Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein could possibly be the most adapted novel in horror history. Starting with a silent version in 1910, the tale has been told countless times on the screen. Some are classics, like the iconic 1931 Universal adaptation that made Boris Karloff a star. Others are looser retellings, such as the more recent Victor Frankenstein. Still others are speculative reboots, like I, Frankenstein. There has even been Gothic, which explored the circumstances around the novel’s very creation. And then, there are the parodies, the more comedic movies that take the general concept of Frankenstein and run with it, like Frankenweenie and Young Frankenstein. The 1990 shocker Frankenhooker falls firmly into that last category.
Frankenhooker is about a slacker bioelectrical engineer named Jeffrey (James Lorinz from The Jerky Boys) whose fiancée, Elizabeth (Doom Asylum’s Patty Mullen), is killed in a horrible lawnmower accident. Before the police arrive, Jeffrey is able to steal a handful of Elizabeth’s body parts, including her head. Being a bioelectrical engineer, Jeffrey comes up with a way to re-animate Elizabeth that involves killing prostitutes and dismembering their corpses to build a new body for his lost love. He attaches Elizabeth’s head to the patchwork woman, and is successful at bringing her to life. Unfortunately for Jeffrey, however, the new Elizabeth still holds onto the memories of the hookers that make up her body, so she escapes and roams the streets at night, killing the men she services.
Frankenhooker is the brainchild of director Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case), who wrote the script along with Robert Martin (Basket Case 3). When it’s boiled down to the bones, it’s a pretty straightforward interpretation of the Frankenstein story of an obsessed scientist giving life to a body that was culled together from “spare parts.” Frankenhooker is definitely a more modern telling of the tale, however, full of schlocky Re-Animator flavor. And once the dark comedy is thrown in, Frankenhooker is more Rocky Horror than Mary Shelley.
Maybe it’s not really fair to classify the humor in Frankenhooker as dark. Sure, the whole movie is about a guy who’s collecting body parts from dead prostitutes to re-animate his mutilated lover, but the humor is fairly quirky and off-the-wall. Jeffrey’s pet project before Elizabeth is killed is working with a weird looking sentient brain with an eye. When Jeffrey is trying to figure out solutions to his problems, he bores into his head with a drill to stimulate his brain and help him think. His modus operandi for killing his hooker victims is giving them an exploding brand of crack cocaine that he invented. Frankenhooker deals with some dark subject matter, but the sense of humor is so strange that it winds up softening the blow and making the movie less disturbing. Which is fine, because it’s not The Silence of the Lambs. Frankenhooker is a horror comedy, through and through.
The bulk of the more memorable visual effects in Frankenhooker are done with a combination of practical puppetry and post-production rotoscoping. Jeffrey’s little brain creature from the beginning of the movie is a precursor to some fun little latex creature characters that come later. Whenever the new Elizabeth pulls a trick or encounters a pimp during her nighttime roaming, she kills them with electricity that is shown onscreen as simple-yet-efficient blue bolts of lightning. There are also gore gags (Elizabeth’s lawnmower accident) and pyrotechnics (Jeffrey’s exploding crack doing its thing on the prostitutes) shuffled about within the movie. There’s a little of everything in Frankenhooker, and it stands as a nice example of horror special effects in the pre-CG era.
The music in Frankenhooker has a story all its own. The score was composed by Joe Renzetti, who was a studio guitarist and pop music arranger in the sixties and seventies. He transitioned to film scoring when he was given the opportunity to do the music for The Buddy Holly Story, then kept at it by providing the soundtracks to music films like Elvis and Cotton Candy before making the switch to horror classics such as Dead & Buried and Child’s Play. The music for Frankenhooker is remarkably versatile, going from jazzy street music to bumping club tracks. There’s a typical eighties-style cinematic synth score in there, too, as well as some melodramatic orchestral swells. Frankenhooker’s score is one of the more unappreciated soundtracks of the late eighties/early nineties.
Frank Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker is a pretty wacky interpretation of the classic Mary Shelley tale. It may take some liberties with the minutia of the source material, but it’s a whole lot more fun – and more watchable – than I, Frankenstein, so we’re going to allow it.