Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore (2010)

 

Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore (2010) DVD Cover

directors Frank Henenlotter, Jimmy Maslon
viewed: 03/01/2015

Since I first read about it back in 2010, I was pretty keen to see Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore.  I’m typically up for documentaries about the more obscure and unusual of filmmakers, especially ones with such significant cult classics to their names, and even more so of ones about whom I only know so much.  I had it hopefully waiting in my Netflix queue, in the section called “Saved” for movies that they didn’t have on DVD and often had not timetable for acquiring.  I was pleasantly surprised to see it become available on Full Moon Streaming and somehow even more surprised that it was co-directed by Frank Henenlotter.  Or maybe just that it was directed by Henenlotter and that I for some reason hadn’t realized it.

Actually, it’s a predecessor akin to Henenlotter’s That’s Sexploitation! (2013), which makes a lot of sense.  Henenlotter, along with Mike Vraney and others founded Something Weird video back in the 1980’s, collecting tons of cult nudies and other exploitation films, named after one of Lewis’s flicks and featuring Lewis’ oeuvre as part of their core catalog.  Somewhere along the line Henenlotter and crew must have realized that Lewis and one-time partner and produced David F. Friedman weren’t getting any younger and that no one else was interviewing them about their history in the exploitation biz and that they might as well go ahead and make the documentary themselves.

Friedman has since passed away, but shows up both here and in That’s Sexploitation!, talking about the heady days of nudie cuties and the advent of the splatter movie, the concoction of Lewis and Friedman in the form of Blood Feast (1963) and several others.

The Godfather of Gore is a better doc than That’s Sexploitation!, in part because its focus is keener and it’s got Lewis himself talking through the shoots and experiences of making his famous “Gore” series, nudist films, and strange gamut of filmmaking innovations and practices.  You’ve even got John Waters on hand to pay homage to Lewis and field his always witty perspectives on the films.  Henenlotter and Maslon also venture back to some scenes of the crimes, taking Friendman and Lewis to the town where they filmed Lewis’s personal favorite film, Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) along with cast and crew.

What’s most funny to me is my own sense of Lewis and his movies when I first saw them as a teen.  I didn’t know anything really about them other than their legendary status and cult influence.  They seemed cheap and campy to me (which they are) but I wasn’t able to fully appreciate them for that back then.  I had no idea that they’d been filmed in Florida, where I grew up and lived at the time I first saw them.  And I didn’t know who Lewis really was, the intelligent, funny, free-wheeling character that he is and was.

It’s funny too that this legend of cult splatter horror films is also a legend in the direct marketing business, a world he conquered after leaving movies in the 1970’s.  It’s a testament to his bootstrapping cleverness, if perhaps a far cry from his goriest moments and cinematic perversities.  I’m glad Henenlotter and team had the wherewithal to record these folks while they could, capturing some of the oral histories of the wild days of exploitation and the strange, carnival spirit of the men.

That’s Sexploitation! (2013)

That's Sexploitation (2013) movie poster

director Frank Henenlotter
viewed: 12/09/2014

When That’s Sexploitation! showed up suddenly on Fandor, I was like “What!  A documentary about sexploitation?! By Frank Henenlotter?!”  I was pretty excited.  I didn’t know he’d even been working on a documentary.

In the documentary, he interviews longtime exploitation producer and longtime friend David F. Friedman, who has since passed away.  Henenlotter hosts and narrates the way through the the history of film and sexploitation from the silent era to the 1970’s when it more or less petered out as hardcore pornography made a lot of the titillation moot.

This could easily have been totally awesome.  Henenlotter and Friedman have keen knowledge and insight to the spectrum of time covered here, Friedman largely pretty firsthand.  But one of the film’s limitations is that it’s largely limited to the scope of Henenlotter’s own Something Weird distribution, which isn’t a major limitation.  If it wasn’t for Something Weird, who knows where all these films would have disappeared to.  Who would have cataloged all these nudist cuties, roughies, and the like?  They could have well been lost to time.  Really, they’ve done a major effort of preservation and history keeping.  So, limited as it is, it’s still a treasure trove.

But the movie ends up being a bit of a greatest hits clip show of Something Weird titles.  Which also has value.  But you kind of wish that there was a fuller picture not just limited to what they have available.

Even so, the film is still over 2 hours long.  Kind of verging on epic.

Henenlotter is entertaining and convivial and Friedman does paint an amusing series of anecdotes.  So, it’s still good and interesting.  I was just wishing for a little more.

Bad Biology (2008)

Bad Biology (2008) movie poster

director Frank Henenlotter
viewed: 09/25/2014

I don’t know but this movie sounds like someone dared Frank Henenlotter to come up with the most crass, impossible movie to make and he made it.  Apparently, co-written by Henenlotter and R.A. “The Rugged Man” Thorburn, that my prior supposition is not the least true, but still, let me lay it out for you.

First, we’ve got Jennifer who has a mutant vagina (or whole reproductive system) who needs sex often and intensely, gives birth to babies two hours after becoming inseminated (and dumps them in the trash).  Then we’ve got Batz, who has a steroid-addicted mutant penis that literally has a mind of its own.  Though they sound like a match made in heaven, it turns out that two mutant genitalia don’t necessarily work so well together.

But we don’t find that out til the end.  Batz’s penis goes on a murder rampage of rape when it detaches itself and makes its way around the neighborhood.

The amount of perversity that Henenlotter gets packed into this film is intense and extreme.

At first, told from the perspective of Jennifer (Charlee Danielson), I was thinking that this story of a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac would be a wonderful companion piece to Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013), just a lot more fun and funny.

The movie isn’t quite as good as it could be, probably for a number of reasons.  Danielson is not the greatest actress in the world for one thing.  And the mutant penis is funny (and gross) but I was thinking how much funnier and bizarre was Henenlotter’s other phallic symbiote in Brain Damage (1988).  Because though Batz (Anthony Sneed) can hear the penis talk, it doesn’t actually have a voice.

Still, for out and out crass weirdness, Bad Biology has its merits.

Brain Damage (1988)

Brain Damage (1988) VHS cover

director Frank Henenlotter
viewed: 10/29/2013

There are great movies and there are great movies.  And there are great moviemakers and there are great moviemakers.

Meaning: there is no one measurement of greatness.

Which is good because Frank Henenlotter might not make many people’s great moviemaker lists and his film Brain Damage might well not make lists of great movies either.  But that doesn’t actually take away from their eminent and endemic greatnesses.

Henenlotter (Basket Case (1984), Frankenhooker (1990)) is kind of his own subgenre, own area of greatness.  I would liken him to Larry Cohen or Jack Hill maybe with a little Don Coscarelli thrown in.  He’s all his own bit of outre weirdness and comic panache.

Let’s put it this way: could anyone else have made Brain Damage?

It’s the story of a parasitic relationship between a man and a turd-like, tumor-like creature that lives on eating brains, preferably human brains.  And the parasite effects symbiosis by delivering a highly addictive, highly hallucinogenic blue fluid into the brain stem of its human partner.  And of course, the creature has eyes and talks with a charming, smarmy intelligence.

The comic gross outs and sexualized innuendo are quite extreme and bizarrely explicit.  And of course, so is the more obvious parallel of drug addiction and its woes.

But mostly it’s just crazy crazy crazy and funny.

Great movie.

Basket Case 2

Basket Case 2 (1990) movie poster

(1990) dir. Frank Henenlotter
viewed: 10/31/08

Last year, I ended up watching Frank Henenlotter’s 1982 film Basket Case.  I was totally impressed and entertained by its low-rent production, early 1980’s Times Square location shooting, and goofy and strange special effects.  So, married with some additional entertainment value attributed to Mr. Henenlotter, including Frankenhooker (1990), I was definitely holding out for the sequels.

Well, I don’t know what happened to Henenlotter in the 1980’s, but by the time he got back to his Basket Case series of films, the novelties has worn off, though the demented world perspective was still intact.  However, for the quality of experience, things were significantly diminished.

Though produced 8 years after the original, Basket Case 2 picks up exactly where Basket Case left off, with Dwayne Bradley and his tumoresque twin brother Belial, having fallen from the Times Square hotel window to their would-be deaths.  Only, 8 years later, or hours depending on your sense of reality, they awaken to escape to a home for “those who are different”.  A doctor, nicknamed “Dr. Freak” by the tabloids that follow and exploit her, has created a home on Long Island for the deformed beings who formerly wound up in sideshows, now tabloids, and administers psychological therapy and politically correct care to these beings.

This is almost progressive in and of itself.  But then you get into the costume designs.  The “freaks” are FREAKS.  Lots of rubber and artistic embellishment makes all of these oddities far more than anything even nature coughs up.  They are more comical and perhaps influenced even by other films and cultural artifacts than I can even try to put down.  It’s comic book.

It’s not that the film is either horrible or unwatchable.  It’s decent.  Not great, but amusing.  I think it’s only the disappointment I had following the original that made me less pleased with it than I could have been.

Henenlotter still throws in a couple of interesting character performances of a bar owner and particularly of a side-show operator who gets his comeuppance…these are performances in some ways that outshine the rest of the film.  Strange, ideosynchratic, and funny.  All good, in my opinion.

Basket Case

Basket Case (1982) movie poster

(1982) dir. Frank Henenlotter
viewed: 07/06/07

I do take a great deal of pride in the broad range of films that I see.  It’s one of the reasons that this diary is so utterly specific.  I mean, I have gone to see a couple of the big summer movies and do often rent new releases on DVD, but I will range from seeing silents, foreign films, animation, and total low-brow trash/cult cinema, like Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case.  I mean, I do have a strong affinity for weird cult films, but I also do not purely watch them.

I’ve been into Henenlotter since I saw Frankenhooker (1990) five years ago and was recently reminded about him when seeing him in the documentary, Mau Mau Sex Sex (2001).  Henenlotter is like a much less prolific Larry Cohen or something.  There is a goofy, mad genius to this film, to everything that he seems to have worked on.

Basket Case, I thought I’d seen this before, but I am pretty sure that I hadn’t.  The story, oddly touching, about a boy with a twisted monster Siamese twin, and the revenge they seek for the doctors who detached Belial and left him in a dumpster for dead.

Shot on location in New York City in the early 1980’s, there are many glimpses of a lost era of the city, with a Times Square crawling with pornography, strip clubs, and drugs (really reminds me of the San Francisco’s present-day Tenderloin without all the neon).  And a cityscape include the famously demised twin towers.  It’s also a film of a very different era, made with humor, camp, but also made to be blood bath.  It’s period-ness is absolutely one of its charms.

Heavily peppered with bit characters with wonderfully delivered loopy lines and asides, the film has a sassy, wacky off-kilter charm from the very get-go.  And the special effects are pretty wonderful, too.  Moving between some rubbery body, face lump, the twin, Belial, is bizarrely but amusingly designed, and when he gets to move into stop-motion animation, you know this movie is the stuff.

I have to hand it to Henenlotter.  The man is an unsung genius.

Frankenhooker

Frankenhooker (1990) movie poster

(1990) dir. Frank Henenlotter
viewed: 08/17/02

Though I had a friend who really who was really into this movie around the time of its original release, I somehow never managed to catch it. I guess that is what these little mini-marathons are all about.

Frankenhooker is a pretty entertaining piece of campy perversity, from Frank Henenlotter, the director/writer of Basket Case (1982) & Brain Damage (1988), both notable trash horror films in their own right — I believe. I will add both are films to my list of movies that I should see again soon, since I don’t remember them well enough at the moment.

The opening shot offers all one would need to know about the film’s tone. James Lorinz, who is pretty funny as the muttering amateur mad scientist/electrician Jeffrey Franken, is busily working at the kitchen table during a family picnic on a big brain with one eye in a jar while his family hardly bats an eye, trying to get it to focus on his finger. The special effects are comically over-the-top, not at all naturalistic. It’s clearly a world of grotesque absurdity.

When one of Jeffrey’s inventions dismembers his girlfriend, he decides to recreate her a la Frankenstein. In this version of the tale, though, he decides to get his body parts from NYC prostitutes, figuring that they already are in the practice of “selling their bodies.”

When she finally emerges, the Frankenhooker herself isn’t by any means the funniest part of the film. I guess it’s a little funnier in concept than in execution.

The funniest part of the film is the “super crack” and its effect on living organisms.

This movie is sick. But sick being a perverse and genuine pleasure.