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The Monster Movie Memories of a Brain-Damaged Basket Case: In conversation with Frank Henenlotter

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This year Dead By Dawn, Scotland’s premier horror film festival, celebrated its 20th Anniversary by paying tribute to horror maverick Frank Henelotter.  A late night monster-mash double-bill of BASKET CASE and BRAIN DAMAGE was followed the next day by Mr. Henenlotter’s wildly enthusiastic and passionate introduction to 1959’s THE TINGLER.  To Mr. Henenlotter’s delight…immediate relief was obtained by SCREAMING!!!!!

“You sucked out her brains….is she dead?!!!!!” – BRAIN DAMAGE

Frank Henenlotter cutting the 20th Anniversary cake at Dead by Dawn

Frank Henenlotter cutting the 20th Anniversary cake at Dead by Dawn

Frank, how does it feel to introduce THE TINGLER to an excited horror film audience?

It scared the hell out of me when I was 9 years old…I thought it was real!  Boy, over the years I have grown to love that movie.  THE TINGLER is crazy…just perfect!

So you grew up with this wonderful pulpy horror stuff on TV and going to the cinema?

There was always these cheap horror movies on television…you know the Monogram Bela Lugosi quickies!  They were just wonderful.  But in 1958 they released the Universal library.  The first time Universal classics like FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA made a hell of a difference!

No parental objections?

My parents were conservative Christians. My mother didn’t want me watching them. My father thought it was no big deal.  I had to sneak monster magazines into the house!  But I stayed up late to watch THE WOLF MAN…and I cried at the end…I cried because they killed the good guy!

How did you feel when the Wolf-Man returned in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN?

Well, I saw them all out of order (laughing) so it didn’t matter to me.  I mean I saw THE HOUSE OF DRACULA and it had all the monsters in it…boy, this is gonna be FUN!!!!

Who did you cheer on?

All the monsters were my favorites!  I loved them all.  At the same time my neighborhood theaters would show children’s afternoon double-bill matinees!  This would be an old Jerry Lewis or Abbott & Costello movie but they would always tack on a horror picture….it was at then years old in 1960 I saw IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE.  Wow, they really catered for horror movies for kids!  I was at the movies every weekend!  There would be Rock n Roll movies, westerns…it was just wonderful!!!!

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What an education!

I saw THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM at 11 years old…I couldn’t get over it.  Even the crap movies like KONGA I thought were just great!

No age restrictions at all?

Well, I was worried when BLACK SUNDAY played because they said no one under the age of 13 would be admitted.  Well I just showed up and they let me in (laughing), and BLACK SUNDAY scared the hell out of me!  Horror movies always effected me…I was impressionable…I just loved being scared!

Monster magazines and double-bills…I take it your Mother gave in from discouraging you?

Hey, I was under strict orders from my Mum not to see William Castle’s HOMICIDAL.  She wanted to put a stop to my fascination of horror movies, I mean she liked horror movies as well, but she thought HOMICIDAL was too adult and too horrific and she said to me ‘you are forbidden to go and see HOMICIDAL’.  I said ‘OK’…and I RAN to the theater to see it!  They gave up!  I could see any film I wanted to.

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Did they come to the cinema to see BASKET CASE?

NO (laughing)!  I told them not to.  They would of hated it.  They would of thought it was too offensive!  Too much blood!  I really didn’t want them to see my movies!  When FRANKENHOOKER got it’s New York premier…they informed me, whether I liked it or not, they were going to see it!  And while my parents were religious…my movies didn’t actually promote Christian values!  I pleaded, out of all my films….not FRANKENHOOKER….this is the movie the Church would have condemned…please no…bare tits and blood!  I sweated out the whole showing….at the end of the movie my Mom said ‘Oh come on Frankie…that was nothing!” and laughed!

Did you yourself have the 42nd Street experience of BASKET CASE?

It played there but I didn’t see it.  I don’t like to go see my own movies play!  All I cared about was the marquee where BASKET CASE showed…they would make these wonderful archways out of plywood and stills and advertising boards.  All the advertising boards had added blood with the shoutline: “they were Siamese Twins…Separated at Birth’’….I thought…well…thank you very much…there goes the plot!

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Would you have liked to see a William Castle gimmick for BASKET CASE?

I loved that showmanship ballyhoo!  I wanted to have something free to give away during the premier – so I suggest free scalpels (laughing) cardboard scalpels.  We had free surgical masks with the BASKET CASE logo.  They were just disposable paper.  This was added to the radio adverts “FREE SURGICALS MASKS TO KEEP THE BLOOD OFF YOUR FACE!”

Times had changed drastically in that short timeframe between BASKET CASE & BRAIN DAMAGE – I guess movies just weren’t advertised with that wonderful exploitative edge by then?

No.  BRAIN DAMAGED was thrown away by the theatrical company who just inherited it!  The company that put up the money for BRAIN DAMAGED merged into a larger company…and they despised the movie!  Politic and shit…they threw the movie away so fast they thought that if they could quickly show a loss they wouldn’t have to deal with it again!  They made damn sure the movie failed!  They run ads for BRAIN DAMAGE without any pictures with the slogan ‘It will blow your mind’…what the hell does that mean!  They would send me reports on how terrible the filmwas doing and I was like ‘well if you guys were doing your job right…fuck you’!

Wasn’t it received well by the horror press?

It got terrible reviews…it was just hated!  Even the BASKET CASE fans didn’t embrace it…they just wanted another BASKET CASE!  People loved BASKET CASE and they just want you to make the same film over and over again.

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Do you feel an appreciation for BRAIN DAMAGE has grown?

Well, it got released onto VHS about six months later.  The MPAA made some cuts.  The company that released it made some cuts…no one asked them to…they just put in some cuts because they didn’t like the film!  I was flipping through Video Magazine and they gave BRAIN DAMAGE a 5 star review.  Then Entertainment Weekly had BRAIN DAMAGE on a list of ‘50 best films you haven’t seen but you should’.  Holy shit…I thought they were being sarcastic but more and more rave reviews came out after the VHS release.

How did all this make you feel?

Well, I didn’t feel too good about the company that just buried BRAIN DAMAGE but to go from a flop to a cult film in a short time…kind of rattled me!  When BASKET CASE 2 was reviewed by the New York Post…it got 3 stars…and they said ‘as much as we like BASKET CASE 2…it doesn’t match the heights of Henenlotter’s cult classic BRAIN DAMAGE (laughing)…where the fuck were you guys back then!  Over and over again…I have people come up to me and say ’I don’t like horror movies…but I love BRAIN DAMAGE!’

Who designed Alymer?

Well, everything is a collaboration.  I’m just in charge of that collaboration.  Fortunately I had Gabriel Bartalos and this was the first time he was in charge of the make-up department.  My initial thought for Alymer was a manta ray, something aquatic, something like an eel.  An eel with fangs, an eel with a face and before you knew it…we had sketches and sketches.  Gabriel would make clay models and eventually we could both claim joint authorship!  We both feel that Aylmer was our creation.

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Who voiced Alymer?

zacherleyThe voice was great (laughing)…I wanted an educated voice in the beginning.  I didn’t want a cartoon voice.  I went to an agent and John Zacherle came up.  Oh my god, this guy is an idol to me…John Zacherle was the New York TV horror movie host…John Zacherle was ‘The CoolGhoul’…this was a dream come true!  And he understood Aylmer…he understood the movie and this malignant creature…he made that creature come to life!  John is genuinely funny and witty…a real charming man.  An absolute delight to work with.

Did Zacherle know you were a fan of his TV horror movie presentations?

Oh boy!  John Zacherle was on the cover of issue 7 of FAMOUS MONSTERS…the first monster mag I brought!  We met for lunch and I begun describing some of his love shows…from 1958…this was before VHS recordings…I was such a fan!  He’s a permanent guest of honour at New York’s Chiller Convention.

Why was he uncredited?

Wooah…this was a real controversy…especially amongst horror movie fans!  BRAIN DAMAGE was a non-union film and John belonged to the Actor’s Guild…if we credited him…he would have been fined…not us.  When we did FRANKENHOOKER, a union film, I wrote him a cameo.

No rabid request for a return of Aylmer?

I’m very proud of BRAIN DAMAGE.  It’s a movie that’s very personal to me but I don’t want to see another Aylmer.  BRAIN DAMAGE just is not franchise material.  Japan wanted to do a sequel and, while I have an idea…but a good film, and BRAIN DAMAGE is one of my own favourite films, is complete…it doesn’t need to be recycled over and over again.

A final question…you’re incredibly modest in regards to your own career, and your love of horror movies is so passionate. You created two fantastic horror movie monsters, Belial and Aylmer – how do you feel when horror fans approach you?

Listen, I am both thrilled with it…and uncomfortable with it.  I’m just a guy who made a couple of movies!  I always though of my films in a theatrical sense, I never considered that a generation grew up with these movies on VHS and DVD.  Kids come up to me saying that BASKET CASE was their first VHS horror movie!   To be in the spotlight…on the stage…it’s just not me. I don’t do many festivals…it’s just not me. I go to festivals as a fan!

Acknowledgements: Kier-La Janisse, Adele Hartley & Harvey Fenton

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About the author
Tristan Thompson
Tristan Thompson is the author of THE ILSA CHRONICLES (a study of the ILSA SHE WOLF OF THE SS movies) & BLAZING MAGNUMS (classic Italian Cop-Crime movies of the 70s). Former editor of IT'S ONLY A MOVIE fanzine and a contributing writer of many cult film publications including THE DARKSIDE, SHIVERS, NEON, DELIRIUM & IS IT UNCUT?. Tristan has been working with FAB Press on the UK cult-film festival circuit since 2003.
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