Frank Henenlotter Interview: Born to be Bad
“The blood came from a girl whose brains I sucked out!” So penis-shaped parasite Aylmer informs the hapless Brian in Brain Damage, and it’s the kind of deliriously fruity dialogue you’ll find in all of Frank Henenlotter’s movies. The New York splatter director’s other credits include the much-loved Basket Case (and its two sequels), and the outrageous comic horror Frankenhooker. Now, after a 16-year hiatus, Henenlotter’s back with a new movie entitled Bad Biology – the everyday story of a girl with seven clitorises who falls for a guy tormented by his monster penis. “I think eccentrically and I’m a strange little person,” he admits to Matt McAllister.
Bad Biology is your first film in 16 years. The inevitable first question is what have you been doing in that time?
Oh, you know, sleeping in a corner (laughs). No, I just wasn’t doing films, that’s all. I decided that it didn’t seem to be working out the way that I wanted it to be, so I sort of moved on. Mainly I was behind the scenes at Something Weird Video.
That’s the exploitation distribution company, right?
Yeah. I got involved with them when they were a small mail order company and we just kept making it grow and grow till we had DVDs polluting every DVD store in America – before the stores all disappeared, you know?
What does the term ‘exploitation film’ mean to you, and would you say that you make exploitation films?
I’m glad that you brought that up. Because I never felt that I made ‘horror films’, I always felt that I made exploitation films. Exploitation films have an attitude more than anything – an attitude that you don’t find with mainstream Hollywood productions. They’re a little ruder, a little raunchier, they deal with material people don’t usually touch on, whether it’s sex or drugs or rock and roll.
They’re what I grew up on. I used to cut high school when I was growing up on Long Island. I’d take the train into Manhattan and would go to 42nd Street back when it was the greatest paradise in the world. I remember it was just nothing but theatre after theatre after theatre after theatre. And my head would spin! It was never a question of, ‘Oh, what shall I see?’ It was a case of ‘How many shall I see?’ It was glorious. Whether it was low budget horror films or sexploitation films or foreign films or just grubby little strange things that you never saw again. And you wouldn’t see these films anywhere else except in that wretched little street. It was just paradise!
So an ‘exploitation movie’ has positive connotations for you…
Oh, I’m proud of it! When I do exploitation it gives me the freedom to go a little nuts. I mean, I’d only say I work in ‘horror films’ so that the people that sell it have a safe label to put on it – “What category is it going to be on the shelves? Oh, horror.” And that’s fine.
But if you look at my films they’re really crazy, and I like the way I can blend comedy, horror and sex and just sometimes… self-indulgence! (Laughs) I don’t think there’s a bad joke I won’t chase. Bad Biology is the biggest homage to exploitation films ever made. I just thought, ‘let’s go back and make an exploitation film as if the world still wanted them!’ (Laughs manically)
And exploitation movies – including your own films – often have wonderfully lurid titles and artwork too…
Well, I’m still a sucker for one-sheet movie posters. But 42nd Street took it one step further. They didn’t trust the movie posters to be lurid and garish enough for the people that were walking down the street. So they would build these beautiful plywood archways, a collage of photos, painted on blood and stuff like that. They would put it across the entrance, right over the archway of the lobby, so you’d have to walk under it. So you’re looking at basically innocuous photos like a woman in a brassiere, but there’d be the word ‘LURID!’ written underneath it. Or if they showed scenes of people fighting or a monster they’d have to add blood to the monster’s mouth and blood to the people fighting!
I spent years getting ripped off even though I always knew that the film I was going to see wouldn’t have those things from the poster in them. But you know what? What if it did? You had to make sure, know what I mean? (Laughs)
Looking at them now, Basket Case and Brain Damage almost seem like time capsules of New York in the 1980s. It’s a world away from the glitzy NYC we usually see on screen today…
New York is just a city for the rich now. Places like Times Square and 42nd Street were once hell holes of every sin known to man – that’s what I liked about them! I liked the fact it was sex and drugs and dirty movies. It was just horrible, and I loved it, I lived in it, I wallowed in it. Today it’s for tourists! It’s like Disneyland. And so is Times Square – I never thought they would clean it up. So I have no interest in those areas anymore. A lot of the flavour of old New York has spread to Brooklyn. That’s why I shot Bad Biology in Brooklyn.
In Basket Case, when Kevin Van Hentenryck runs through the street bare-ass naked, we did that without any permission because we knew that in the area we were filming in, there’s no one there at night. There’s no cars, no traffic, there were no people watching us – it didn’t matter what we did. Today, it’s called TriBeCa! It’s huge, it’s very chic, there’s all these clubs… (groans). I think I’ll stay out of there now.
Going back to Bad Biology, how did you come to hook up with your co-writer and co-producer, the rapper R.A. the Rugged Man?
R.A. is one of my closest friends. He called me out of the blue one day. He was 19 years old and signed to Jive records at the time, and he wanted to do a music video. He said, “Oh, I love Basket Case and Brain Damage, would you do a music video for me?” I said, “What kind of music video?” and he said, “Hip hop.” I thought, “I don’t know the first thing about hip hop…” So, of course, I replied, “Sure!” So we did it. Then he did this marvellous bit of self-destructing at Jive – quite deliberate – to get them to drop him from the label, and he went into exile for a couple of years.
Anyway, we’ve remained friends, we talk on the phone every day, we’ve hung out over the years. I started to introduce him to my favourite exploitation films. He’d come over and load up videos of Herschell Gordon Lewis and Russ Meyer. Because when you’re 19 or 20, all you want is tits and blood, right? But eventually he’s looking at my shelves with a confused look and going “That’s a movie by Fellini? And who’s this Buster Keaton?” I finally said, “Well why don’t you try one…” And he became the biggest Fellini fan, the biggest Buster Keaton fan… So he’s a hugely knowledgeable guy about all aspects of film, though he won’t admit he likes the art stuff (laughs).
I’ve made a number of videos for him over the years, a lot of underground stuff – he’s like me, he doesn’t want the mainstream. When I was making a video for him we’d make sure that it couldn’t possibly play on MTV or any decent channel. It was meant to go out in clubs and it was meant to cause a stink.
We kept saying, “It’s a shame we can’t do a film. Where will we get the money for a film?” And then he was in a position where he got a small amount of money to do a film. He said, “Do you want to do one?” And I replied, “Well, yeah. If we’ve only got a small amount of money let’s make something so objectionable and so odd that people have to notice.” That was our scheme!
Another big exploitation name pops up in Bad Biology – James Glickenhaus, director of The Exterminator and The Protector…
Yeah! He produced Frankenhooker and Basket Case 2 and Basket Case 3. He had never appeared in a film before, aside from a little cameo in one of his. And I love having people from past films in my stuff.
He dropped out of filmmaking about a year after I did. And I heard so many people saying over the years, “Oh, I heard Glickenhaus is dead.” I kept saying “No he’s not!” As soon as I wrote that scene in Bad Biology I thought, “Oh this would be great for Jim.” And he jumped at it. He even asked me if I could write a part for him in the next one!
How smooth was the shoot for Bad Biology? After all, stories are rife about shocked crew members walking off the set of your previous movies…
Well, it was a lot smoother because we never let the entire crew have scripts! On the day that we brought one of the major props on set – and I won’t say what it is for the readers, let them be surprised – but the moment we brought that on there was a mix of panic and hysteria spreading through the crew. They were going “What the hell is he doing?” But we shot the scene really quickly – I think they were too startled to run! They were just kind of, “Okay…”
I thought it was the smoothest shoot I’ve ever had. I mean, that big, beautiful mansion that we were filming in had no heating or hot water, so it was very unpleasant. But it didn’t phase me at all. And I worked with a very small crew – probably the smallest crew since Basket Case – and they were all good. It was just like being in the trenches every minute, we were just so focused on getting those shots. I thought it was wonderful.
You seem to take pleasure in grossing people out. There’s that scene in Bad Biology where one person’s reaction to the vagina-faced photoshoot is “This is crude, gutter level filth! This is vile and disgusting!”
Oh, sure – I was writing my own review! I mean that scene – it’s such a simple shot, and you haven’t seen that in any other film have you? And it’s meant to provoke people, it’s meant to have people saying, “Oh Jesus Christ, what does he think he’s doing?”
We felt that way on the set before. We were honestly making this film shaking our heads, saying, “What the hell are we up to?” And that was half of the fun!
You didn’t have any trouble with the censors this time around?
Oh, we never intended to get this rated in the US. If it was up to me, even if I did a PG movie, I wouldn’t get it rated. I just don’t believe in that.
I’ve found that the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] has been so ridiculously unfair in the past. I’m sure that the people who were around when we did Frankenhooker aren’t there today, but I don’t care, it still angers me. The head of the MPAA, a guy named Richard Hefner, called us up after he saw Frankenhooker saying, “Congratulations! You’ve just been rated ‘S’.” And the girl at our production company said, “Er, ‘S’ for Sex?” And he replied, “No, ‘S’ for Shit!” Well, if that’s their attitude, I don’t think that they’re impartial and I don’t think they can be trusted.
But I know that Bad Biology passed without a single cut in the UK, which is marvellous. I think they had enough common sense.
Of course, your movies aren’t all about sex and gore. The plots all seem to revolve around an unusual relationship of some kind. Take Brian and Aylmer in Brain Damage for instance…
Anytime I’m not in a relationship, I get really miserable and hate the world – so I’m usually in relationships. Brain Damage was written just after I’d had a messy break-up. I was pretty devastated and I hated all of humanity (laughs). You know, that’s really where all of that film flowed from. I also had a serious addiction to cocaine at the time. So put those two things together and you’ve got Brain Damage!
Were you in a more positive state of mind when you made Bad Biology?
Oh yeah. I’m in a healthy relationship and it’s wonderful, and I haven’t touched cocaine in over 10 years. But the mind still works the same way. I think I’m happier now than I’ve been in my entire life, yet I think that Bad Biology is the darkest thing I’ve ever made. And it’s so screwed up, and I like the fact that I haven’t mellowed.
Have you ever been tempted to jump into the Hollywood mainstream like other splatter directors Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson?
Sure. I once had an agent that was pushing me there, I was taking meetings at Disney for Chrissake! And Columbia… I was on the studio backlots. There were three projects that they were talking about. And none of them happened, of course. I just wasn’t happy. I mean, everything that I did had to be watered down and changed a little bit. I was so uncomfortable with it, and I realised it wasn’t going to be my movie anymore – I’d just be this guy on set yelling ‘Action!’ It was not a good experience for me – even though I could have had it. And if I tried to make a more mainstream film, it wouldn’t feel right. I think eccentrically and I’m a strange little person, you know?
You’d have presumably lost a lot of freedom if you’d made a big studio movie, too…
I’ve never really had that freedom except for Basket Case, Brain Damage and Bad Biology. Frankenhooker was supposed to be an R-rated film, that’s why there was such a war over that. The studio was very clear that they wanted ‘R-rated’ movies, and there were a lot of things in the script of Basket Case 2 that had to be changed and toned down. And I didn’t begrudge that, I understood that when I signed the contract and went into the deal. So I’m not complaining, I’m just stating that’s what it was like. The beauty of Bad Biology was that R.A. and I were our own bosses, God help us.
How do you feel about the sequels to Basket Case now?
Believe it or not I like Basket Case 2. I always did. And that’s because I wanted to do a different film. I know everyone got annoyed because I didn’t remake part one. But, no, I couldn’t conceive of the two of them still hanging out in a sleazy atmosphere, and I just didn’t feel like doing that movie again.
My original idea was to have Dwayne Bradley just have a small part in the film, but SG [Shapiro-Glickenhaus Home Video] said, “No, no, we want to call it Basket Case 2.” I wanted to call it ‘House of Freaks’. So that was the first thing – I had to write those characters into the film! I had to meet them at the halfway point. But I liked the idea that I was taking freaks and putting them in a very different situation, and that’s what appealed to me about the film. I like it very much.
But as for Basket Case 3, that’s an absolute disaster! That may be the worst film ever made in the history of mankind. For lots of reasons, but I accept total blame on that. It was not the film I had set out to make. For some reason, in my head I thought I had a greenlight to do another X-rated Basket Case-style movie with blood and gore. So it was designed to be a very gory film. So when that option was pulled – 11 pages were taken out of the script – I didn’t know what to do.
We were also running out of money, so the only way I could get it done was basically rewrite the script on the spur of the moment. And the result is, oh my God… There were good people involved with that movie. But unfortunately there was a lunatic at the helm who didn’t know what he was doing.
Presumably it’s put you off making another one…
Oh yeah. That was very much part of me saying, “It’s check out time!” Because if I can’t have control over these, I don’t want to make them. They weren’t fun. But I remember seeing a great review of Basket Case 3 in Variety! I read it going, “Dear God, they liked it!” They said, “If this is a sign of the future of this franchise, we think it’s great!” I’m thinking, “NO!!”
I didn’t just stop making films overnight. I wrote a couple of scripts after that to see if I could get more crazy shit made, and they were rejected everywhere. All I heard everywhere was, “Well, we don’t want to do this but we’d love to do Basket Case 4!” ARRRRGGHHHHH!
Have you ever been approached about doing a remake of Basket Case?
No. Isn’t that funny? I’ve had people ask me about doing remakes and musical versions of Frankenhooker – and I haven’t liked anything that I’ve heard yet, so I haven’t acted on it. But with Basket Case nobody seems to want to do it. Just as well actually…
Do you think it’ll be another 16 years before you make your next movie?
No, I don’t think so. But with the economy, who knows? I have two projects and ideas in the works, but it’s all contingent on whether we can get the finance we need in this economic gloom. I want to do something a lot of different. We’ve got an idea for a horror film that is actually scary, which I’ve never done before. I hope we do it!
Bad Biology is released on DVD (region 2) on 2 March 2009. Interview originally published on Total Sci-Fi.
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