Some directors dislike being associated with the supposedly lowly realm of the horror genre. But Frank Henenlotter doesn’t mind. He just thinks it would be more honest if people called him an “exploitation filmmaker.” Now 68, Henenlotter is very comfortable with his reputation being defined by his interest in every variety of exploitation piece: nudie cuties, sex education flicks, splatter pictures. That frank attitude is reflected in his gross-out horror-comedies, like Basket Case (1982) and Frankenhooker (1990), the former of which resurfaced in a new 4K restoration at the Museum of Modern Art last year. This month, Brooklyn’s Alamo Drafthouse hosts “Frank Henenlotter: NYC Exploitation Legend,” a retrospective of the man’s films. On the occasion of the series, the Voice talked with Henenlotter about the Times Square of his youth, his unabashed affection for bad movies, and his years-long work with Something Weird Video, a home-video label devoted to unsung, batshit cult films.
When you were a teenager, you flocked to “Fun City”–era Times Square. Do you find it weird that there are now at least two generations of New Yorkers who missed pre-Giuliani 42nd Street?
They’d be shocked if they ever saw it. To the average person, it was a scary place. But to me, it was heaven. I never had any trouble there. The romantic notion that you’d go to Times Square to see a movie and a murder…it really didn’t play out that way! I only remember two times where there was a fight in the theater. I also remember being in a theater when it sounded like somebody let off a gunshot. But that was just some guy breaking a bottle open. The acoustics of the theater made it sound like a gun.
There are a thousand crazy stories. But I was going to Times Square when I was a fifteen-year-old kid. And when I was fifteen years old, I looked like I was twelve. Still, I never had trouble with anything — ever — because my goal was always just to see films. I was not interested in anything else, so I was oblivious to everything else. No one’s going to come after you and force you to play three-card monte! When you pass somebody going “smoke, smoke, smoke,” but you don’t make eye contact with him? They’re already looking [at] people behind you and further up the block. You had to be on your toes.
You used to see horror and sexploitation films out on Long Island, in places like Lynbrook and Hempstead. For the adult theater in Hempstead, you would frown a lot so that you looked old enough to buy a ticket.
There was a crazy old lady at the Fine Arts Theater in Hempstead. And she was apparently blind as a bat. But whenever she wasn’t there, there was somebody else. You had to show your draft card to get in. But most people don’t usually think of Long Island when they think of “grindhouse” movies. That term never sat well with me because it seems to imply that certain types of films only played at certain types of theaters.
Right. And the “grindhouse” was often the same theater as the “arthouse.”
Just your local neighborhood theater. You could find biker movies and AIP horror films all over Long Island. There were two theaters in Lynbrook, one of which was like a showcase theater. I used to see all of the old William Castle films there, complete with their original in-theater gimmicks. One of the most exciting moments of my childhood was when the original Three Stooges made a personal appearance during a screening of The Three Stooges Meet Hercules. Imagine a thousand screaming kids. “Look, they’re in color!”
That’s what Long Island was. You didn’t even have to go to the drive-in to see grindhouse films. Hempstead alone had about five or six theaters that satisfied every one of your needs. When I saw [queer exploitation filmmaker] Andy Milligan’s films, I only saw about two of them on 42nd Street. There were, however, a handful of films that only played 42nd Street, ones whose distributors didn’t reach out to Long Island. And they would only play 42nd Street as long as the attendance was good; then they’d get pulled from theaters.
You’re talking about a reality that many of today’s film fans, including myself, have only experienced vicariously. Many cultists don’t know how people originally saw these films. Let’s talk about some people who, like you, have been instrumental in preserving old exploitation films. The first is David F. Friedman, a producer who figures in That’s Sexploitation, your documentary tribute to Sixties sexploitation. What did befriending and working with him teach you about what you liked about those films?
Dave was an encyclopedia of sexploitation facts. If we were ever confused about a year, we’d go to him. Because he knew everything about those films. When [film preservationist and DVD label owner] Mike Vraney started Something Weird, Mike got a lot of the films from Dave’s archives. Dave didn’t think they were valuable anymore; he thought they were dead. Dave also thought me and Mike were crazy for trying to put some of these films out on home video. But we made a killing during the DVD era. Dave always came with us to New Jersey for the annual Chiller convention in October. And every so often, he would get up, look at the display table — with all of the films spread out — and shake his head. And he’d say to us: “You guys are either out of your minds, or you’re geniuses.”
Mike Vraney isn’t as well-known as he should be, partly because of the types of films he released at Something Weird, but also because he died much too young. What can you tell readers about Vraney?
Something Weird’s catalog of titles were mostly forgotten films that could not be shown on television. But they had so much entertainment value. So the guiding principle behind Something Weird was: If we could dig these films out of the grave, people would laugh and enjoy them as much as we do. Now, we’re not talking about the average person, but rather psychotic fifteen-year-olds. And that’s really what happened. Mike Vraney was the Johnny Appleseed of epidermis, if you will. That was the game. That was the fun we had.
Mike and I both loved Dave so much that whenever we had trouble selling a film, we’d think, “How would Dave sell these films?” I used to write the copy on the back of the Something Weird DVDs. And whenever I got stuck, I imagined my customer was a teenager, and what I was selling was a party tape with blood and sex on it. And when I say “sex,” I mean topless girls in go-go boots. I’d write copy that enticed kids by saying “Hey, you want to watch a film that cost twenty bucks to make, and that you can laugh at with all your friends?”
What was so funny was: Image Entertainment, the company that originally distributed Something Weird’s films, also ended up (at some point) distributing the Criterion Collection’s high-end arthouse films. And if you went to Tower Video — one of the biggest chains in the country — [they] would have a display of Criterion titles right next to Something Weird titles. Criterion hated that, but everybody else thought it was hilarious. And it helped us to make money.
In an earlier interview, you said that our seemingly unlimited access to any imaginable type of movie has changed the concept of cult films. But the work that Vraney did — and that now his widow Lisa Petrucci does, with the American Genre Film Archive [AGFA] — suggests we’re only scratching the surface. Is that fair to say, or have we reached peak saturation?
Now that Mike is gone, there are a bunch of other companies picking up his torch. Look at what [pornography and horror-film preservationists] Vinegar Syndrome are doing. Or AGFA! These guys are going one step further than what we did by restoring films for digital HD technology. So the whole cult film phenomenon…it’s not dead yet. They’ve been telling us that home video is dead for what, the past ten, fifteen years? Well, it’s a hell of a commercial corpse!