Editor’s Note: This vintage film review by Mark Finch originally appeared in the May 3, 1990 issue of the Bay Area Reporter (San Francisco’s LGBT weekly newspaper). One of the leading figures in the LGBT independent film world in the 1980s and early ‘90s, Mark worked as the BAR film critic while also serving as head of Frameline Distribution, the LGBT film distribution non-profit; he was also the gay porn reviewer for the BAR and also did film reviews for San Francisco’s other gay paper, the Sentinel as well. Mark was known for his whimsical film criticism style in which he often incorporated mentions of his friends, lovers and roommates as well as frequently making insider jokes about Bay Area institutions and referencing his British heritage. During this time Mark was also head of the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. In 1992 he became director of the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival as well. In January 1995 he ended his life by leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge.
A trampy figure in stacked black heels and a purple fright wig slobbers at boys on the subway. “Want a date? Looking for some action? Got any money?” Spookily, the star of Frankenhooker may remind you of many of your closest friends.
She was a nice girl to start off with. Hostessing her dad’s birthday barbecue while feverish fiancé Jeffrey is in the kitchen trying to breathe life into brain tissue, pretty Elizabeth is the picture of Ho-Ho-Kus health and happiness.
Disaster strikes when Elizabeth is blended under the blades of a berserk lawnmower. Jeffrey saves her head and, naturally, comes up with an idea for stitching her together again — from the body parts of Times Square prostitutes.
Writer/director Frank Henenlotter made Basket Case and Brain Damage, two movies I somehow managed to miss. I nearly avoided this one too, anticipating major nastiness. But Frankenhooker is a sweet, perky and polite picture, far more warm-hearted than most of the summer’s other adventures.
Its beginning is charming. The backyard barbie conjures up an atmosphere of the ordinary and the eerie existing in casual combination. There’s none of the over-signaled horror movie creepiness, or the Spielbergian smug suburban set-up. This is a broad-smile, blue-collar crowd where strange things are just a way of life.
Jeffrey’s breakdown is also perfectly pitched, and more credible than most million-dollar movies. “I’m becoming dangerously amoral,” he admits to mom, as she plucks his scattered, smelly laundry from anatomical maps and low-tech lab equipment.
When Jeffrey travels to Times Square, Frankenhooker becomes more jokey (“we saw it as our duty to confirm people’s every fear and apprehension of New York City,” producer Edgar Ievins explains in press notes). New Jersey Jeffrey barters bravely with a tanned, pumped-up pimp in one of those fantasy dive bars where junkies jostle with hookers and hustlers and drag acts.
But Frankenhooker has another fantasy dimension to it. Like many of us, Jeffrey is looking for the perfect partner: like some of us too, his definition of perfection is purely physical. (A rapid New Age remake would, doubtless have Jeff quiz victims on runes and the advantages of being an Aquarian.)
Required to choose one hooker above all others, Jeffrey refuses. He likes different parts of different ones. He’s the not-so-nightmare version of anyone who’s ever abstractly inspected another person’s body (is it bigger than mine? Are these buns more shapely than mine?).
Fortunately, Jeffrey doesn’t have to decide, since — hard to explain — all his candidates spontaneously explode, leaving their desired bits in disarray, a smorgasbord for scientific selection.
Now he can have whatever he wants. One from column A, two from column B, and a handful from column C. Jeffrey’s final creation is the Miss Piggy Diet of horror movie monsters.
Of course, Frankenhooker is sexist and even, momentarily, homophobic. (At the same time, there is a cheery side order statement about decriminalizing prostitution.) These free-with-every-purchase flaws always seem more obvious the cheaper the movie is.
Yet, Frankenhooker is so good-mannered and attentive you can forgive it — or I can, at any rate. Besides, everything is done with eagerness, a quality lacking in many modern things (the service at Cala on Castro, say, or most of the music at Club Uranus). [Cala is a local San Francisco grocery store and Club Uranus was a popular gay club night in the ‘90s]
In mainstream movies, especially, it now seems fatally unfashionable to be passionate or eager about anything. Filmmakers are afraid to be engaged by their subject for more than a moment. Even busts-for-boys like Die Harder and Total Recall interrupt their intensity with inane in-jokes and goofy grins at the audience: it’s only a movie, Maud.
With a budget the size of a round of Red Stripes at Pleasuredome (not much for a movie, but too much for drinks), Frankenhooker fools no-one that it’s nothing but cheap. But Frank Henenlotter and his gang never stop to question themselves; they’re unembarrassed and sincere, like kids playing Department Store with mom’s old shoes and Bazooka Joe coupons.