When I was growing up, I had such an affinity for the films of Frank Henenlotter, primarily because I feasted on a steady diet of horror films almost daily from my local video store and of all the horror movies warping my little impressionable mind, Basket Case was the only one made by a fellow Long Islander! This guy came from the same place I was from! And that made his flicks all the more special to me.
A few years back while Frank was in Los Angeles promoting the release of his most recent feature Bad Biology, I got to conduct a career spanning interview with him for Shock Till You Drop. To this day, that chat (which you can read right HERE) is still among one of my all time favorite interviews.
Now, Henenlotter’s first film Basket Case is officially out on Blu-Ray, restored from the original 16 mm negative and for the first time exactly as the director envisioned it. Frank jumped on the phone with Icons Of Fright to discuss the process of getting Basket Case on Blu-Ray, his documentary on the “Godfather of Gore” Herschell Gordon Lewis, as well as his radical idea for bringing Belial back in a Basket Case 4!? Candid as usual, here’s our fright exclusive interview with writer/director Frank Henenlotter! -Robg. 10/11
Robg.: Frank! Thanks so much for talking to me again. I had interviewed you at Dark Delicacies here in LA when you were signing for Bad Biology and that’s still one of my favorite interviews I’ve ever conducted.
Frank Henenlotter: Oh cool! I remember that.
Here we are again talking about Basket Case on Blu-Ray. It looks great! I had a chance to watch it the other night. Is it true that you were just always unhappy with previous incarnations and releases of Basket Case and that’s what led to this Blu-Ray release?
Oh absolutely. I was horrified by them! I hated them! I shot the film in 16 mm. I remember the film looked bright and was in color. And when it got to theatrical release, the distributor made a dup negative that was so dark and so murky, it looked like we had no lights. It was awful and I was so embarrassed and hated it. And then, it was projected at 1:8:5, which I should’ve realized, but in my naivety I thought if I shot it in 1:6:6 full frame, they would show it in full frame. No, no, no. So it looked cropped and so dark when it played. So that dark master not only was used for every theatrical print, but also for the initial VHS releases. So of course I hated how it looked. Finally, I was able to do the transfer myself (for this Blu-Ray). I had the original 16 mm negative. I had a 16 mm print and we did it from the 35 mm IT, the inter-positive because it was virtually identical to the 16 mm print. So we had it all there and we kept preparing everything. We kept asking ourselves is this as sharp as this? Is this as colorful as that? And I was able to finally make the film look like the original 16 mm answer print. That’s all I ever wanted! Was for it just to be the film I shot.
That was definitely it. When I proposed doing an HD version of it to Image, they looked at me like, “ummmm”. (Laughs) I said, “Guys, guys. I found the original 16 mm negative.” So that made a difference. We ended up only using the 16 mm negative only for reference because the 35 positive was so well made – I had assumed that all the steps to 35 mm were a disaster. And it wasn’t. This was a lot easier doing it in 35. It gave us a lot more control if we had to do anything. 16 by the way is a disaster because it’s an A and B roll print. We would’ve had to splice it all together. So it was easier to do it from the 35 IT, but we kept the 16 mm negative there in the studio, so anytime we had a question, we could reference the original and match it. The point was – there’s no way I could make Basket Case look like it was shot yesterday or anything. There’s no way I can make the film look pretty! But I can at least make it look like the film I shot way back when.
The thing I love about it is it is a time capsule of New York in the 80’s –
When I was a kid, New York was a scary place! (Laughs) And Basket Case captures that.
Everybody says that, but I was cutting high school and going to 42nd Street back when I was 15 years old. For a street that was supposed to be so full of crime and danger and everything, I never saw anything like that. Occasionally I’d see a fight in the theater or something. Of course, there were plenty of crazies & wacko’s. But they wouldn’t bother me at all! You learn real fast what to deal with and what not. While the street was full of crime, if you weren’t buying hookers or drugs, no one gave a shit! So you could be walking down the street and someone would mutter under their breath, and if you shook your head no and ignored them, they were already looking past you to the next person. So, it was never a problem for me. I was very comfortable in New York in those days. I was extremely comfortable in the sleaze and cesspool that was 42nd Street. (Laughs) I loved it. When I finally moved into Manhattan, I was there 6 nights a week. So I was very comfortable going to those theaters. To me, I would feel uncomfortable when I went to a fancy theater. And I didn’t have to go to 42nd Street. A lot of the movies playing on 42nd Street were also playing a couple of blocks away in Times Square in better theaters. Sure maybe they cost a dollar more, but I liked the ambiance of 42nd Street, I liked the crowds, I liked the enthusiasm. I just felt very comfortable there.
I knew how scary and crazy it was. In fact here’s a Basket Case story about how scary it was. In the film, there’s a moment where we shot in a truck and Kevin (Van Hentenryck) is walking past 42nd Street. He passes a porno store. It’s a porno store that is in the film, it’s got a yellow glow in it, I think. The first take we did of that, a guy in that porno store saw us, he was looking out as we were filming. He came charging out, racing at us and jumped into the van threatening to kill us!
We were like, “What? Why?” He thought that we were CBS TV. I don’t know why. Kevin’s the one that talked him out of it. He was like, “hey man. We’re making a movie.” He goes, “What? You’re not the news?” Kevin’s like, “No! Look at our cameras. We’re just making a monster movie.” The guy’s like “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I just thought you were CBS and I don’t want them poking around here anymore.” (Laughs) I don’t know what that was about, but that was stuff that happened in those days.
I’m curious because you’ve lived with this movie for so many years. When you revisit it, is there anything new that you discover or something that you forgot about, in particular with doing this restoration?
No, I really know it so well at this point, it’s sickening. It’s so difficult looking at your old films because you want to go back and fix them. So, no. Nothing surprised me other than how young we all were. (Laughs) Once upon a time I was a thin young man. (Laughs)
Well, now that you’ve got the original Basket Case on Blu-Ray, any interest or talk about getting the sequels out on Blu-Ray too? In particular Basket Case 3 which I know you’re not fond of, but it’s become so difficult to find these last few years.
I don’t know. I don’t own the rights to any of the others, so I don’t often know what they’re doing until they’re announced. I’m clueless. Maybe there will be, maybe not, maybe they’re already in the works? I don’t know.
No! None at all. I would’ve liked to have supervised the transfer. I’ve seen transfers of my other films that I would’ve fixed had I been there. But if I’m not asked, I can’t fix and that’s that. The only thing I knew – I know Synapse was thinking of putting out Frankenhooker on Blu-Ray. That’s the last thing I heard was they said to me, “we’re thinking of putting out Frankenhooker.” OK. Then it’s done and coming out. Oh well. There was a big gap between we’re thinking of doing it and it being done, ya know? And meanwhile I got a phonecall from a friend of mine from Scotland who was working on Frankenhooker. He was working on the UK version and asked me to do a commentary for it and I said “Sure!” So I did a commentary for the UK version with James Lorinz. But no one asked me about the US Blu-Ray until I finished doing that other commentary and I wasn’t going to do two in a row. I can’t do that. (Laughs) It’s exhausting doing them. A week later I got asked to do one for the US release & I thought I just did one!
Well, I guess we’ll have to get the UK one for your new commentary essentially.
I’ll just say I’m lucky I own one film, most directors don’t own any.
Brain Damage is probably my favorite of your films. I would love to see that get a nice Blu-Ray release.
Again, no clue. All I know is who owns it. I’m not involved in any of that.
You’ve got the Godfather Of Gore documentary coming out as well. I feel you’ve been a champion of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ stuff for years now, especially giving his films proper releases via Something Weird. That must’ve been a rewarding experience getting to pay tribute to the man with this feature documentary, no?
Yeah. I don’t think anyone needs to champion him anymore because he’s well known now. But once upon a time, no one knew who he was. I dedicated Basket Case to him and basically no one had a clue who I was talking about back then. His films were very difficult to find. And yeah, through Something Weird, that’s been the fun of it, putting those movies out. The same time that we put out the Basket Case Blu-Ray, we’ll have Blood Feast in HD. Blood Feast in HD?! Good lord! And Two Thousand Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red all on the same Blu-Ray! We’re probably next going to do The Wizard Of Gore and The Gore Gore Girls on Blu-Ray.
And it’s – it’s a bit scary. Because every time you pick up a film can, you can put your ear to it and hear a clock ticking. They don’t last forever. Especially films that were independents. There are no dup negatives, there’s no preservation print. There’s nothing. There’s one negative and one theatrical print and that is it. We went to our negative for Two Thousand Maniacs (on Blu) and as soon as they opened the first can of it, we smelled vinegar and it already shrunk. So the negative of Two Thousand Maniacs that was available a couple of years ago for us to use is gone. So we had to go with the theatrical print. Now we’re talking about Wizard Of Gore on Blu. The print that we used for the DVD, I think its 5 or 6 reels. Reels 1 and 3 are also appearing thinner. Fortunately, we’ve got a couple of prints of that one. But we’ve only known one print to exist for The Gore Gore Girls, so it’s kind of a race against time that we continue putting these out and making HD transfers, because they’re not going to last forever. I think people should know too when they complain about a print having a scratch here or there, it’s either that or nothing!
Well, I’m thankful for the work you’re doing on Herschell’s films for sure.
It’s a pleasure doing that stuff! I mean, who else is going to do high def versions of his movies?! (Huge laughs)
Oh yeah. We did the premiere for the film at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, and Herschell was the special guest along with myself, Mike Vraney and Jimmy Malson. We all went down there together. I think Herschell was a little apprehensive at first going into the doc until he heard the reaction from the crowd! The crowd loved it! So afterwards, he was in a great mood, he sang four choruses of Two Thousand Maniacs.
I mean, I have an idea but it’s so radical that I don’t know. Its one of those ideas that’s either a total disaster or a really good one! Ya know how you’re not sure? Either way, I think it’s worth doing. If I shoot myself in the foot, it ain’t the first time that’s happened! (Laughs) And anything that follows Basket Case 3 will be seen as OK. (Laughs) Nothing could be as bad as that.
Well, before they remake it, and while most franchises go to space, I welcome whatever radical idea you have for a new Basket Case!
Oh it really is out there. It really is. So I think let’s try it! I haven’t even written it yet. But, it’s rumbling and I have to finish a couple of other projects first and then maybe I’ll do it.
Whatever you do next, I’ll be looking forward to it. Once again, Frank – thank you so much for your time!
*Basket Case Blu-Ray screen-shots from Blu-Ray.com.