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Frankenhooker (1990,USA)

21/10/2011

Director: Frank Henenlotter      Starring: James Lorinz, Joanne Ritchie, Patty Mullen, Joseph Gonzalez

Nothing is more appropriate October viewing than a trashy horror movie. What better way is there to mark the run up to Halloween than spending some time with some enthusiastic if not necessarily brilliant attempts at the horror genre? I have a soft spot for the less polished end of the horror movie spectrum, particularly when it comes to horror comedy and often find it is amongst the low budget but spirited films that the real gems of the genre can be found.

In Frankenhooker, Jeffrey Franken (Lorinz) is a medical school dropout and dabbler in “bio-electric engineering” who spends his time making useful gadgets and animating a one eyed brain in a jar. When his fiancee Elizabeth (Mullen) is eviscerated in a freak lawnmower accident Jeffrey decides the time has come to put his reanimation techniques to the test and rebuild her. Faced with the question of obtaining replacement parts for Liz’s body in time to exploit the massive electrical storm that’s heading his way he decides that the only option is to harvest what he needs from crack addled hookers. With hilarious results.

On paper it admittedly doesn’t sound that funny but Henenlotter’s film bristles with perfectly pitched humour that swings between grisly black comedy and actually quite insightful social satire with ease. Lorinz is excellent as the morally conflicted but somewhat insane Franken and proves to be the main source of humour with his demented mutterings and mad scientist patter. While it is frequently absurd, it embraces its own outlandish premise and plays up to it, turning its absurdity to its advantage.

In a lot of ways it’s reminiscent of Steve Martin’s 1983 film The Man With Two Brains. In Martin’s film he is seeking a new host body for the disembodied but living brain of his would be lover and sets out to find a prostitute to murder to provide a receptacle for the brain before struggling with the moral consequences of this course of action. In Frankenhooker we have the same scenario, Jeffrey concocting his plan to create the ultimate body for his resurrected fiancee via an assembly of hooker parts. The difference with Frankenhooker is in the portrayal of the sex industry. Frankenhooker pulls no punches about the adversity faced by a lot of sex workers. Crack addicts (although admittedly in an over the top satire), enslaved by a pimp who is not shy about controlling his stable by force if necessary it is a surprisingly realistic depiction of the inhumanity of this situation. Henenlotter’s stance on the subject is made even clearer when we see Jeffrey preparing his scheme with a daytime chat show on TV in the background debating the plight that faces sex workers forced underground by the fact what they do is illegal. I find it interesting that a film as absurd as this manages to seamlessly integrate a socially responsible attitude into the proceedings where other, more mainstream and better funded prodcutions (such as Hostel for example) resolutely fail to address such things. It’s as refreshing as it is surprising.

Special effects wise the film clearly has it’s budgetary restraints but still manages to deliver the goods although gore fans may be a little bit disappointed by relatively low levels of blood and guts in some of the sequences. The reconstructed Liz is suitably jarring, built as she is from the multi-cultural remains of several prostitutes but most impressive of all are the freakish creatures born of Jeffrey’s spare parts supply which are worthy of any creature feature of the era. While the film is clearly weighted in favour of comedy, these hideous almagamations of various body parts help tip the balance back towards horror just in time for the film’s grizzly conclusion.

I must admit, after the first five minutes Frankenhooker didn’t look all that promising, coming off like a bargain basement student film type of affair but these early indications of shoddy workmanship belie a sophistication that proves to be very satisfying. It’s definitely another film to add weight to the argument that what’s important when making a film are ideas and enthusiasm rather than hundred million dollar budgets and the latest special effects. Perhaps it’s my advancing age but I also really appreciated the fact the film retained a sense of morality. It’s increasingly unusual in the horror genre for films to exhibit any shred of humanity, the modern trend for so called torture porn often reducing films to mindless, two hour endurance tests where it’s you versus the special effects team. I’m not saying this doesn’t have its place in cinema but it’s nice to watch a film with a little bit of moral complexity for a change and Frankenhooker, with its irreverent comedy and outlandish story, is an absolute delight.

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