David Graham

The films of Frank Hennenlotter have developed a cult following thanks to his combination of street-level grittiness, witty trashiness and underlying intelligence. Basket Case fused 42nd Street sleaze with outrageous horror, while Brain Damage used surreal imagery and a slasher-movie structure to posit a surprisingly nuanced drug allegory. Frankenhooker may sound like a toning down of his underground sensibilities, but it's actually one of the writer-director's most audacious and well-rounded examples of his unique forte, investing the sublimely silly with real heart and satirical humour. Having been a considerable hit on VHS thanks to its talking cover, the film faded into obscurity for the best part of the last 20 years, so it's great to have the chance to reassess it today thanks to Arrow's peerless presentation.

Due to a freak lawnmower accident, New Jersey boffin Jeffrey has recently lost his lovely girlfriend, not to mention a few of his marbles (which may have rolled out of the holes he drills in his head to let off steam). Hatching a plan to fabricate a body to go with his love's thankfully intact head, Jeffrey develops an explosive new strain of supercrack with which to ensnare NYC's streetwalkers. However, he doesn't count on his resurrected Elizabeth taking on some of her body-donors' more antisocial trends; with an undead prostitute on the prowl in night-time Manhattan and a psychotic pimp hot on their heels, Jeffrey's science experiment threatens to turn lethal.

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Filmed back-to-back with Basket Case 2 in true Roger Corman fashion, Frankenhooker is an immensely charming little oddity that perhaps makes more sense today as a straight-up, John Waters-style comedy than it did 20 years ago as a censor-baiting 'horror' film (it defies belief that the film was both edited down to be suitable for family audiences and in other incarnations shorn of some of its tongue-in-cheek excess for adults). A gleefully kitsch riff on Re-animator featuring the fakest body parts since Herschell Gordon Lewis' Sixties hey-day, it's as colourfully cartoony as Hennenlotter fans could hope, even if it does forego the grotty nastiness of his other work.

A combination of cheapjack sets and grubby real-life locations are doused in the sort of gaudy lighting that sadly became a mere Eighties hangover, with tongue-in-wooden-cheek performances bringing nocturnal New York's sleazeball denizens to life. It's the sort of film that you can watch repeatedly just for the energetic mugging of bit-part players, and to soak up all of the punkishly throwaway details that show how much love and care went into such low-budget fare.

Initial suburban scenes prove a little grating, with some of Jeffrey's maniacal monologues rambling on for way too long, but as the action moves into the city, the combination of seedily amusing prostitutes, crummy motel room atmosphere and knowingly cheesy Eighties music kicks things up a notch. Then - in an extended scene of extremely bad taste done in the least offensive manner possible - things get unforgettably explicit and explosive, half-naked hookers blown apart in spectacular bloodless showers of mannequin limbs and 4th-of-July fireworks. It's all so lovingly trashy that it's impossible not to go along with the anything-goes vibe, the special effects standing out in particular as being an ingenious mix of the genuinely inventive and the deliberately, shamelessly unconvincing.

Hennenlotter's staging of the pivotal resurrection scene pays loving tribute to the Universal classics (listen out for those endlessly sampled thundercracks), with Jeffrey's reassembled Elizabeth aping the indelible doe-eyed jerkiness of Elsa Lanchester in the original Bride Of Frankenstein to both heart-warming and hilarious effect. However, the film really comes into its own with the eponymous zombie whore's impending rampage, Patty Mullen proving a comedic goldmine of amped-up facial tics and regurgitated hooker-speak. Everything about the character is dead-on; from the subtly impressive full-body make-up, to the garish purple fright-wig and matching slutty costume (she even has purple nipples!), it's a crying shame that Frankenhooker herself hasn't become either a Hallowe'en costume perennial or Elvira-style horror-crowd staple. Coming into the film so late only reinforces what a great invention she is, making you wish Hennenlotter had cut to the chase sooner instead of goofing around with Lorinz's schizoid schtick for the best part of the first hour.

As an original Jerky Boy and Street Trash cast member, Lorinz has a reputation for far-out humour; he's reminiscent here of legendary Method thesp Michael Moriarty in Larry Cohen's classic B-flick tributes Q The Winged Serpent and The Stuff, but he's not as memorably whacked-out in anything other than a childish sense. The script begs comparison to Weird Science with its similar parodying of male objectification, but it's not quite as funny or sweet as John Hughes' evergreen classic. Penthouse Pet Patty Mullen is unquestionably Hennenlotter's trump card; Bill Murray's patronage of the film seems largely to be in appreciation of her efforts - she's every bit as rib-ticklingly game as Kelly LeBrock was in her own modelling-breakout role - so it's a real shame her cinematic career never really got any further.

Taking half-cocked pot-shots at everything from chat show TV to sidewalk evangelists, Hennenlotter just about gets by on his good nature and exploitation-roots purity. Climaxing with a genuinely subversive twist, Frankenhooker is a brash but lovable genre piece that stands up to repeat viewing and makes a welcome addition to the Arrow library, offering more straight-up pleasure than the likes of the similarly trashy Savage Streets. Fans will have a ball getting reacquainted with its dubious delights, while newcomers may be surprised by just how much fun such unrepentant nonsense can be.

Reviewed on: 20 Feb 2012
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Frankenhooker packshot
After his girlfriend is decapitated, a former medical student aims to build her a new body from pieces of streetwalkers.
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Director: Frank Henenlotter

Writer: Frank Henenlotter, Robert Martin

Starring: James Lorinz, Joanne Ritchie, Patty Mullen

Year: 1990

Runtime: 85 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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