2018 Film Essays

The Boundary-Pushing Comedy in Frank Henenlotter’s Films

The horror and comedy genres tend to be thought of as strange bedfellows, with one being antithetical to the other. In fact, the two tend to go hand-in-hand often, especially after horror films entered a postmodern period in the latter part of the 20th century. Still, because most horror comedies emphasize one of their two primary elements, you end up with films being thought of more as funny horror films (such as 1987’s Evil Dead II) or comedies with horror elements (such as 1993’s Army Of Darkness, Evil Dead II’s sequel). The world of “cult” films or “midnight movies” is even more ambiguous, as the categories seem to be applied to everything from arthouse curios to grindhouse staples. One of the kings of the cult horror and midnight movie circuit is writer-director Frank Henenlotter, a New York City-based indie maverick. Henenlotter’s modest filmography is famous mostly for its notoriety, with his films projecting a tone of Herschell Gordon Lewis-style luridness mixed with William Castle-style, B-movie schlock. Upon seeing Henenlotter’s films, however, it becomes clear that while he is undeniably a huge horror fan with a knack for the genre, his real gift is in the outrageous comedy that accompanies his tales of freaks and creatures.

Henenlotter’s earliest film (widely available) is a short entitled Slash of the Knife (1972), and like the early short films of many auteur directors, it contains just about every trope and predilection that the rest of his filmography would go on to explore. Just like the rest of his features, Slash of the Knife gained a reputation quickly, as it was only shown theatrically a single time (as part of a double bill with John Waters’ Pink Flamingos) before being pulled by the theater manager, who was repulsed. It’s a short made in the style of old 1950s educational films, using the format to tell the highly parodic, cautionary tale of the dangers of being an uncircumcised male. Even with an extremely low budget, Henenlotter is able to wrangle some effective prosthetic and optical effects to make the out of control penis attack its victims and torture its owner in a manner that’s both extreme and slapstick-y. Moreover, all the actors play their parts as straight as possible, heightening the absurdism, and the entire short ends with a small sketch parodying the old Will Rogers Institute advertisements, replacing Rogers with Fatty Arbuckle as the namesake of a decidedly sketchy medical center. While the short uses elements of horror in the way that actual 50s films attempted to scare their audiences through exaggeration, Slash of the Knife really is an extended comedy sketch, and as such wouldn’t seem out of place in John Landis’ Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker penned sketch compilation, The Kentucky Fried Movie (ironically, another sketch compilation movie Landis was behind, 1987’s Amazon Women on the Moon, concluded with a 50s educational film parody directed by Joe Dante).

When it came time to make his first full-length feature, Henenlotter had trouble cracking the story. He had an idea about a monster jumping out of a basket attacking people jack-in-the-box style, but had no clue why and how the monster and his basket would get around. When Henenlotter decided to make the basket carrier the monster’s twin brother (a concept written on a bunch of napkins from Nathan’s Famous hot dog restaurant in Times Square), he thought the idea to be so ludicrous that he would deliberately lean into the comedic tone that implied, and thus, Basket Case (1982) was born. The resulting film is a blend of Gordon Lewis-flavored gore scenes (indeed, the movie is dedicated to him) and classic Universal monster movie pathos, with the poor, malformed Belial and his otherwise normal twin, Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck), at odds with each other about hiding their existence from the “normal” world while pursuing bloody revenge. The movie is played mostly straight, but that doesn’t stop Henenlotter from allowing some comedy through, such as the goofy supporting characters, some over-the-top line deliveries, as well as a sequence where Belial has a tantrum in his hotel room, rampaging around through the use of crude, cartoonish stop-motion animation. Rather than making the film seem amateurish, these elements feel intentional, as Henenlotter clearly knows when to make a gag less goofy and more horrifically sick, such as when Belial assaults Duane’s crush in her bedroom.

Were it not for 1988’s Brain Damage, Basket Case would easily be Henenlotter’s purest work of horror. Yet Brain Damage ups the ante in many respects, as it tells the bleak, mean-spirited tale of a young man, Brian (Rick Hearst), who develops a debilitating addiction to a murderous, parasitic and brain-eating creature. The real zinger, though, is Henenlotter also doubling down on the comedy in the film, because that horrible creature, Elmer, is voiced by a loveable and corny horror marathon host (John Zacherle) with all the personality of a cartoon character. Elmer almost looks like a Looney Tune nightmare come to life, with big dopey eyes and a flapping mouth as part of an uncomfortably phallic and slug-like body. He bobbles around jauntily, never sounds threatening (even when he is being incredibly threatening) and also sings. All of this occurs while Elmer is either eating or psychologically torturing the people around him, creating a juxtaposition that’s as uncomfortable as it is hilarious. The film’s sick sense of humor is best exemplified by its most outrageous set piece, wherein a floozy that picks up Brian in a bar attempts to go down on him, only to find Elmer there instead, who shoots into her mouth and eats her brain. There aren’t many directors who can have your jaw hit the floor while guffawing, but Henenlotter is one of them.

Henenlotter’s most out-and-out comedic film (with the possible exception of the hard to find Chasing Banksy from 2015) is 1990’s Frankenhooker, which the title should give away. Ostensibly a mixture of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962) and the Frankenstein mythos, the film is the most light-hearted and fun loving of Henenlotter’s features. That’s not to say it’s any less outrageous — far from it, as Frankenhooker was infamously awarded an X rating upon its first submission to the MPAA. But unlike Brain Damage or even Basket Case, the kills in Frankenhooker tend to be of the most cartoonish variety possible, with a room full of prostitutes exploding (bloodlessly) due to an ingestion of “super crack,” and johns being killed by the titular character as a side effect of being exposed to her electricity-infused, er, assets. Even Frankenhooker herself, actress Patty Mullen, gives a performance that’s remarkable in its physical comedy, with the haphazardly stitched together woman twitching and lumbering around Times Square. Rather than delivering a grim tale of woe, Henenlotter tells the macabre story of a despondent young weirdo bringing his girlfriend back to life in a manner akin to Tim Burton. Though many of Burton’s films concern horror elements such as undead creatures, he’s typically thought of as more of a comedic (or even family) filmmaker, and with Frankenhooker, Henenlotter isn’t telling a tale of tragedy as he did with his first few films. Instead, it’s a sex (and sex worker) positive comedy of errors, and even the characters who get their just desserts do so in a more cartoon-like manner.

Made as a way of getting funding for Frankenhooker as well as future projects, Henenlotter’s Basket Case sequels (1990-1991) expand the scope of the original film while leaning harder into the comedic elements inherent within it. Seeing as how the original Basket Case left Duane and Belial dead, their suspension of disbelief-stretching resurrection in the second film allows Henenlotter to proceed with a movie that riffs on Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), introducing a matriarchal character, Granny Ruth (played by singing legend Annie Ross), who presides over a brood of many other “unique individuals” needing guidance and care. Rather than exploiting any congenital deformities existing in reality, Henenlotter and creature designer Gabe Bartalos seize the opportunity to present a menagerie of wacky, surrealistic and cartoonish creatures on screen. This allows all manner of sight gags to occur, everything from a rat-faced man eating a block of cheese to a living gargoyle perched on top of Granny’s house to a giant mouth creature who has a beautiful singing voice and loves opera. The punchline of the entire film is Belial meeting — and graphically mating with — a female counterpart, Eve, and the resulting pregnancy leads into Basket Case 3. The third film doesn’t have as coherent a narrative as the prior two installments, but it makes up for that with a plethora of sight gags, wacky physical comedy (especially courtesy of Van Hentenryck’s neurotic character) and full-on comedic bits. During Eve’s lengthy birthing scene, Granny Ruth’s giant, 11-handed son, Little Hal (Jim O’Doherty), narrates the birth of each successive new baby Belial in a one-take shot that rivals any Judd Apatow-produced comedy for sheer improvised hysteria.

Throughout all of his horror films, Henenlotter intelligently uses comedy to heighten or support moments, rather than detract from them. Even in his last horror feature (to date), Bad Biology (2008), the director portrays the relationship between the male lead and his (literally) monstrous penis as both ridiculous and genuinely distressing, allowing both elements to coexist rather than cancel each other out. His movies function similarly to other forms of comedy, in that they seek to be outrageous and push as many boundaries as possible while still remaining relatable and containing some element of social commentary. Henenlotter and his films have the demeanor of a naughty uncle making wild, dirty jokes while telling a campfire ghost story. He wants you to take the material seriously, but he’s mostly concerned with you having a great time. It’s for that reason why his films deserve to be more widely seen, because, while they are certainly not for everybody, they tend to have a warm sense of humor beneath all the blood and gore.

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City. 

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