Originally ran on FilmThreat.com on 06/04/08
The directors behind the inspired horror-comedies of the ’80s have found a unique place for themselves. Sam Raimi, the father of “Evil Dead,” has become a rock-star director, now parenting the mega-successful “Spiderman” series. Meanwhile, the feverish mind behind “Bad Taste” and “Brain Dead” (aka “Dead Alive” stateside) from across the Pacific took “Lord of the Rings” from literary fandom and brought it into the cinematic canonization. On a lower profile, Stuart Gordon has worked the B-grade horror circuit since his inspired masterpiece “Re-Animator,” but now has made a comeback with two works of excessive, gothic realism, “Edmond” (2006) and “Stuck” (opening in limited release on May 30).
However, Frank Henenlotter, whose “Basket Case” (1982) was as zany and inspired as the other great horror comedies of the ’80s, chose to sit the modern times out – until now. His new film, “Bad Biology” – and his first in 16 years – shows the filmmaker maintaining his 1980s aesthetic, which uses analog FX and outrageous content to reimagine the schlock of the New York City grindhouse features. When he received the 2008 Phantasmagoria Award at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival, before premiering his new film, Henenlotter described his love of grindhouse films, which he viewed obsessively in 42nd street’s infamous heyday. I sat down with Henenlotter after “Bad Biology’s” premiere in April to discuss his new, self-financed film, his early work, and his experiences attending exploitation moviehouses and preserving the films on DVD with Something Weird Video. Happy to highlight his career and his new movie, the filmmaker discusses his devious themes with perverse glee and a rapid laugh.
So, it’s been 16 years. How does it feel to be back?
Well, I don’t know if I am back – one film doesn’t mean you’re back. I never identified myself with [individual] films, per se. Whether I was making them or not, I always saw myself as a filmmaker.
Interesting, because right now, in the history of horror films, “Basket Case” is one of the great horror comedies of the 80s.
I know, and I’m grateful for that. But believe me, each year you get older. When I was watching the clips last night [in a retrospective trailer of Henonlotter’s early works, shown prior to the world premiere of his new film], I was thinking, “Oh yeah, you made that.” [Laughs] R.A. [Thorburn, rapper and co-screenwriter, producer, and friend to Henenlotter] wants to make some more [films], and as long as we can do extreme stuff, I’ll keep making films. Once we get told, “You know, if you just give us an R-rated film,” or “If you can make it more like this or that,” then I abandon ship.
I was supposed to do a film before “Bad Biology” called “Sick in the Head.” After three years of the producers not being able to raise money, they took my script and cut out 23 pages and all the special effects. And I said, “Well, what’s left?” And they said, “Well, why don’t you make this story more like ‘Saw.'” I owned the script, so I took it back and said, “Goodbye.”
So they wanted to turn your ideas into torture porn.
Basically. If they wanted a “Saw” ripoff, they should have told me they wanted a “Saw” ripoff. Don’t take a good piece of work, gut it, and try to pretend it’s something else.
What an offensive idea to give to someone like you.
Oh, the deal was over right then. I didn’t like where it was going, so for three years I was putting up with a lot of bullshit. And I kept saying to myself, “Yeah, but the script is good, the script is good – I can still make it work if the script is good.” Then the script was bad – good-bye. There’s no point anymore. What’s the point of making movies you don’t want to make?
When we were making “Bad Biology,” every minute of the film we were laughing, cackling, and saying to ourselves, “I can’t wait until people see this thing.” This keeps you going. Once you are making something and you have to say, “Boy, this is the same old thing,” what do you do then?
It was great to hear you talk about your days watching grindhouse films before the premiere last night. Do you have any special memories?
[With sheer glee] Oh, are you kidding — I could sit here for five hours [telling you about the films]. But the thing is, especially as a kid, you’re told to stay away from 42nd Street, that it’s a dangerous place. From 15 on to my adulthood, I was there literally six days a week. I never had any trouble. Sure you see things – you’d see crime, you’d see sex, you’d see all that kind of bullshit. But no, there was never any major problem. There were just great, great movies. If you really loved the films [there], you picked up street smarts real fast so you could sit and watch the film without any trouble hitting you.
But there were many lunatic characters, many crazy people. There was a laundry lady at one theater. She was, I guess, a homeless woman. You saw here for three or four years, and then you never saw her again. She would be there in the morning, when the theater first opened. She must have done her laundry in the ladies room, and would bring out her garments, go to the first two rows, and she would put her wet clothes on the backs of the seats. And then she would stand in the aisle guarding the clothes, and if anybody would try to go there she’d start screaming. And then at the intermission, she’d turn the clothes over. I tell you, sometimes watching her was more fascinating then watching the film.
So the street was full of wonderful lunatics like that, and fights, all kinds of stuff. But now I have great appreciation for [the people], because these crowds genuinely loved what they saw in the theater. If they saw a little bit of blood, they were cheering. If you showed money, if you showed actual currency on camera, they would be screaming and cheering. A gun on screen: cheering.
That’s great – my generation missed all that. It seems that “Basket Case,” the world of your main character, was informed by this kind of nightlife.
Oh yeah – I literally walked around Times Square while I was writing [“Basket Case”]. There was a big Nathan’s where ABC Television is now. It was in the basement of that place where I wrote the dialog for “Basket Case” on napkins one night. I had part of the story then – I thought about a guy walking around with a monster in his basket. It worked up to a certain point, but then I wondered, why would anybody walk around with a monster in a basket? So then I thought – who’s in the basket? I thought of it being his brother, which I knew was a great idea, and then the dialog starting coming. I wrote it down in Nathan’s, in that seedy, wonderful atmosphere.
It almost feels like there’s social commentary in “Basket Case,” that the character is stuck in this environment.
I lived in that environment and loved it. I grew up in Long Island, so the transition was wonderful. [Laughs] It went down, down from my home to there. My parents never knew where I went. I was a good student. My cutting didn’t interfere with my grades. I just kept denying I was doing anything, though I got caught eventually. But I just loved that I was leaving the clean sunshine of Long Island for the dark, grim 42nd Street.
You would kill for those days again. There were so [many films] that you would want to see. I used to carry a little piece of paper and write down start times and see how many I could cram in. And then you’d go to one and find out that the times meant nothing, or a different film would be playing. I saw the simultaneous New York premiere-and-closing of the double bill of “Seeds of Evil” with Joe Dallesandro and “Keep My Grave Open.” I went to the first show in the afternoon, and the audience hated the films so much – they are really slow movies – that they started throwing things at the screen, at each other, and caused such a riot that, when the film was over and I walked out, three old kung-fu hits were on the marquee. (Laughs)
Learn all about Henenlotter’s latest film, “Bad Biology,” in Part Two of The “Basket Case” Returns(?): Interview with Frank Henenlotter>>>