BAD BIOLOGY: welcome back, Henenlotter

john cribbs


The 90's were a terrible time for horror movies. For every Cemetery Man there were seven Subspecies, for every Frighteners another eight Children of the Corn's. Sequels had titles like I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and Sometimes They Come Back Again! Fans seemed to have nothing to look forward to beyond more killer dolls, Charles Band's dinky puppets and Wes Craven directing an Eddie Murphy movie (just before he and Kevin Williamson set out to degrade the entire genre with their oh-so-clever meta-slashers.) Deep Rising was the best horror film of 1998* – what does that fucking tell you?! By '94 the Evil Dead trilogy was over, the Re-Animator series had jumped the shark, Jason and Freddy had called it quits and so apparently had Frank Henenlotter, the man who at the beginning of the decade managed to release three excellent films in two years. His seeming-retirement coinciding with the death of the legendary 42nd Street cinemas that so inspired him as a child (to make room for "legitimate theatres"), the creator of Basket Case and Brain Damage hung up his basket, leaving us to wallow in the snow droppings of Jack Frost and grating Irish brogue of one annoyingly persistent little leprechaun.

To hear him tell it now, Henenlotter wasn't interested in "playing safe." Although the two Basket Case sequels (1990 and 1992) were brilliantly absurd cases against anti-freak persecution in the best tradition of Tod Browning and in my opinion absolutely worthy of their predecessor, he still felt disenchanted when potential investors would only pony up for more of the same. As he stated in a recent interview on his decade-and-a-half hiatus: "I wanted to take it up a notch, everyone else wanted to take it down." Henenlotter is a rarity among filmmakers: he does what he wants to do, and if he can't then he's not interested. He makes his "weird little movies" on his own terms...unfortunately nobody would meet those terms sufficiently enough to suit him, hence the long cold winter of no new output.

Until now. I was as doubtful as anyone at the news that Henenlotter was in pre-production on a new film, and very slow developments seemed to validate my skepticism. Honestly, who comes back to a filmmaking career after a 16 year absence? Sure Terrence Malick returned to the screens after twenty, but he had developed a sort of Salinger-esque reputation among filmies and was certainly afforded more establishment cred than the maker of Frankenhooker. And even if he somehow managed to deliver a new feature, what could we expect? Would his unique brand of camp/exploitation revival and warped sexual politics find a place in the new millennium? After so many years, would my expectations be ridiculously high?

They were, but let me tell you - they were almost completely met. His latest, Bad Biology (A God Awful Love Story), is pure and uncompromised Henenlotter. It's shot in New York (on film, not digital video) and features creative low budget effects as well as worthy performances by a cast of unknown. And it doesn't play safe: some of the stuff in this one is edgier and more warped than anything he's ever done. But like his best efforts, the storytelling is sincere and the more outlandish aspects of the film never seem to stand solely for their emphasis of shock value: they're positively unsettling and hilariously funny. 

The first scene is in a club. Standing at the bar with a confident casualness and effortless erotic emission is Jennifer. With her straight blonde hair and large pink lips she's like a less inaccessible Gwyneth Paltrow, but she has a biological aberration that sets her apart from other girls. Cursed with seven clitorises (that she knows of), she's a victim of organic excess and an insatiable sexual appetite. She describes herself as a "mutant," "the girl with the crazy pussy," a "new species" that "feeds on orgasms." So it's not entirely her fault that most of her one-night stands end with her literally fucking her partner's brains out and fleeing the premises only after giving birth to a screeching, hideously deformed infant (her reproduction system is a little sped-up) which she usually leaves in the bathtub or pops in the garbage on her way out the door. Unlike Duane in Basket Case or Brian in Brain Damage (Henenlotter loves the "B" titles doesn't he?) Jennifer isn't prompted to reluctant manslaughter by an outside influence. Instead she's driven by her own treachorous anatomical makeup, and if she seems a bit callous about all the accidental murders and baby dumping she justifies it by incorporating her crimes into her art, specifically a series of grotesque, distorted photos of her lover/victims mid-coitous/pummeling she's lovingly titled "Fuckface." When her assistant points out to her that he can't tell whether the subjects are having the best orgasm of their life or being killed, she responds with a grin "What's the difference?"

Batz on the other hand has his own wicked Belial/ his pants. Unable to reach satisfaction as a teenager, he spent years popping various pills which eventually led to the development of a haggard, wheezing, vein-bulging, monstrously-sized, sentinel "drug-addicted dick." Unlike Jennifer however, Batz doesn't embrace his medical malformation. Whipping wildly around like a spastic serpent out of snake charmer's basket, the creature controls his life and torments his private thoughts in what can only be described as a slight exaggeration of a normal young man's pruient pangs. The ambituous organ later scraps the inhibiting body of its master and when it does Henenlotter's new monster recalls such classic detached organisms as the hand from The Beast With Five Fingers and evil decapitated head in The Brain That Wouldn't Die, except its miraculous mobility is put to a much more audacious activities (even moreso than the Penis Monster's in Tromeo and Juliet.) Of course these two characters are destined to unite in a finale which promises transcendence for one and posthumous parenting responsibilites for another.

Slithering penis aside, Bad Biology has enough irreverent humor to fill any half-dozen recent bawdy sex comedies, but comes from a subversive sense of abandon unique to the horror genre and Henenlotter's world in particular. The funniest gag of the movie revolves around a prostitute who comes into contact with the aforementioned appendage and can't snap out of a prolonged orgasm more characteristic of a seizure in slow motion, much to the chagrin of Batz (who is eventually forced to drag her out to the streets and run away.) And so far as I know (and do please correct me if I'm mistaken) this is the first film to have a P.O.V. shot from inside a woman's lower area (read: vagina.)  Tasteless as it sounds, this shot is actually a perfect representation both of male intrepidation in the face of raw female sexuality and a secondary perspective for Jennifer herself, the tunnel of infinite radical sex parts a seemingly bottomless shelter for her oppressing libido. Despite the admittedly purile jokes and light handling of death and female humiliation, the film shares with Henenlotter's earlier work a surprisingly sympathetic group of characters and, in particular, a strong independent female lead.

A lot of that is thanks to Charlee Danielson, who gives an uninhibited and hilarious performance as Jennifer. She perfectly balances the sinister confidence of a dominatrix with the vulnerability of a girl who just wants to find happiness. "I want to fall in love like everybody else!" she explains to a recently-dispatched fuck-buddy. Of all the monologues delivered covered in the blood of a sex partner recently bludgeoned to death prior to birthing a hideous mutant baby this year, hers is among the best. Ah who am I kidding, it's definitely the best: somehow Danielson delivers it with a sincere passion and wounded confusion that makes it as touching as it is sanguinely absurd.

Another reason the character works is Henenlotter. His previous five films have been through a singularly male viewpoint, but his first crack at exploring the behavior of a biologically-burdened female protagonist is something new for him and he handles it expertly. Like Cronenberg's similiarly-saddled female victim/monsters in Rabid and The Brood, Jennifer's simultaneously carnal and vengeful appetite is softened by intrinsic dependence on her organic destiny as well as the post-feminist angle she puts on her condition in her art. When a magazine editor (played Jim Glickenhaus, director of The Exterminator and Jackie Chan's The Proctector - he had also called it quits by the mid-90s) calls one of her edgier projects "brilliant" while condemning its commercial appeal in the same breath, it sets her character apart as a misunderstood sui generis independent transforming her supposed impairment into art, albeit not without consequences: the deformed baby abandonment is a necessary evil to maintain that fierce independence. At the same time the scene with the editor is impossible not to read as a message from Henenlotter to the film industry as a whole: don't claim to promote "different" artists and, specifically, the feminine perspective and then squirm at their challenging creations. Especially compared to something like Mitchell Lichtenstein's tame Teeth, Bad Biology is as much a celebration of female dominance as it is a satire of male incontinence.

The movie's flaws are minor, so I'll breeze over them briefly. I wish the editing had been a little more creative at interweaving these two character's lives prior to finding each other. Henenlotter's never been a stickler to montage theory, but with a little reorganization I think this may have been as good if not better than his best film, Brain Damage. Despite Jennifer's monologue the movie lacks a sense of sadness-amidst-the-absurdity like in the subway scene of that film (although it still manages to find catharsis and tragedy in the over-the-top horror.) And while almost every scene has a successful laugh in it, there's an extended one at a drug dealer's apartment with a girl junkie screaming at other customers to help find her "jimmy jig." This sequence went on for a long time and is the longest period of screen time away from the two leads. Mainly I wasn't sure what was supposed to be funny about it - but that's literally my biggest complaint, and by the time later in the film where someone administers CPR to the penis creature I was laughing so hard I almost forgot about the small transgression entirely.

Apparently the man we have to thank for bringing Frank back to the fold is one R.A. the Rugged Man (identified on wikipedia as "underground rap legend R.A. the Rugged Man.") Cameoing in the movie as the repulsed boyfriend who stares down the abyss of Jennifer's facilities, he looks like a cross between Chris Elliott and Dave Attell. His qualifications as a filmmaker seem to be that he once wrote a song called “Stanley Kubrick.” Friends with Henenlotter for many years, he first encouraged the director to pick up a camera again for one of his music videos ("Lessons") which featured Charlee Danielson, the Rugged Man's then-girlfriend. Next to a producing credit, he's listed as co-screenwriter with Henenlotter and his contributions seem mainly to be in the "young people dialogue" department. For example, there's a group of teenage characters who talk about John Holmes the way Quentin Tarantino characters talk about the star of an old Western TV show. I may be wrong, but this seems like the kind of the scene someone familiar with Henenlotter's work would think fits perfectly into one of his scripts and that's exactly how it plays: the set-up and conversation don't feel authentic. I'd also like to say he's to blame for the "jimmy jig" thing, but at the end of the day it's Henenlotter's movie so that would hardly be fair.

R.A. does manage to bring his own surreal signature to the piece, in the form of a rap song he performs over the end credits titled "Bad Biology (Wanna Make a Movie)" which is - literally - a play-by-play of the film's production. This is definitely a first: can you imagine, say, John Sayles rapping about how tough it was to make Passion Fish? And R.A. ran into a lot of problems putting the film together: from the song, we learn that - amongst other things - the film's primary investor got in legal trouble and was arrested, the landlord of their main location tripled his price a week before shooting, an equipment van was pulled over and hassled by cops, and at least one major actress quit in the middle of production (or as Rugged puts it, "one of the vagina man's bitches don't show.") He seems undaunted however, and ends with the positive statement 'Do I really wanna make filmmaking my career? Fuck it – Henenlotter and me'll be back next year." And why not? Apparently this guy never felt "hotta" than when he worked with "Henenlotta."

He also mentions in the lyrics that during the production Henenlotter found out he had cancer. This threw me for a loop because I hadn't heard about it, and one way I certainly never would have expected to hear about it was through an eponymous rap song played over the closing credits of his first movie in 16 years. I immediately researched this, and in interviews Henenlotter verifies that it was "advanced" prostate cancer that was diagnosed three weeks before shooting. During production he would report for radiation therapy in the morning, then take the subway to set (holy crap). However he now claims to be off all medication and that doctors can find "no trace" of the disease in his blood. If it's true that would be miraculous, and hopefully means he really will be "back next year." The horror film needs him as much as Batz's member needs a fix, and we're all sick of withdrawal.

*The Japanese held out on us: we didn’t get to see 1999's Audition until 2001


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