Exploitation: An Interview with Frank Henenlotter

Frank Henenlotter talks about exploitation cinema, censors and his films Basket Case, Brain Damage and Frankenhooker

Feature by Alan Bett | 10 May 2013

“The New York I grew up in and love doesn’t exist anymore,” says Frank Henelotter, cult icon of exploitation cinema, director of Basket Case and Brain Damage, and in Edinburgh as guest of honour at this year’s Dead By Dawn film festival. The 62-year-old talks quickly in an accent not quite Noo Yoik, but close. Vowels to the fore. “At the time it was fun to show that dirty, ugly side of it – and it was real! We were shooting Brain Damage on 33rd St between 10th and 11th Avenue on the West Side. On that street there was a row of industrial buildings on one side and on the other the train tracks. Because of the layout that block was hooker central. Every morning I’d walk there and the sound effects under my feet were either a gushy sound from stepping on a used condom or a crunching from crack vials. That’s all that was on the sidewalk in the morning, crack vials and condoms. I saw it [crack] hit New York and it was like an epidemic overnight and it was like, ‘Oh well, maybe there’s something I can do with this.’”

Henenlotter tells me all this with a mirthful grin. The film he eventually dragged out of the misery of the 80s drug scourge was Frankenhooker, a seemingly low-rent flick. But appearances are deceptive. Here, a spoonful of gore helps the medicine go down. “That is the purpose of making exploitation films,” Henenlotter explains. “Usually you don’t have the money to compete with Hollywood so you compete by making it about something that Hollywood isn’t interested in embracing. Any time Hollywood has embraced a controversial subject there’s been an exploitation film or a hundred who have been there first.” So, if you want to dissect everyday misogyny, why not through a man reconstructing his dead girlfriend from prostitute spare parts? “A film has to be about something,” he continues. “I mean Frankenhooker, he didn’t just bring his girlfriend back to life, he wanted to fix her. She was heavy; he wanted to turn her into a centrefold. That’s the fucked-up aspect of that film, that’s why he must pay for his sin. I’ve always been fond when women embrace Frankenhooker because they see past the t-and-a and realise that that son of a bitch tried to fix her!”

Fake blood flows easily around this underbelly of the film industry, but cashflow doesn’t. It congeals at the top, with many mainstream blockbusters nothing more than financial and cultural blood clots. Films, which Henenlotter suggests have far less to say than most $50,000 movies destined for the grindhouse: “To me, B-movies today are the crap Hollywood’s releasing, but they’re not doing it on a B-movie budget. How can this world have Transformers? If ever there was a B-movie that should be made with 50 thousand dollars it was that thing. One hundred million dollars and they’re gonna pretend it’s an A film, a quality film. It’s crap, we all know it.” 

While cash is king for these films, with return the only priority, it’s also a constraint that files down any controversial edges, relegating them to banal fodder. In comparison, the exploitation genre isn’t necessarily brave, it just has nothing to lose – in Henenlotter’s case at least. “I’m not making films for everybody, I’m not a commercial filmmaker. I don’t have to worry about making back 100 million dollars. If it gets released and gets sold in the video stores it’ll make its money back. I can take chances and be more anti-social, more of an anarchist. I don’t need to be safe.” This ‘don’t give a fuck’ attitude spawned a dark breed of filmmakers in 80s New York, and I ask about this scene. “I knew Jimmy Muro, who did Street Trash. I’d met Abel Ferrara [Driller Killer], I’d met Bill Lustig [Maniac and Maniac Cop] but we weren’t hanging out. I never knew what they were really doing. I worked in a vacuum. It’s not like we had a New York club house where we all got together, no no no. If there was I wasn’t invited.”

His protestations contradict the fact that something intrinsic in this time and place germinated this civil disobedience on celluloid. Perhaps it was the dying afterglow of punk’s anarchic energy or a simple rebellion against mainstream studio politics after the creative high water mark of the 70s had faded; the real power snatched back in-house from young megalomaniac directors. The 80s became a time when most were singing from the hymn sheet instead of rallying against the pulpit. And so this amorphous insurgency were destined to come up against the establishment, and the censors. “With Brain Damage they went apeshit.” says Henenlotter. “Same thing with Frankenhooker. They were also a corrupt agency. You gotta remember the ratings board in America was then and is now funded by the major companies. That’s why Warner Bros. can come in with something and say we want an R on this and the ratings board say, ‘Oh, well cut these four frames.’ And I’ll walk in and they’re gonna say 'cut your whole piece of shit out.'” He gives me an example of this butchery: “When we brought Frankenhooker to the MPAA the head of the board at the time called up our company and the guy said to the secretary, ‘Congratulations, you’re the first film rated S.’ And she said ‘S? For sex?’ And they said ‘No, S for Shit.’ And this is the ratings board!”

It’s an agency Henenlotter finds unqualified to judge such cinema. Just as Hitchcock concocted handcuffed scenes to circumvent the censors and allow intimacy, the B-movie outlaws had to bend the rules their own way, sometimes by amplifying gore to such an extent it couldn’t possibly be taken seriously. “I think excessive gore is often hilarious,” says Henenlotter. “It’s not realistic, it’s not violence, it’s just blood squirting all over the place. That was always my argument with the ratings board. How can you be taking all this seriously? You’re going to give Basket Case an X rating because an unconvincing puppet is throwing blood around? Are you guys nuts? What are you protecting kids from?” 

“To me, B movies today are the crap Hollywood’s releasing, but they’re not doing it on a B movie budget” – Frank Henenlotter

The British Board of Film Classification have hopefully now burst confidently through their own period of heavy censorship, a corrective reaction to their draconian Video Recordings Act in 1984 and the ‘video nasty’ fiasco where films were at times judged purely upon their VHS covers or outrageous titles – a particularly sad irony as exploitation cinema has little else with which to market itself. Henenlotter’s contact with the BBFC came in a different time but echoed an unnerving past. “When we premièred Bad Biology [2008] in London I had dinner the night before with a bunch of people and one was a member of the BBFC. I said to him, ‘I’d love to know your opinion after the film, unofficially of course.’ I said, ‘How much trouble are we in?’ And he said, ‘Oh Frank, you’re not in any trouble at all, this is hilarious and harmless.’ Then he said, ‘But if this was 20 years ago we would have had you arrested.’ And that’s kind of chilling, you know?” But still a long way from the censorial excesses of the 80s and the Puritanism of even earlier days. “They just put out a restored version of Dracula with footage that was banned way back then,” he tells me. “The big surprise was a shot where [Christopher] Lee is smiling and caressing a girl and then opens his mouth to reveal his fangs, and that was censored? You look at it now and think, how can that ever be transgressive let alone censorable? That mix of sex and horror always upsets everybody, which is why I like playing with it a lot.”

As he does in the 1982 cult classic Basket Case, a malignant jack-in-the-box tale with the strapline: ‘It’s mother conceived it, you won’t believe it.’ In the film it takes a single act of depravity to turn the tables on conjoined twins we had once sympathised for. But Frank has always been interested in creating a dissonance between how we should feel, and how we actually do, refusing to paint an easy villain. “Who’s the villain of Faust? The Devil. But really, what about the Faust character? He fucks up and does everything wrong and he’s pitiable and he’s punished. That’s what Brain Damage is: anyone of us assholes seduced by the Devil. To me, that’s drama. Maybe not classic drama, but B-movie drama.” 

It seems like these days are over and our taste for the cheap maverick delights of exploitation are gone. Or have they simply bled into mainstream cinema, their spirit sadly diluted? “B-movies should be a thorn in the side of mainstream and compete and play the same drive-ins. That doesn’t happen anymore, so B-movies are really negligible, including my own. I told everybody involved with Basket Case, ‘No one will ever see this film. It’ll play for a week or two weeks on 42nd St and disappear and nobody will know it was ever made.’” 

Tell that to the die hard fans and hordes of Dead by Dawn, hungry for an autograph, relishing his cult classic works after almost thirty years: all too aware that nowadays there just isn't such heart and soul in blood and guts.

Follow Alan Bett on Twitter: @AJBee888