During the month of April, Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn presented the Frank Henenlotter retrospective which included screenings of Henenlotter’s cult favorites such as a 4K restoration of Basket Case along with Brain Damage, Frankenhooker, and his rare short “Slash of the Knife.” Along with the screenings, Henenlotter was in person for post screening Q&A and introduced some of his favorite films such as The Quartermass Xperiment, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, and more.
With his cult hits like Basket Case, Brain Damage, and Frankenhooker being a big part of the 80s and early 90s, Frank Henenlotter has created a special place for himself within the exploitation and horror comedy genre. His films are both recognizable and impactful, with his most recent documentary titled Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana winning the audience award at the What the Fest?! Film Festival. I’ve always admired his work, and had the pleasure of getting to conduct this interview with him, where we discussed the process of certain special effects and favorite exploitation films.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Hi Frank, thanks for sitting down with us today! For as low budget as your cult hits are, I feel everything is done really well within those constraints. What’s your thought process or approach like when preparing to execute difficult scenes to shoot within such a tight budget?
Frank Henenlotter: Oh, thank you! That’s something you do and think about while you’re writing the script. I usually know what the budget is going to be beforehand, so you wouldn’t write a Civil War battle into a scene, you know what I mean? So, you just need to keep things very simple and if you’re going to do special effects, you work that all out with your team, and in my case I always work with Gabe Bartalos. It’s good to have his input to figure out what is going to be expensive, because I don’t really know. And usually you can always work things out, and other times you just say, let’s go for broke. When we did Basket Case 2, we had a budget we had never had before, so we just kept making the monsters, until finally someone said, I think we have enough now, thank you very much (laughs). We’d never get a chance to do it again, so let’s keep trying, you know?
Nightmarish Conjurings: I love the bits of stop-motion animation used with Belial in Basket Case. What was it like to incorporate that medium into a live action film, and how big was the actual puppet used?
FH: That was actually a full size Belial, so they were the same size. The unfortunate part was that I did the animation and I have no patience for doing animation. I’m fascinated by it and I’ve always put it in my earlier films, but I’m no good at it because doing even twelve frames per second is too much for me because I’m already bored by mid second (laughs). I’m thinking, oh god this is going to take forever. So that’s why the animation is always so choppy and lousy. When I had originally shot the animation for Basket Case, I was so disgusted by my attempts at it that I threw the reel of film across the living room in my apartment, and I let it sit there on the floor for about two months just to remind me of how bad it was. Then I thought, you know, let me look at it again and when I looked at it again, I thought why don’t I throw everything out that was supposed to make Belial look scary and just use the scenes where it’s supposed to be funny? And it worked rather well, so I re-wrote the whole scene around him having that tantrum in the hotel room. He’s behaving badly and the animation is behaving badly as well, so it kind of worked (laughs).
Nightmarish Conjurings: I thought it looked awesome, I love stop-motion animation so I always love seeing that in any film.
FH: Yeah, it’s so cool isn’t it? It’s just so much better than CGI. There’s something about it that’s just like, look at that! It’s moving!
Nightmarish Conjurings: Yeah, I agree! So, I love Frankenhooker, it’s got to be one of my favorites of yours. How difficult was it to shoot the scene with the exploding hookers in the hotel room? Because that seemed like it would be difficult.
FH: It was, but it wasn’t that difficult because we knew what we were going to do in advance. Gabe Bartalos and I decided that we would have the girls freeze in a certain position, and we worked that out with the girls and we took photos and everything. He modeled them in those poses, so when we’d get on the set, they’d be acting and then they’d have to get into that moment where they freeze and then we would trace the picture on a TV screen. We put a piece of acetate on and we would trace it from the video playback. We then just took the live girls out and put that mannequins in and it really worked rather well, didn’t it?
Nightmarish Conjurings: Oh yeah, it definitely flowed together really well, you couldn’t really tell the transitions between the real actor and it exploding (laughs).
FH: And it’s such a stupid effect anyway. I didn’t want any blood, I didn’t want it to look like I was killing people- I wanted it to look like some weird Fourth of July celebration with fire works going off. It really was a lot of fun. What was also creepy was, when they were exploding, we didn’t know how much ammo to put in those things. We’d be on the set, and these flaming body parts of these mannequins would be falling on us. It was actually very funny, and the mess in the room at the end where you see all the parts, that was really what it looked like. Oh god, that was funny.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Yeah, that’s awesome! Out of all of your films, which would you say is your favorite? I know that can be a tough question.
FH: That’s like asking a mother what’s your favorite child (laughs). For years it was always Brain Damage, but I’ve become partial now to switching it to Bad Biology. It’s just so beyond the pale. If I hadn’t made that and just saw that film, I’d be saying what the hell is going on with this director? I just thought it was, I dunno – I hadn’t made a film in sixteen years and I thought, well if I’m going to make one then I’m going to make one that is really going to just go crazy. So, that’s really kind of my favorite right now.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Very Nice. You have a new documentary coming out at the end of this month, can you tell us about that?
FH: It actually premiered Saturday at a festival called What the Fest?! It went over great, it’s called Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana. And it’s about the only artist ever convicted of obscenity in the United States for his own art. It happened in 1994 in Florida, and his work is definitely not P.C., and it was raw and graphic, but they’re just drawings. He’s not making any crime, he’s just making pictures, and they wanted to put him in jail for three years. It’s like, how could this have happened? I actually didn’t know what happened, because the internet was just in its earliest stages. There was only message groups, no dot coms. I was friends with Mike Diana, and after about six months, he casually said something about the trial and he was telling me how they put him in jail for drawing pictures. This whole thing didn’t make sense to me, and the moment he left I went on to google and it was worse than he had even said. I knew that there was a real story here, so I thought it should be turned into a movie. This is a beautiful example of how you’re supposed to have first amendment rights and if you draw a dirty picture you’re going to get sent to jail? Huh, what? And if you don’t like the drawing, then don’t look at it. There were also only sixty to three hundred copies probably sold to adults only through the mail, so it’s not like it was available to a majority of the public. It’s an amazing, it really is.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Yeah, I definitely can’t wait to see it. I also love your film called Chasing Banksy.
FH: It was actually called The Art Thieves, and somebody told us right before we put it out to make it more commercial and change the title to Chasing Banksy. The producer was then told this, so the producer changed it and then all of a sudden, there’s another movie out called Saving Banksy, and then two other Banksy documentaries, so… whoops! I decided to pull it and take it off the market for a year and we will put it back out under it’s real title and we will follow that with the Mike Diana doc. So, two films about art!
Nightmarish Conjurings: Definitely, and that’s what I love. That’s right up my alley. So, what’s your favorite exploitation film?
FH: Oh god, I have so many. And it’s unfair because I’d give a different title every day of the week. It depends on how I wake up that day, and that will determine whether my favorite exploitation film is Blood Freak or The Godmonster of Indian Flats. But it’s all I live for, is those films. The stranger they are, the more I love them. Good or bad makes no difference to me, I just want to see something that is completely surreal and out of its mind.