LATEST | FEATURES | INTERVIEWS | NEWS | FRIGHTFEST | REVIEWS Exclusive interview with Frank Henenlotter
By James Whittington, Monday 9th February 2009
Although Frank Henenlotter has only made a handful of movies, his name is legendary when discussing cult cinema of the 80’s and 90’s. We love him here at Zone Horror and recently broadcast two of his most famous works, Basket Case and Brain Damage. After a decade and half away Frank is back with a new movie, Bad Biology, an amazing and truly original film that contains all his controversial trademarks. We decided that it was time to catch up with this enigmatic character and try and find out where his highly unique ideas for movies come from.
ZH: You’re a big fan of the Grindhouse cinema movement of the 60’s and 70’s at 42nd Street, can you quickly explain to people in the UK what exactly that was?
FH: Well, for me, Grindhouse Paradise was 42nd Street, a block-long stretch between 7th and 8th Avenue in New York City, which was movie theatre next to movie theatre next to movie theatre, about a dozen or so, punctuated by porno stores. Fabulous. Originally, the theatres were legit – John Barrymore performed Hamlet at the Harris, the Ziefield Follies appeared at The New Amsterdam, W.C. Fields starred in Poppy at the Selwyn – but, by the 1960s, they had all deteriorated into grindhouses – open at 9am, close at 4am – showing double or triple bills of the most wonderful sh*t known to man. Crap that couldn’t get a booking anywhere else in Manhattan would get shown on 42nd Street. Horror films, exploitation, sexploitation, westerns, kung-fu, you name it, every single day of the week. The audiences, mostly transients with a sprinkling of film buffs, were a raucous bunch who cheered, booed and, quite often, fought with each other. It was the greatest film school I could ever go to.
I started cutting high school when I was 15, took a train from Long Island into the Big City, and spent my afternoons there, starting in 1965. When I finally moved into New York, I was on the street at least 6 nights out of the week. Glorious. I thought it would last forever. Alas, Disney took over, theatres were torn down, the porno stores were banned, and the 42nd Street that exists today is a tourist trap that bears no resemblance to the 42nd Street of the past. Motherf*****s.
ZH: How did your career in cinema begin?
FH: I would argue that my making six movies is not exactly a “career” but… I started playing with film in high school with an 8mm camera (and just to date me, I mean regular 8mm, not Super 8.) I would make elaborate home movies, usually an hour in length, with sound added via a magnetic stripe. That led to me playing in 16mm which eventually lead to Basket Case which I’ve always thought of as my best “home movie.”
ZH: Recently on Zone Horror we broadcast Basket Case, surely one of your most famous movies; how did the story come about?
FH: I had met Edgar Ievins and he suggested we make a commercial movie. A horror movie. He would produce and I would write and direct. So I started thinking of titles that hadn’t yet been used and came up with Basket Case. That immediately suggested a monster in a basket. So I started walking around Times Square writing it which gave it that wonderfully unsavoury flavor.
ZH: Was it difficult getting the finance together?
ZH: Yes, even though it cost less to nothing. We started shooting with my life savings – a whopping eight thousand dollars. Edgar matched it, and he was soon was digging up other investors. And that wasn’t easy either since no one really “got” the mix of horror and humor I was going for. Since we could only shoot when we had money, filming the damn thing stretched out to almost a year.
ZH: It has a huge following did you get a feeling during production that you were working on something special?
FH: Just the opposite! I thought it was a disaster. I figured it would play for a week on 42nd Street and maybe at a couple of drive-in down South, and no one would notice. Obviously, I was wrong. And, quite honestly, I was initially a bit embarrassed when it became such a cult hit. But what the hell do I know?
ZH: We’ve also shown Brain Damage, which was your next movie after Basket Case; did you approach that project any differently to Basket Case?
FH: Yes. Brain Damage had a completely different vibe – not only compared to Basket Case but to the other horror films made at the time. It’s a film I love very much and am quite proud of. I also thought the subject of addiction was a great one for a horror film. Since it’s a subject I know so well, I’d still like to make a couple more films about it.
ZH: Again this connected with an audience, why do you think that was?
FH: At first it didn’t. Brain Damage flopped here theatrically, and a lot of the fans that liked Basket Case didn’t like it. But once it got released on videotape, it quickly found its audience. Why, I don’t know. I see my films so differently than the rest of the world that I really can’t make generalizations. But, over the years, I’ve had numerous people tell me that even though they’re not into horror films, they nevertheless love Brain Damage. So who knows.
ZH: You released Basket Case 2 in 1990, why return to this idea?
FH: I was trying to raise money for a script called Insect City. I sent a script to Jim Glickenhaus and went up to see him. He liked the script but thought it was too f****d-up to be commercial. So he asked what else I had. On the spot, I thought up the plot for Frankenhooker. Jim loved it. He then asked what else I had. Well, I couldn’t think of two on the spot, so I simply said, “There’s always the sequel to Basket Case.” Jim asked which one I wanted to do and I said, “Both.” And that’s what we did. Shot both films back to back on a combined budget of 3 million dollars.
ZH: Unusually in horror cinema it’s a very strong sequel which makes the situation very fresh, did the script take a long time to develop to make sure you weren’t repeating yourself?
FH: The trouble was, we already knew what was in the basket; there weren’t any more doctors to kill; and Duane and Belial died in the first film. So I came up with the idea of putting them in a community of freaks which I liked since I wanted something new rather than a rehash of the first one. Unfortunately, I think a lot of fans would have preferred a rehash, but I deliberately went in another direction, and I’m still rather happy with the result.
ZH: Lets get up to date with Bad Biology, your first new movie for over 15 years, why has it taken you so long to get back behind the lens?
FH: The market drastically changed in the early 90’s and so did I. So many theatres disappeared that so did the low-budget exploitation companies. Even 42nd Street disappeared. And as often happens when the marketplace shrinks, things go more mainstream. And mainstream is not where I wanted to go. Nevertheless, I wrote some rather bizarre scripts that were promptly rejected everywhere. Rather than continue hitting my head against a brick wall, I simply walked away. Fortunately, I got involved with Something Weird Video so I was still able to assault the world, but this time by restoring and releasing some wonderful turds from the past.
FH: Where did the idea come from?
ZH: I’ve known underground rapper R.A. “The Rugged Man” Thorburn since he was 19. And we always wanted to do a film together. And when R.A. found himself with a small amount of money to sink into a film, he asked me to collaborate with him and, basically, we decided to make something we’d like to see. That meant a lot of weird sexual imagery. First thing we did was come up the opening line – “I was born with seven clits!” – and worked from there. But even we were a bit surprised at how it all turned out.
FH: I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen at FrightFest 2008 and the audience lapped up every second, in fact its had the same reception at many festivals, has this surprised you?
ZH: Well, we made Bad Biology counting on the fact that there were a number of people out there who would enjoy something outrageous and retro and just plain wrong. But, yes, I’m surprised there are so many of them. I think if Bad Biology had been made back in the 90’s, it would have been dismissed as gutter-level filth. But putting it out today, in a world where 42nd Street is dead, and “exploitation films” are made by the major studios at 100-million plus, Bad Biology stands out as something different. Perverse, but different.
FH: The young cast really get into their respective characters, what was the atmosphere like on set?
ZH: Charlee Danielson and Anthony Sneed are fantastic. For two months prior to shooting we would meet at my apartment, get to know each other, talk about the script, the characters, and the nudity, and rehearse. That way, during the chaos of shooting – and shooting a low budget film is almost always chaos – we all knew where we were, where we were going, and didn’t feel overwhelmed. They’ve both become really good friends – I’m sure you saw at Frightfest how much we enjoy making each other laugh – and I want to work with both of them again.
FH: So are you working on any more movie projects or are you taking a step away again for a time?
FH: I have two projects I want to do, and a producer for both. But the economy is the big cloud hanging over everything. Allegedly, we have investors. But when they’ll feel safe about parting with their cash is a big question mark right now.
ZH: What do you honestly think of movie censorship?
FH: I don’t think one adult has the right to tell another adult what they can see or hear or read. Period. Ah, but then we have to worry about protecting the kiddies, right? So we set up censorship boards – even if they call themselves something else and pretend they’re not really censors – where adults presume to know what is okay for a 17 year old to see and hear and read as if every 17 year old is one and the same. Which is a fool’s goal. And here in the U.S., that charade is made even more laughable because the MPAA doesn’t treat everyone the same and has turned hypocrisy into an art form. Basically, the bigger a film’s budget, the more they can get away with. Even worse is the double standard. Take a mild love scene between a man and woman that gets rated PG-13. Now, reshoot that exact same scene with – gasp! – two men or two women and magically the same scene is magically rated R. Bullsh*t, bullsh*t, bullsh*t.
ZH: Have you enjoyed the recent spate of torture porn movies or do you think it is just watered down Grindhouse?
FH: I haven’t enjoyed them because I haven’t seen them. I see very few new movies – horror or otherwise. Maybe only three or four a year. But I have seen Martyrs and, oh dear God, it’s brilliant. The last half hour may be the most punishingly brutal thing I’ve ever seen, but the ending makes it all worthwhile, and the entire film is… dare I say, a thing of beauty?
ZH: Frank Henenlotter, thank you very much.
FH: James Whittington and all you Zone Horror fans, thank you very much.
Basket Case and Brain Damage are currently being shown on Zone Horror. Please keep checking the online guide for transmission dates.
Bad Biology will be available to buy on DVD from March 2nd thanks to Revolver Entertainment.
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