“Frankenhooker”: A gory horror-camp twist on the Frankenstein legend and the first film rated “S”

By on August 7, 2015

Frank Henenlotter’s 1990 film Frankenhooker is the kind of movie — a gory horror-camp twist on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein legend — that might have aired on the USA Network’s “Night Flight,” if it had come out originally sometime back in the 80s. We thought we’d take a look back at the first film the MPAA ratings board ever rated “S.”

The plot sounded promising enough:

James Lorinz plays Jeffrey Franken, a New Jersey Gas & Electric worker and medical school dropout, whose fiancée Elizabeth (Patty Mullen) is chopped to bits by the blades of a remote-controlled runaway lawnmower, so he decides to use his dubious medical knowledge to try to bring her back to life. Unfortunately, he was only able to save her head, so he goes to the red light district in the city and lures prostitutes into a hotel room with wads of cash and bags of drugs so he can get the needed spare parts for his girlfriend.

He reassembles his beloved Elizabeth using the body parts of New York City’s finest prostitutes, and resurrects her during a heavy lightning storm. Unfortunately for Jeffrey, his dear Elizabeth’s brain is scrambled and she runs amok on 42nd Street, turning tricks and bringing high-voltage death to her customers!

Okay, so… maybe not that promising.

Frankenhooker‘s initial release was delayed because of difficulty obtaining an R rating from the MPAA; the director — the creator of the Basket Case trilogy and 1988’s Brain Damage — recalled that one representative of the MPAA ratings board actually said, in a phone call to the production company’s secretary, “Congratulations, you’re the first film rated S.”

She asked, “S? For sex?” And they told her, “No, S for shit.”

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In 2014, Rob Hunter over at his blog Film School Rejects offered up a funny point-by-point assessment (“18 Things We Learned From the ‘Frankenhooker’ Commentary”) provided by the co-writer/director, Frank Henenlotter, and lead actor, James Lorinz, for the Frankenhooker DVD, released in 2011:

1. “This was never meant to be a horror film,” says Henenlotter. Apparently he received complaints that the film is so bloodless, but he dismisses the complainers because he set out to make a comedy. “I thought it was a war film,” adds Lorinz.

2. The opening brain that Jeffrey (Lorinz) is experimenting on was based on the poster for the movie The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. It doesn’t appear in that film though, so Henenlotter recreated it here. He also still has the scalpel we see stabbing into it.

3. This was Henenlotter’s first SAG film meaning he was using actors who were members of the guild, but he ran into some trouble as the girls the guild was sending were not inclined to do nudity. “Or, you didn’t want them to do nudity,” he adds. So he went to Billy’s Topless Bar looking for girls instead, and a short while later he had several strippers signed on, each of them hired for specific degrees of nudity. SAG ended up making each of them members.

4. The hand seen in the opening credits belongs to Henenlotter. Meaning it’s his hand as opposed to a hand he owns.

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5. The film was made back to back with Basket Case 2, and both movies were shot at New York City’s Pier 40. “At the time it was a depot for diesel trucks,” Henenlotter says, and he was told by everyone that it wouldn’t work because it was too noisy to record sound. The concrete cinder blocks actually kept things fairly quiet.

6. Louise Lasser had to use cue cards as a sickness prevented her from learning her lines. Her voice was also extremely gruff forcing them to ADR most of her lines. They also used stand-ins for some over-the-shoulder scenes including Jeffrey’s most sincere and serious moment… that found him having to act across from the film’s special effects artist, Gabe Bartalos. [Louise Lasser appears briefly as Jeffrey’s mother]

7. Henenlotter used the fake title Frankenstein ’90 in official communications (and on copies of the script) for the sole purpose of avoiding trouble related to people’s reactions to the actual title. It helped when they went looking for props, locations and other necessities.

8. The film ran into trouble when it went before the MPAA ratings board, and Henenlotter recalls then head of the board Richard Heffner calling the production company and saying “Congratulations, you are the first film rated ‘S’ for shit.” Producer James Glickenhaus fought back and brought the feud public. The MPAA ultimately gave the film an ‘X’ rating. Inexplicably. They refused it and released their film unrated instead. On the bright side, Heffner died last year.

9. They eventually cut an ‘R’ rated film to market in addition to the unrated, and one of the trims needed to secure the ‘R’ was to limit the exploding prostitutes to six from the uncut version’s total of, wait for it, seven.

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10. The scene where Jeffrey goes driving looking for ladies of the night to provide body parts was filmed in what is now Tribeca. It was a much different place then though, and they got the shots from the open door of a moving van. “These are real hookers,” says Henenlotter (three times) to which Lorinz adds “And they’re in SAG now.”

11. The song playing on the radio during the impromptu dance party with the hookers and the drugs is called “Never Say No” which seemed fitting for all the hookers not saying no to the drugs.

12. They had numerous body parts on set as props and such, and while some were flexible and more functional others were stiff like mannequin limbs. Someone stole the flexible ones though forcing them to use the even further from realistic ones in the laboratory scenes.

13. Henenlotter gave out the fake breasts as parting gifts at the end of the film’s production. He signed them first of course, and to this day my Ebay searches for one have come up empty.

14. The film cost $1.5 million making it Henenlotter’s most expensive (at the time), but there were still budgetary issues. The producers told him they had used up all of the allotted funds for pyrotechnics during the exploding hookers scene to which he replied “How the fuck am I gonna film the lab scene?!” He ended up calling in a favor to do some “unlicensed pyrotechnics” for the shoot. Lorinz recalls the guy finishing the setup and telling him “Don’t worry, it’s maybe safe.”

15. Once the Frankenhooker creation (Patty Mullen) is walking and talking every one of her lines is something that had been previously spoken by the prostitutes.

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16. Her first encounter with a paying john features David Lipman who also had a small role in Glickenhaus’ The Exterminator where he played a pervert. “He’s also the Miracle Whip man,” adds Lorinz, referring to a string of commercials Lipman did for the product. “Just the kind of spokesman you want to have for your dressing.”

17. The purple nipple reveal during her initial strip down originally included purple pubic hair as well. “We kept dying [the body double’s] pubic hair to get the right color purple,” says Henenlotter, “but I took it out.” As with the full frontal nudity he trimmed from the earlier hooker party scene he felt the graphic nature of it stepped all over the humor.

18. The final shot — “the surprise ending!” per Lorinz — required he spend five hours secured into the table and prosthetic body. He recalls having to pee into coffee cups.

Additional “Best in Commentary” parting shots:

Henenlotter: “This film was very difficult to make because of the war I had with the DP.”

Lorinz: “I hope they cut that out, what I said.” [referring to something they did indeed cut out involving actresses and porn]

Lorinz: “Louise Lasser was extolling on the love-making skills of Woody Allen to me.”

Henenlotter: “If we ever did a sequel that’s all I would do is blow up more hookers.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.