Maybe like some other movie fans, I am experiencing a kind of renaissance in movie watching, though I might be a little behind. You see, in the late 80s and 90s, I dove into a metaphorical kidney shaped underground backyard pool filled with horror video tapes. I rented from national chains, small chains, mom-and-pop stores, gas stations, and even acquired some mail-order videos and some bootlegs. I saw all of the important and classic horror films, all the major slasher series, the universal monsters, the rare hammer horror video for rent, some direct-to-video shot-on-video videos, and an occasional rare gem, and I became as much of a completist as I could director-wise and studio-wise. The problem with VHS, however, has always been incorrect aspect ratio, pan-and-scan, multiple generation duplication, and sometimes an incomplete version, a kind of hold-over from the drive-in days when projectionists and drive-in owners would cut out parts of the film, gore or nudity or important plot points usually, you know, all the important stuff to the story.
And then slowly horror movies came out on DVD, special edition DVD, boxed set DVD, and its more expensive cousin Blu-ray, and now 4k transfers, and more and more movie theaters are able to show films digitally. What some of us have discovered is that the movies we saw—the low-budget, low-quality movies with faded colors, bad composition, glitchy-looking editing, scratchy transfers, and much more—were merely low-budget films with great color, perfect composition, good editing, perfectly transferred and much more. They look as good as the multi-million dollar productions by the well-known directors whose films win the big awards and screen at film schools and museums.
The first time I experienced this renaissance was when I bought a DVD copy of Basket Case (1982) written and directed by Frank Henenlotter. Gone was the grain and faded look of multiple generation copies and constant VHS viewing, gone was the TV aspect ratio, gone were the edits you somehow sensed were not right. And what had been in your mind a great story shot poorly, was actually a great story shot perfectly if not magnificently.
The first Basket Case is a classic revenge flick with a simple structure you might see in any revenge flick. It opens in the middle of the story—in medias res—as a doctor is killed in the first ten minutes. What follows is a series of more killings, some planned, some accidental, and it all ends in a glorious shebang. What sets it apart is character, the brilliant and complex motivation for the revenge—and a fun and complex revenge it is—and the slowly doled out mystery. Some of the greatest horror films at their cores are really just mysteries. After all, what is Duane Bradley carrying in the big basket?
I’m sticking to my guns on this, but the first Basket Case is not a horror comedy and is only considered camp in the weakest definition of the term. I admit though that Basket Case 2 (1990) and Basket Case 3 (1991) are definitely horror comedy and outright camp, but I write this with no denigration and accept it as a natural evolution of the series.
When he made Basket Case 2, Henenlotter reversed the plot of Bradley finding love in the original Basket Case, and let—I’m purposefully avoiding spoilers as much as I can here—his brother find love. Henenlotter also changed the environment from what is considered the normal world to the hidden world of freaks. Basket Case 2 and 3 are ultimately Henenlotter’s version with a variation on a theme, consciously or subconsciously, of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), where it’s normal humans versus freaks, but within the environment of those who live with genetic mutation, with at the end of 3 a little bit of freaks versus the world. The 80s were all about non-conformity and embracing your true nature, even in “straight” films, and Henenlotter carries that theme over into the 90s.
If Henenlotter had only done Basket Case and its sequels he would still be a chapter and not a footnote in movie history, but he has done even more, and for that we thank you. Leapfrogging the Basket Case series are Brain Damage (1988) and Frankenhooker (1990).
Brain Damage is the Altered States (1980) meets Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (1998) of low budget horror, and includes singularly the most bizarre parasite outside of a Cronenberg film —or dare I say, inside one—a drug-inducing symbiotic slug that gives its host addictive hallucinogenic experiences as long as you feed him. But that’s not all you get. The slug’s name is Alymer who speaks low with the deep tenor of a motivational speaker, what some would call dulcet tones. That voice is the one and only Zacherle, one of the most popular horror hosts from Philadelphia and New York City in the 50s and 60s, with a trademarked boisterous laugh that is both hilarious and a bit unnerving.
The only thing wrong with Frankenhooker is that its campy title belies its genius satire. If Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley were alive today, of all the millions of representations and adaptations and parodies of her novel and characters from her novel in the last two hundred years, she would put this at the top of her list of favorite homages. The major theme of Frankenstein is not man playing god, but man playing woman—what if man made a child?—and the end of Frankenhooker, which follows that theme, might be the most karmic ending in cinematic history if not among the most shocking.
His 21st century work includes the horror movie Bad Biology (2008); the documentaries, Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore (2010) and That’s Sexploitation! (2013); as well as the recent comedy Chasing Banksy (2015).
Frank Henenlotter grew up watching exploitation movies on infamous 42nd St. A lot of his latter career has been focused on film preservation, especially exploitation and specifically the Something Weird library. His own journey into filmdom gives us some of the best works to come out of horror in the 80s and early 90s, a period inundated with horror films. Thank you for all of your work, Frank Henenlotter. I just, kind of, like you know, I know you’ve heard it a couple of times before, I’d just, yeah, I’d like to see the brothers Bradley wreak some more havoc please.