I was lucky enough to see director Frank Henenlotter's Frankenhooker in the theater, when it first came out, at a midnight screening. I was already a fan of Henelotter's Basket Case, and was excited to see his latest film. At the time, watching Frankenhooker with my friends, it seemed like the funniest movie we had ever seen. Of course, we were drunk, as was most of the audience, and we were just so caught up in the moment that I think we would have loved any movie we were watching that night.
When I found out Frankenhooker was finally come out on DVD, I got pretty excited, because as I recalled, "I really loved that movie." But as I sat down to watch the film for the first time since seeing over 15 years earlier, I realized I had almost no memory of the film itself. All of my fondness for Frankenhooker sprang from my memories of the experience of watching the movie, and not so much of the movie itself, which made rediscovering the film after so many years very interesting indeed. What I discovered was that the film, sadly, did not hold up quite as much as I would have thought.
James Lorinz stars as Jeffrey Franken, a medical school drop-out who conducts bizarre scientific experiments in his suburban New Jersey home. Jeffrey's fiancÚ is Elizabeth (Patty Mullen), a chubby sweetheart who appreciates the quirky side of Jeffrey. Things take a tragic turn when a remote control lawnmower goes haywire and runs over Elizabeth, chopping her body into pieces. Distraught and heartbroken, Jeffrey preserves Elizabeth's head in a solution of his making, and as he takes the head out of a freezer full of the bubbling liquid so it can keep him company during a romantic dinner, he vows to Elizabeth's decapitated noggin that he will make her whole again. Jeffrey devises a plan to reconstruct Elizabeth -- this time making perfect -- and for his plan all he needs is a spare body. He decides he can the material he needs from prostitutes in New York's pre-Giuliani Times Square.
The concept for Frankenhooker is pretty solid, and as a dark comedy with a smattering of horror elements, the film is fairly successful. Lorinz is one of the few actors in the entire film that gives a consistent, quality performance. Lorinz's Jefferey is totally nuts, but he plays the role straighter than some might expect in a film of this nature, but that's what makes it work. The laughs come from the situation and the action, and if Lorinz were to play his part strictly for laughs it would become overkill. And while she's not given a wide range of emotions to play with, Mullen is absolutely hilarious once she emerges as the new Elizabeth, stitched together from multiple body parts derived from hookers killed by toxic crack that makes them explode. Ultimately, Mullen is what makes the film work, and the film's biggest flaw is that it takes so long for her Frankenhooker character to appear on film, and by then the film is almost over.
Clocking in at under 90 minutes, Frankenhooker moves at a decent pace, but at the same time it takes too long to get to the good stuff. When all is said and done, the film spends too much time in the set up, especially in the sequence where Jeffrey hosts a party with a group of hookers to find the body parts he needs, and they all end up meeting grim demises after smoking the toxic crack he has concocted. That bizarrely comedic sequence, in which the hookers are replaced with obviously fake dummies that are blown up, was at the time the highpoint of the film. But now it doesn't quite hold up. Sure, it's great to see women with bad 1980s hairstyles flash their tits on screen -- especially former porn star Heather Hunter's perfectly shaped melons -- but it isn't nearly as fun as it was when I was in my early 20s and drunk with my friends.
Along with Henenlotter's Basket Case and Frankenhooker, there were several noteworthy films that mixed horror and demented comedy that came along during the 1980s and 90s. Some, like Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, Return of the Living Dead, Re-animator, and Evil Dead II have withstood the test of time far better than Frankenhooker. The problem with Frankenhooker is that Henelotter plays down the horror aspect, and the comedy is spotty at best. Some jokes are delivered with great comedic timing, but others seem forced or simply fall flat. Ultimately, when watched sober, and without the benefit of a screaming audience of midnight movie-goers, Frankenhooker is not as entertaining as you might think.