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Frankenhooker (1990)

Necro Feel Ya

Until this week, my knowledge of Frankenhooker was limited to a teenage memory of seeing the VHS tape in a video store. The cover featured a grimacing, purple-faced prostitute, and a button you could press that made her ask, "Wanna date?" For some reason, it's taken nearly twenty-two years to find out why this low-budget exploitation masterpiece was hailed as a "must see" by both Joe Bob Briggs and Bill Murray.

Well, now I've seen it. And the hype is not only warranted, it's tame. Co-writer/director Frank Henenlotter's sleazy update of Bride of Frankenstein may seem like a Better Off Dead / Re-Animator mash-up, but the performances by James Lorinz as mad creature-creator Jeffrey Franken and Patty Mullen as his imperfectly resurrected fiancee, Elizabeth Shelley, place the film firmly at the top of the heap. Just as Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers became distinct icons in the slasher sub-genre (despite being essentially the same character) Henenlotter's vision is unique enough to largely earn a pass on comparisons.

Like the film that inspired it, the titular monster doesn't show up until the third act. Much of the story involves Franken pulling himself up from a deep depression, following Elizabeth's accidental death (she was puréed by a lawn mower that he'd modified as a gift to her father). Unfortunately, he winds up firmly in kook territory, combining tools from his New Jersey power plant job with a lifelong amateur-surgery fascination. In the aftermath of the disaster, he gathers up his beloved's head and some of her extremities and submerges them in a basement freezer overflowing with purple, preservative goo.

Convinced that he could jolt her body back to life if only he had more body parts available, Jeffrey hits Times Square to pick up some prostitutes. In his quest to find the perfect all-around features for his creation, he hires a veritable poon platoon and holds exhaustive auditions at a sleazy hotel. As the hours drag on, one of the hookers rifles through his stuff and finds a giant plastic bag full of "super crack"--a lethal drug Jeffrey purchased from the girls' pimp, Zorro (Joseph Gonzalez), to help quietly overdose his specimen.

The problem with super crack is that it's super-charged; before long, Jeffrey finds himself in the middle of a bloody pile of exploded limbs and gore. Unfazed, he collects the most usable body parts and heads back home. Two days later, his experiment comes to fruition as a bolt of lightning brings the bolted, stitched-together pseudo-person-with-Elizabeth's-head to life. Jeffrey yanks the requisite white sheet off her body and stares at an oddly beautiful, wide-eyed creature, whose first words are, "Wanna date? Got any money? Lookin' for some action?"

When Jeffrey pulls a Stantz and says, "No", the Frankenhooker knocks him unconscious. She returns to Manhattan on a rampage, pushing all non-customers aside. The movie's last twenty minutes are utterly bonkers, and I wouldn't dare ruin the rest of the story for you. I will say that Henenlotter and co-writer Robert Martin pull off one really shocking, hand-to-the-mouth moment that most horror movies would kill for--and then follow it up with a laugh.

Frankenhooker is what Tim Burton movies would be like if he dealt in graphic violence and nudity--which is to say, "entertaining". Jeffrey Franken is a classic Burton archetype, living in a self-made fantasy world and having to deal with the consequences of his madness running out the front door. He begins the film as a seemingly harmless obsessive, but Henenlotter provides an awesome reveal that clears up any ambiguity about how far gone our hero really is (hint: it involves a drill and a monologue). Lorinz brings his character to eerily compelling, believable life by playing him as a serial killer giving jailhouse interviews; his mumbling, matter-of-fact demeanor in the face of unspeakable horror gives Franken the kind of flesh-and-blood oddball quality that makes people lock their doors at night.

But he's still just a stooge who thinks he's a mad genius. There's no better evidence of this than in Elizabeth's return to life as Frankenhooker. The parts work, but there's no artistry, no finesse to her design. Jeffrey misses his dream girl, but can't be bothered to resurrect her in suitably presentable fashion. And then there's the brain thing.

In her new life, Elizabeth's personality has been replaced by a kind of broken loop replay of lines recited by the people who now comprise her--which explains the pick-up lines. I can't over-state how great Mullen's performance is here. The actress insists that her movements were all due to Henenlotter's coaching, but watching the movie, it's impossible not to marvel at her talents. Frankenhooker walks and contorts her face as if constantly being shocked by invisible jolts of electricity, and her dialogue comes explodes in a garbled, rapid-fire mess--as if someone had dunked a Taxi Cab Confessions DVD in water and then hooked it up to speakers.

The only thing I don't absolutely love about Frankenhooker is the ending. It plays like a post-credits epilogue, following the shocking surprise I mentioned earlier. Had Henenlotter and Martin ended on a quirky note, rather than an obvious one, I might have enjoyed it a bit more. Then again, I'm saying this twenty-two years after the fact. At the time, the last shot might have been revolutionary. Regardless, it doesn't tarnish the preceding ninety minutes whatsoever.

If you've never heard of Frankenhooker, or if you put off seeing it because you thought the title and idea were lame, please do yourself a favor and check it out. Sure, it's cheesy. But for every paper-mâché exploding prostitute, there's a hypnotically weird scene to balance the scales--such as the opening credits montage, which finds Jeffrey mumbling his plans for Elizabeth's body while doodling circuit pathways on a life-size diagram of her muscle structure. Frankenhooker is beautiful, funny, bloody, and wrong--and ten times more interesting, I'll bet, than the last five movies you saw.

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