Underground comix! What a thrill! They don’t care about heroism or decency! Sometimes they’re UGLY LOOKING! Sometimes they don’t make sense to anyone — even the people that drew them! Sometimes they’re cynical! Sometimes sincere! Sometimes they’re a befuddling mix of cynicism and sincerity! And SOMETIMES they’re Mike Diana’s Boiled Angel.
Mike Diana’s story is well known in the underground comix scene, a cautionary tale like Dan O’Neill’s fruitless battle against the Disney Corporation. Diana was a sensitive young kid in Florida that spent his time drawing grisly comics and running copies off at his mom’s place of work (a police precinct of all places). He would mail them off to others in the small zine and mini-comics network of the 1990s. Just a kid doodling impaled babies in his sketchbook and sending them to other kids doodling impaled babies in their sketchbooks. Until an FBI agent saw his Boiled Angel minicomics. The explicit horrors of the material, in addition to the Florida return address marked Diana as a suspect in the “Gainesville Ripper” serial killer case that was then unsolved. The FBI took a blood sample from Diana and cleared him of the crimes, but he was subsequently arrested for obscenity by the local Pinellas County, FLA police department. Legendary director Frank Henenlotter’s new documentary Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana (2018) details the injustices that befell Diana and gives voice to many of the players involved.
I was able to speak with both Diana and Henenlotter over the phone thanks to the help of Boiled Angels producer Mike Hunchback. The two were gracious with their time as both interviews lasted around an hour. Henenlotter didn’t even need me for the interview, I mainly chuckled at his anecdotes and let him lead the way; his new film is a topic he was excited to talk about. The film is currently playing festivals and Frank is in the middle of a career retrospective at the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn. Mike Diana has a solo exhibition going up at the Superchief Gallery NY on April 27th. The following is my interview with Frank Henenlotter, be on the lookout for my interview with Mike Diana in the following weeks.
Diabolique: Thanks for taking my call today, how are you doing?
Frank Henenlotter: Tired! You know, we’re doing that retrospective at Alamo. I love meeting the fans and all that, but it is exhausting. At least for me it is.
Diabolique: I’ll bet. Maybe they should do retrospectives EARLY in your career so that you can have the energy.
FH: HA! It doesn’t work that way!
Diabolique: Have those screenings gone pretty well? I’m sure it’s all fans.
FH: Yeah, that’s why they go so well! What’s even more fun is that I picked four movies that influenced me in the past and those have been going well. And that’s exciting because most of the audience hasn’t seen them.
Diabolique: What films have you chosen?
FH: Earlier this week the Hammer film The Quatermass Experiment (1953), which is my favorite science fiction film. It’s just brilliant. They have a 35mm print of the US version called The Creeping Unknown. Three astronauts go up and one comes back and he’s changing into…something. And what he changes into is just disgusting! And last night we showed a DCP of Borowczyk’s Dr. Jekyll and His Women, or alternately, The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mrs. Osborne (1981).
Diabolique: I haven’t seen that one.
FH: Go out of your way and see it! It’s just jaw dropping and it’s so perverse and it’s so brilliant and it’s not what you expect.
Diabolique: That’s the kind of director he is. You never get what you think you’re going to get.
FH: No, no, no. The audience was very quiet at the beginning and I was afraid I’d oversold the film. No, they went nuts over it, they really did. You know, they were coming up to me after the film and saying “thank you for showing that!” (laughs) Well, you know, I just picked it as one of my favorites, I really didn’t do much more than that, but they were really taken with the film, which is important. We’re also going to show- next week- a 35mm technicolor print of The Brides of Dracula (1960), which is my favorite Hammer film. Other than Quatermass Experiment, which I think of as almost separate from the Hammer color films. We’re also going to show Jess Franco’s first sound film, The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962), also in 35. So that’s pretty exciting. At least for me!
Diabolique: I guess that’s the good part of a retrospective. You get to pick some stuff. You don’t have to sit through your own films again.
FH: I really CAN’T because when you spend all the time directing it and then editing it, you’ve seen it a thousand times. You get sick of it.
Diabolique: Now you’ve got a new one to get sick of! Have you gotten sick of the new one yet?
FH: Yeah, I have. You just tweak it and tweak it and tweak it and we’re still tweaking it. We saw things at the first screening of it and I went “Oh! That should be green.” The audience doesn’t know, just us. The ones that made it. It’s little things. That fade out was too long, that kind of stuff. It doesn’t need reediting, just little tweaks here and there, that’s all. I’m sick of it, though I want to see it with an audience a few more times. (1)
Diabolique: This is a really different movie for you…
FH: It is. It’s actually the first serious film I’ve ever made, despite the abundance of humor in it. Diana’s work is hilarious if you can tap into that. We illustrate a couple of his comics and there’s nothing deadlier than just putting a comic book up on the screen and expecting the audience to read it. So we didn’t touch the artwork, but we added music, sound effects, and we read all the dialogue balloons. Diana narrates one of them, too. He’s the victim in Baby Fuck Dog Food, he’s the little boy. He’s funny, when he writes the words “Sob! Sob!” in the comics, he actually treats that like a word. So he’ll say “Please don’t hurt me anymore-SOB! SOB!” (laughs) It’s really hilarious. For allegedly obscene work, the audience just loves it! The one that seemed to touch people the most was his story Grasshopper Boy. All of his art is about victimization. This one really…I thought it really slipped into poetry and was not just a comic strip, but a piece of profundity. It was just amazing and it had the same effect on the audience. And a couple of others — God Up His Ass — we play that completely straight. There’s no humor in THAT one!
Diabolique: I remember my first exposure to his work. I had a similar feeling. I remember thinking it was…sad. It was a report from a hurt place. He was telling these tragic stories from unheard voices.
FH: Yeah… we met at a screening of Bad Biology (2008), maybe in ‘09. I met him and Mike Hunchback on the same night. They wanted to stay up all night talking and I was already falling asleep, so I said “if you guys want to stop over, maybe next week, we can sit and talk and I can show you some things.” Now, happily, they come over once a week. We do movie night once a week and we’ve been doing that for how many years, now? In fact, we’re doing that tonight after the screening. After I introduce the screening, I’m heading out of there and we’re going to be doing movie night tonight. They’ve both become my best friends. Diana- he’s a very unusual person. He really is. He doesn’t express much emotion, he’s very quiet, yet if you ask him a personal question you get an answer so honest you wished you hadn’t asked it.
Diabolique: That comes across in the film…
FH: He’s very honest. The only time he isn’t quiet is when he gets a bit high, then he goes nuts, then he’s shouting things out at the movies! In all the time I’ve known him, I’ve never known him to get angry at anything.
Diabolique: For someone you’d think would be an angry artist…
FH: The art is angry, not the artist. He jokes that he wouldn’t hurt an insect, but that’s TRUE! We have a shot of him letting a mosquito bite his hand! One movie night there was one of those awful, giant New York cockroaches. It was HUGE. A water bug. You don’t see them often, when there’s hot weather. Mike said, “Oh, Frank, you’ve got one of them.” So, I took one of my winter boots and just clobbered it. All the while, he couldn’t stand watching it or knowing about it. I didn’t know where he was. He was standing in the dark in my bedroom. That’s a sensitivity you’d never expect.
Diabolique: If he likes those big cockroaches, he should come down to Georgia. We’ve got a lot of them!
FH: (laughs) I don’t think he likes them, he just doesn’t want to witness the death. He’s an extremely unusual person. I’d know him for six months and I knew nothing about the trial.
Diabolique: So to you, he was just a fan that approached you?
FH: I’d known he was an artist. He did this beautiful graphic for the screening of Bad Biology, so I was taken with his work right away, but I didn’t know the history of it. One night we were talking about something else and he casually mentions the trial the way I would say “Oh, when I made Basket Case.” Something like that, you know. I say “Mike, what trial?” And he started telling me about it, and… I don’t want to say I didn’t believe him, because I’ve never known him to tell a lie about anything, but it just seemed crazy. I thought he must be leaving something out. It didn’t make any sense to me. After he left, I rushed onto Google and looked it up and realized that it was worse than he’d said and it STILL didn’t make any sense to me! I mean, I thought a piece of the puzzle was missing, because… why would this happen? To a small zine that was only brought into that community by an undercover cop? What?! Wait a second! It wasn’t sold there, nobody bought it there, an undercover cop brought it in and now they want to throw him in jail for three years? None of that made sense to me. So, when I saw him again, I said “I’d like to do a documentary on it.” I also said “can I see the issues of Boiled Angel?” He then said to me “yeah, you know, I’ve got all this news footage.” He’d taped everything off television! We have tons of news footage about this! Tons of protests and the nonsense about thinking he was a serial killer. I mean, there was a serial killer down there, but seriously. They took a blood sample and they knew he didn’t do it. They knew he was innocent, yet the media kept tagging him with it. You’d see the news broadcast start with “A one-time suspect in the Gainesville killings…” or “murder suspect, Mike Diana…” Wait a second, he’s as much a murder suspect as all of YOU ASSHOLES ARE! When I approached Anthony Sneed, who produced it, and I said “do you want to do this with me?” He was also thinking the story didn’t make any sense. When I showed him the news footage on a disc, all of the sudden it became real. “OH MY GOD, FRANK! WE’VE GOTTA DO THIS!” It was quite an adventure. We were lucky to get the participation of the prosecuting attorney and one of the protesters.
Diabolique: I’m so glad you asked them. Sometimes you see documentaries about, maybe Lenny Bruce… these martyr-artists. They’re always so laudatory and you never get the perspective of the people that objected to the art.
FH: Well, I thought that was important. You see, I didn’t understand what was going on in Florida. I needed them to tell me. Stuart Baggish, who was the prosecuting attorney, who wanted to put him in jail for three years, couldn’t have been more of a gentleman towards us and he answered every question and I actually think he’s sincere as hell. In fact, one of the first questions he asked me was “are you going to show Mike’s art?” I said “oh, yes, uncensored.” And he went “ok, good, good.” That says to me that he still thinks it’s obscene – maybe not legally anymore – he’s under the impression that if somebody sees it, they’ll think it’s objectionable as well. I thought that it was very important to have those voices in this.
Diabolique: Were there any people that you wanted in the film that you couldn’t get a hold of?
FH: Yeah, I would have liked to speak to the undercover cop. We would have also like to have gotten the judge, but he was still sitting on the bench. I also thought, what is he going to say? “Gee, I made a mistake?” (laughs) I thought that Stuart Baggish covered everything so well. I think he spoke for the judge and the whole judicial system of Florida at the time. And my voice is not heard in the film, other than letting people say what I believe. We had a tremendous amount of comic book artists. We have author Neil Gaiman who was deeply involved with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. What touches all of them is…how could this happen to an artist in America? How could this possibly happen? Especially with the judges rulings at the end. He put Mike under probation for three years with a whole set of amazing regulations against him. Including, and I’m going to quote from the ruling, that he was “not permitted to draw anything that might be considered obscene even for private use in his own home.”
Diabolique: That had to feel horrible…
FH: DUH! I can’t even imagine that. The judge went so far as to list the kind of art supplies he was allowed. Oh my god! It’s jaw dropping on many levels, let’s put it that way.The other thing I wanted to do- and this I thought was risky at first- was to have Mike tell us the story. He’s so quiet in real life, would this work having him narrate his own story? Because he’s so passive and monotone. But the very first review called him “eminently likeable.” So, there you go!
Diabolique: It’s clear that he’s sincere and not a violent person.
FH: No, no. It’s hard to say “you mean that quiet young man did this? Wrote these stories?” There’s a marvelous disconnect there, but if you look at it, it makes all the sense in the world. The first time I saw- I think it was the story Baby Fuck Dog Food – where I saw him actually drawing graphic sexual abuse to a child. My first thought was “uh-oh, I’m not sure I want to go there. I don’t know what to do about this right now.” That was my first thought based on page one.
Diabolique: As far as including it in the film?
FH: No, I had to include it in the film. If this is an obscenity trial, I have to show it. It’s over Boiled Angel 7 & 8, so I have to show his art from that. But, I really froze. Then I turned the next page and it’s continuing and I’m going “OK, oh, boy.” By page three I kind of chuckled to myself, “god, this is getting SO over the top.” Page four…by the time I got to page five, I laughed out loud. I realized “I get it.” This is a story of victimization, like all of his stuff is, but this one’s actually really fucking FUNNY. (laughs) So, I had no trouble with anything past that.
Diabolique: I remember seeing his art for the first time and thinking “this is as far out as you can get.” I wonder…do you think he would have stopped drawing or gone a different route with his art if he had not been arrested?
FH: I think he mentions that briefly. Apparently the move to Florida was very traumatic for him, but on the other hand he was always…different. Mike Hunchback and I lovingly refer to him as a Martian. (laughs) We can never anticipate what he’s going to say or how he’s going to think.
Diabolique: I guess that’s why you keep him around.
FH: Oh, we love him! That’s not an insult, believe me! He does say that everything about Florida from when he moved there as a child, was traumatic to him. He didn’t like it. He was so bothered by Florida that he wonders if his art would have taken the direction it did if he hadn’t moved to Florida. It says to me that he really had no control over what he was drawing, it was what was inside him. He had long hair, so he was a constant target for the police. The neighbors hated him. He was too different, too odd. There’s so much there. Honestly, I could have made a four hour film. I could have made a six hour film. His life is so interesting. The stuff I couldn’t include really pained me, but you have to keep a documentary to a reasonable length at some point. It’s not like he decided one day to go weird. In the film you see a kindergarten assignment where he drew his family, but in complete innocence he drew them all naked.
Diabolique: It’s a really beautiful impulse.
FH: That’s what I mean – he’s a complete Martian! He doesn’t think like the rest of the world! So, it was already there, his way of looking at the world differently.
Diabolique: I love the footage of his home movies, Blood Brothers (1989), what a supportive mother he has! She gets decapitated in the movie!
FH: She’s wonderful! I was trying to get her to say… his father was very clear that he didn’t like the art, but his father was also very clear in saying that to put somebody in jail for drawing pictures is crazy. But, I said to his mother a couple of times, “what did you think about the art when you saw how strong it was?” What’s used in the film, she says “I saw it,” she shrugged her shoulders and says “art is art.” She’s right!
Diabolique: The William Gaines trial is touched on in the film, with Fredric Wertham…
FH: I had to go back to 1954, because it was a psychologist who fucked the world of comics, who honestly said reading comics turned people into juvenile delinquents. How the hell could people fall for that nonsense?! (2)
Diabolique: People are just waiting for someone with a PHD to tell them what to think.
FH: Exactly. America loves an easy answer. I had to show that to compare it to the psychologist at Mike’s trial who said reading Boiled Angel could turn people into serial killers. Including Mike. Wow! And that was admitted as evidence! I wanted to meet him so badly. When I met Stuart Baggish and Christopher Marone and Heather Redden I told them all, flat out, “I’m a New York liberal and I wouldn’t be making this film if I agreed with the verdict.” And they said “I understand, that’s fair.” But I also said, “I’m not going to debate anything with you on camera, I’m going to let you talk. I’m not going to edit it in a way that will make you look foolish, I just want your side of the story.” And I held to that, BUT I really wouldn’t have said that to the psychologist! I would have begun with “WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?! You’re a grown man, you’re in this field and you’re going to say this SHIT?!” (laughs) So, it’s just as well I didn’t meet him. He’s one of the few that really angered me. And the judge, I probably wouldn’t have like the judge. (laughs) What do you mean that you’re going to say the history of underground comics, all that stuff that influenced Mike, is irrelevant? It’s not irrelevant. Almost all of his rulings I disagreed with, so it would be just me arguing with him. And that wouldn’t have achieved anything. I wasn’t angered by Stuart Baggish, because he saw this differently than I did. That’s fair. And we thought Heather Redden, the protester, was just a lovely person. She didn’t know us from anything. She was caught off guard that we tracked her down and we told her why and we sent her the news footage. When we showed up she made us dinner! She wasn’t one of these- how do I put this nicely- you know how the Christian right has some of these…crackpots? She wasn’t. She and her husband are Christian missionaries. At the time of Mike’s trial they were in Vietnam doing mission work. So, she’s not just some fringe loon, she’s a deeply devoted Christian doing what she thinks is, and may very well be, God’s work. I have no problem with any of that.
Diabolique: Have you ever faced any censorship issues with any of your films?
FH: Sure, with the MPAA. Almost every one of my films got an X rating. My favorite story: we shot Frankenhooker (1990) very deliberately as an R rated film. That wasn’t a horror film for me, that was an absolute comedy. Even when we blew up the hookers – which is the absolute greatest scene I’ve ever filmed – I made sure that it was not only bloodless, but that we didn’t even red powder in there. We wanted them to blow up like fireworks, to make it funny. There was no sex in the film, it’s all lame R rated T&A. It was all funny. So, we submit that to get an R and the head of the ratings board, Richard Heffner – who used to have a TV show called The Open Mind HA! HA! He called the office of Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment and said “Congratulations, you have the first film rated ‘S’.” And the secretary says “Like, ‘S’ for ‘Sex?’” And he says, “No, ‘S’ for ‘Shit.’” Jim Glickenhaus, who produced the film, went to war with the MPAA in the trades at the time. He went to every trade paper at the time and brought this up. It embarrassed the hell out of them. The point was, “who the hell are you to say this?” We went through two or three appeals and they always ended in a tie and finally we said “fuck it, we’ll just put it out unrated.” It’s nonsense, it’s just nonsense. I didn’t make it for you guys, I made it for a different audience and if you can’t see that, why are you pretending you know how to rate films? I will NEVER get another film rated in my life, I don’t care if it’s a G rated film, I will NEVER submit it to those bastards. They may have changed a lot since I met them, but I found it offensive dealing with them. As offensive as they thought Frankenhooker was, that’s how I felt about them. No one ever tried to put me in jail for making Frankenhooker, though.
Diabolique: Do you feel like you’d do other documentaries in this style?
FH: Well, I did one on sexploitation films that’s hilarious. (3)
Diabolique: That’s Sexploitation (2013), yeah. It has a different tone that this one.
FH: I wasn’t interested in any salacious or erotic material, I was interested in the funniest moments you can find. Why would a naked girl be inside wearing a scuba mask and flippers? Why is a big breasted girl chasing a terrified stork? And my favorite: Why is this other girl laying on bed covered with a bunch of plastic cowboys and indians? Is there a market for that? (laughs) My goal for that was to tell the story of the underbelly of Hollywood that made these adults only films, and do it in a way not to offend anyone, but to make everyone laugh and have a good time with it. It didn’t take any great searching to find funny clips! We made that one long because we figure the ultimate audience for that would be people in their home, wishing it had been longer. So, it’s a little different than the Diana doc. But, I don’t know what’s next. I have an idea for a horror film, but it has to form. It’s still in an early stage. Maybe I’ll do that. I don’t know, I never plan ahead. I’m not in control of my own life. (laughs)
Diabolique: Frank, whatever your process is, it’s working.
FH: Well, I don’t know if you know this, we premiered at What The Fest!? here in New York and it won the audience award!
Diabolique: I’m not surprised!
FH: I was! It was the first time they had this festival. Ironically, it was at the IFC Center which used to be the Waverly Theater where Basket Case played for two and a half years. It was strange, talk about a full circle for me. It was the first time Mike had seen the documentary. He was glowing. Afterwards I said “so, Mike, what did you think of it?” He said (speaking softly) “Yeah, it was good.” Coming from him that’s high praise! (laughs)
Diabolique: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me and I hope you enjoy the rest of your retrospective.
FH: Well, tonight after that we’re going to watch The Maze in 3-D. A 1953 horror film that just came out on blu-ray. I have a 3-D TV, so we’re watching ever 3-D movie ever made- that we can. We actually saw this a few years ago in LA at a 3-D expo and we loved it. It’s going to be the first thing we watch tonight. You know, I’m a slob. I leave 3-D glasses all over the table. But Mike’s not! So, he found a clean pair of 3-D glasses on my table and he keeps them hidden at my place. There’s a section of my living room that’s filled with his stuff. It’s very strange. He always cooks a meal for himself when we do movie night and he was using a bowl I’d never seen before and I said “where did you find that?” He said “Up in the cabinet.” “Well, how come I never saw it?” “I just put it there a couple of weeks ago.” (laughs) Then he said “This was given to me by Mike Kuchar. It belonged to his mother.” Connect the dots with this guy and it’s a fascinating world.
Diabolique: Well, I’m glad you caught it. I’m a big admirer of yours. I don’t have a lot of money for blu-rays, but I’ve owned Basket Case on many formats.
FH: It looks a lot better. This is the one the Museum of Modern Art restored. Every time I say that I have to stop my self. Did that really happen, you know?
Diabolique: They SHOULD have, what took ‘em so long?
FH: (groans) But it looks so beautiful. It looks like the original 16mm film and it’s never been seen this way.
Diabolique: I hope I get to catch it at the theater.
FH: Good! Well, I’m going to go down and check the mailbox and hopefully The Maze is down there waiting on me.
Diabolique: Thanks, Frank!
(1) I’d like to note that Boiled Angels does not come across as an unfinished film in any way, Frank’s just being an overprotective father toward his film- Klon
(2) Entertaining Comics (EC) and Mad Magazine publisher William Gaines’ came under fire from parents groups after Fredric Wertham’s 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent claimed that comic books were to blame for juvenile delinquency. Gaines testified before the US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954 and the unfavorable press led to EC’s end and the beginning of a self-regulated comic book industry decency code, the Comics Code Authority.
(3) We neglected to mention Frank’s excellent documentary Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore (2010), made in collaboration with Jimmy Maslon.