Wake up? When it comes to the perverse nightmare landscapes of director-writer Frank Henenlotter – who would want to? With his initial films, the Basket Case series, Brain Damage and Frankenhooker, Henenlotter took body horror and comedy to extreme heights. On the eve of a series of appearances in Chicago (http://www.facebook.com/#!/events/121460304700898; http://www.facebook.com/#!/events/569975819685686) during the week of March 9th, 2013, Henenlotter agreed to talk to a grateful Big Gay Horror Fan about life (and death) in the theater, the films of Andy Milligan and the cinema that inspired him.
BGHF: Hey, Frank! Your love of cinema has been well documented. But, did any of the experimental theater (IE: Theatre of the Ridiculous; The Living Theater) that was thriving in New York in the 60’s and 70’s play into your artistic sensibility?
Frank: I saw some but not enough. Watching theater is like watching everything in a master shot. I had a girlfriend who worked at the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts at the time and she got us tickets to all these Broadway shows. For a period of a few years I saw every Broadway show that was opening. And I think I hated them all. I was just bored with it. The one that I hated the most – I was in agony – this one show – this awful fucking musical! I couldn’t stand it. I wanted to leave at intermission. I’m not sure if I did or if I was told, ‘ah – let’s stay’, but I remember saying to her afterwards, this show will die the moment it opens. It hasn’t got a chance. Of course, that show was Annie!
Frank: I am such a movie buff that I just devoured the films. I started cutting high school when I was 15 to take a train to Manhattan and I would go to 42nd Street and I would just go gorge. And then when I finally moved into Manhattan in 72, 73 somewhere in there, I just spent basically six nights a week at 42nd Street or some theater in Times Square. That’s where everything was. That was supplemented with – at the time NY had dozens and dozens of repertory houses. So, if there was something that looked good on television, I wouldn’t watch it. I would wait and see it on 35 millimeter in the theatre. In the late 70’s you could still see 35 prints of Citizen Kane and Kiss Me Deadly, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Performance – there was just a steady diet of stuff back then. It just stayed around forever and you could watch it over and over again. It was very, very, very exciting. For instance when Night of the Living Dead was first released in 68, it disappeared virtually in a week or two. It played drive-in’s. It didn’t have a cult following – few people saw it. I did see it. But, it disappeared. Before it was revived for midnight showings where it became famous, one little theatre in NY said hey, we’ve got two movies that nobody went to see last year – Night of the Living Dead and The Fearless Vampire Killers. How’s that for a double bill?
Frank: Amazing! There was always something to see – and lots of rare stuff that I’ve never seen since. A German vampire film called Jonathon where the vampire walks around looking like Hitler. I mean – Huh, really?? Can I see that again?! So there was enough – Tenderness of the Wolves for a week for a theater that only lasted about three weeks!
BGHF: Ulli Lommel’s one fine moment, I guess.
Frank: I agree – but one hell of a fine moment. So, there was always something. When you’re young you really don’t think about history or the future. But I wish I had kept just a simple diary of what I saw and when. Because it is getting harder and harder to stop the memories from blurring together, you know. But – if nothing else existed except for 42nd St – I was in heaven. And of course on Long Island where I grew up, all the neighborhood theaters were playing the latest AIP film. I didn’t go to 42nd to see The Trip or Count Yorga or any of that. I went to my local neighborhood movie theater – that’s where it was! One week it’s a Doris Day film, the next week it’s a Roger Corman/Vincent Price movie. I mean, it was fabulous! And the drive-in’s on Long Island carried the slack with all the Western B films out there. It was marvelous. I never thought that it would all disappear. It just seemed–
Frank: How could it go away? I remember standing there in front of a theatre in East Rockaway, Long Island. I remember standing there. I don’t even remember what I went to see. It was Saturday night and I was waiting for a friend and it seemed like from out of nowhere – there is people coming, and coming and coming! Crossing the street this way and entering that way. No line, but enough showing up on a Saturday night so that the theater was full. How could that ever disappear? It was just amazing. But, anyway – it did. And fuck them all! Their loss!
BGHF: Did you have any contact with infamous NY film director Andy Milligan during that period of time?
Andy Milligan – trucker?!
Frank: I met him once. Beverly Bonner who is in the Basket Case
films, she was in one of his plays. It was when he had the theatre in Hell’s Kitchen near Times Square. And it wasn’t a theatre, really – It was just these weird empty rooms or something. I was very self-conscious. She introduced me to him – and I honest to god, hated everything of his that I had seen. So, I just pretended I had never seen any of his films. I’m not a good liar. So, I just met him. The play itself was just on a little – I don’t even know if it was a stage. It was just a little raised platform, slightly higher than where we were sitting. We were sitting on folding chairs. There was no curtain or anything like that. And typical of a Milligan play – I don’t even remember the name of it now – but typical of a play it was just yap, yap, yap, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. It was not horror. Just talk, talk, talk, talk ad infinitum! I couldn’t stand it. Then finally we were told that everyone should leave the theatre – which they called it a theatre – the room, actually, and take a smoking break in the hallway while they get ready for act two. Well, I’m not a smoker. I never have been and this hallway has no ventilation, so it was impossible to breath there. So, I went back into the room. And as I started going back into the room, I caught a private moment of Andy dressing the set. And I swear, I’m not joking. I’m not trying to be funny. But what he was doing was flinging doilies onto a sofa that was part of the set. And he was standing in the middle of the room and he was a big, very hefty man. He looked like a truck driver, that kind of thing, a long shore man. And very delicately he was taking and flinging a doily. And – he didn’t like the way it landed. Picked it up, walked back with it and one, two, three – flung it again. Didn’t like the way it landed. Went back and one, two, three – flung it again. He accepted that one. And I couldn’t see the difference between how it landed between the first time and the third time. Then he started on another doily. Honestly, he didn’t know I was in there watching. I actually felt like I intruded on kind of a private moment. I just very quietly backed out and went back out into the hallway. To me that speaks volumes about him.
Frank: Although, I’m not sure exactly what it says. But, that was it. And afterwards, I lied and said, “Oh, wonderful show!” What could I do, what could i do? Beverly was even in a film he did that did not get released. It was called – Jungle — Jungle Heat, maybe. Jungle Bust? Jungle Bust! I think that was the title. I think it was called Jungle Bust. What it was, it was an unfinished film that somebody else had started – so Milligan shot wraparounds and inserts of people in a theater watching the movie and calling out Rocky Horror style comments at the screen. It was dreadful. I don’t think it ever got a release. I sat there and I see two directors listed and I said “Oh, no!” So, that’s it! That’s my moment with greatness. I’ll tell you something else, too, about him. You know seeing his films, theatrically, is a lot different from seeing them on VHS tapes and DVD. For one thing – I remember vividly Torture Dungeon – whatever process they did to make the negative or the prints – ah, you know, I believe it was shot in 16. And the splices were put together with glue and run through a printer. So every three frames, it went out of focus. It was shot going into the splice and then coming out of the splice. So every time there was a continuity change in that movie, a splice, it went out of focus. It was killing my eyes! I saw that film twice, theatrically, all right? And I can’t catch that on the DVD’s – so they were more hellish —- also the grain hurt your eyes more because the glitches were the size of cannonballs. So, I think they were a lot more painful when you saw them, theatrically, than it is now when you see them on DVD. I don’t know why those shots aren’t as glaring — maybe I’m insane – (laughs) but I’m not.
BGHF: And there are always those films that you love on the screen, but wonder what happened when you watch them at home.
Frank: Yeah. Well, these are the reverse. I was kind of bowled over by a double feature of Blood Thirsty Butchers and Torture Dungeon. I just couldn’t believe that these were films — I mean, somebody said to me, what’s the plot? And I said “Fabric!” – because that seems to be what is in every shot. Fabric is hanging all over these rooms. It was just draped all over the room. Right in the middle of the room there is fabric! I don’t know…but that was the beauty back then. I saw Torture Dungeon on 42nd Street. But before that I had seen it at a regular neighborhood movie theater on Long Island. Same with The Ghastly Ones! But, my point is they didn’t just play grind houses. They played theaters and they played local neighborhood movie theaters. Torture Dungeon and Blood Thirsty Butchers played at a rundown theater, but it certainly wasn’t a grind house. It was a neighborhood theater! I think that’s lost now. I think everyone assumes these films only played grind houses. If that was the case, none of them would have ever made money! You know what I mean?
BGHF: Of course, all those films inspired you!
Frank: Absolutely, they all did. The reason I love exploitation in general, and most horror films are exploitation, is the fact that one minute you can be watching excessive violence, which is what the hallmark of a good exploitation film is. Its nastier blood than it should be. And then the next minute a totally gratuitous t- and-a scene and then something comedy. The elements didn’t have to behave properly or even gel. They just had to be there. I love that. I loved it! I love that appetite. You go see a Blacksploitation film and a horror film! You see a T-and-A film and a horror film. It all blurred together in one film! It’s all part of the same giant, crazy ass film! You know what I mean? I especially loved seeing them on 42nd Street because the crowds were insane. The audiences there were basically transients. If it was good weather, there would be a few people in the theater. If it was raining or snowing, the theatres would be jammed. So, for them it wasn’t so much that that they loved movies but that they wanted to get out of the snow! Nevertheless, they really loved the film! There is a vulgarity that they appreciated. The dumber the film was, the more fun it was. They could cheer more in that. They had their own rules. If there were close-ups of money, the audience would cheer. If there was a close-up of a gun, the audience would cheer. (laughs) You see what I mean? They didn’t want art. They wanted meat and potatoes. They didn’t want gourmet food. They didn’t want any fucking salads -just give me the meat, you know? It was a very exciting way to watch films with them. It was something I tried to deliver in mine. Cut out the fancy stuff and just go right into the gore and the sex and that kind of shit!
Check back, in a couple days, for Part Two of this exclusive interview in which Henenlotter talks Basket Case , Brain Damage and about filming his latest in New Orleans!
Until the next time – SWEET love and pink GRUE, Big Gay Horror Fan!