Back in the day (the day in this case being 1990), if you were lucky enough to acquire an uncut VHS tape copy of Frankenhooker, it would’ve come with interactive box art: Press the lamp post behind the titular streetwalker and a voice squawked the film’s most memorable tagline (“Wanna date?”). Precisely the sort of gleeful gag one might expect from Frank Henenlotter, historian and purveyor of all things carnivalesque, a doff of the cinematic hat to schlockmeisters of yore like William Castle, the man who jury-rigged theater seats with electrical shock-generating devices for the premiere of his magnum opus The Tingler, a wonderfully self-reflexive bit of thick-sliced ham starring the hammiest of all thespians, Vincent Price.
After producer James (The Exterminator) Glickenhaus shot down his first script idea mid-pitch, Henenlotter concocted Frankenhooker on the spot as a mix-n’-match of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and Universal’s Frankenstein films. Henenlotter has done his fair share to dodge guilt by association with the horror genre, preferring the self-description “exploitation filmmaker,” and Frankenhooker certainly bears this out by abstaining from the gonzo go-for-gross that highlighted Henenlotter’s first two films, Basket Case and Brain Damage, and placing the emphasis squarely on absurdist humor. The aforementioned deathless brain, for instance, makes a guest appearance in the opening scenes, floating in an aquarium full of purple water, one lone eyeball rolling in the middle of its gray matter, as our mad scientist in residence, Jeffrey Franken (James Lorinz), delicately taps surgical scalpels into various lobes and cortexes with a ball-peen hammer.
When his fiancée dies in a remote-controlled lawnmower accident that reduces her to a tossed human salad, wannabe medico Franken hatches an appropriately mad scheme to rebuild her. After all, he has the technology, courtesy of ConEd, stockpiled in his backyard laboratory. Jersey boy Jeffrey goes on the prowl for spare parts (where else?) in Times Square, Henenlotter’s own happy hunting ground (of the cinematic sort), where he zeroes in on a bevy of by-the-hour beauties belonging to juicehead pimp Zorro (Joseph Gonzalez). Lacking the killer instinct, Franken does his dirty work by proxy, offering the gals a designer drug of his own device called Super Crack. Trouble is, the side effects can be rather nasty. Explosive, even.
The humor comes along hard and fast in Frankenhooker. James Lorinz fiendishly ad-libs his way through nearly every scene, tossing out one-liners sufficient for several feature films. Among the funniest: Franken attempts to placate a menacing pimp with the advice, “Do the right thing!” Standing in the body part-strewn aftermath of the Super Crack-induced hooker explosion: “I want to apologize to everybody here.” And as a farewell salute to his reassembled fiancée, as she’s about to ride the lightning into reanimation: “Good luck!” According to Henenlotter’s commentary, Lorinz carefully prepared his improvisations, test-driving various gags in rehearsal before lacing them into the scripted dialogue.
Elsewhere, Louise Lasser deftly handles her handful of scenes as Jeffrey’s oblivious mother, responding to his desperation (“I’m antisocial. I’m becoming dangerously amoral”) with a languid “You want a sandwich?” John Zacherle, better known as Zacherley, one of the first-wave TV horror hosts from the 1950s, puts in a cameo as a weatherman who offers forecasts for mad scientists. Shirley Stoler (The Honeymoon Killers, Seven Beauties) turns up in a cameo as butch barkeep Spike. And then there’s Motormouth, a brief but brutal parody of 1980s opinion-monger Morton Downey’s TV show that features Beverly Bonner, who’s appeared in every Henenlotter film since costarring in Basket Case. Last and certainly not least, former Penthouse Pet Patty Mullen does a terrific job pulling absurd faces and parroting hooker come-ons under several pounds of garish multihued makeup.
Synapse's HD transfer is definitely an improvement over previous SD iterations. The image is sharp and clean. Colors are bright and densely saturated, especially in the laboratory scenes, where gizmos crackle with electricity and throw off neon hues. Footage shot on the fly around the Deuce looks even grimier than in Basket Case. The 5.1 surround track offers a good bit of immersion here and there, especially in the hustle-and-bustle 42nd Street scenes, and emphatically delivers the copious oddball sound effects, whereas the 2.0 stereo track represents the sturdier, if flatter, original mix.
Synapse has carried over a bumper crop of extras, all in the original standard-def, from Unearthed Films' 2006 DVD release. The commentary track features writer-director Henenlotter and makeup effects designer Gabe Bartalos. As with the Basket Case track, Henenlotter does most of the talking, delivering anecdotes at a fever pitch, while Bartalos seems more than willing to sit back and feed him prompts. Henenlotter discusses the inspirations behind the film, shooting Frankenhooker and Basket Case 2 one on top of the other, battling the ratings board as well as his DP, and the story behind Bill Murray's now-famous tagline, "If you see one movie this year, it should be Frankenhooker." Ever the garrulous raconteur, Henenlotter generates tracks that are de rigueur listening. "A Salad That Was Once Named Elizabeth" gives us 10 minutes with star Patty Mullen, currently a stay-at-home mother of two. Mullen reflects back on her brief career appearing in a sum total of two films, recalls her impressions of Henenlotter (he was quiet), relations with the cast and crew, and reactions from run-of-the-mill New Yorkers when she'd head home still in costume and makeup ("Hey, monster lady!"). "A Stitch in Time: The Makeup Effects of Frankenhooker" focuses, as you might imagine, on Bartalos's work. Hosting the segment from various locations (his workshop, the notorious Bunny Ranch, for no other apparent reason than that he could, and later a punk rock show), Bartalos makes up here for his relative silence on the commentary track, going in depth into the exploding hooker sequence, in particular. The segment also teems with behind-the-scenes still photos and home-video footage. "Turning Tricks" is an amusing visit with actress (and cult film regular) Jennifer Delora, who played Angel, one of the ill-fated exploding hookers. Along the way, Delora dismisses co-star James Lorinz as a "diva," threatens to kick your ass if you don't like her style, and explains in lurid detail why she was stripped of her beauty pageant title when it was discovered she had performed a topless scene in the pithily titled Bad Girls Dormitory. If you can't get enough of the chatty, gregarious Delora, you're in for a treat, since the final extra, "Jennifer Delora's Frankenhooker Photo Scrapbook," serves up another helping.
Try not to lose your head over Frank Henenlotter's gleefully absurdist Frankenhooker, pimped out in 1080p and looking to get busy, from Synapse Films.