MONSTERGIRL ASKS: FRANK HENENLOTTER
The Writer/Director who brought us the body as ‘Other.’
Frank, this is a simple question that I’ve been very curious about for a long time, what is truly at the root of your choosing the name Belial for your most iconic monstrous personification of body horror in your classic film Basket Case from 1982. What tripped the wires in your head to name Duane Bradley’s brother in a wicker basket – Belial ?
Is it founded in the Hebrew proverb adam beli-yaal meaning ‘a worthless man’, because Belial was discarded by the doctors and his father as a non entity with no legitimatized form, also the name is based in Jewish and Christian texts referring to a demon?
Though Belial was more a product of physiological anomaly, rather than spawn from hell nor mutant. You can’t blame a guy for trying to get a little nookie…
He’s almost analogous to the mythic Blemmyae who’s heads were in their chests.
Or were you inspired by John Milton’s Paradise Lost…? Was he, yet a metaphor for the insatiable vice of desire?
John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I
BELIAL came last, than whom a Spirit more lewd
Fell not from Heaven, or more gross to love
Vice for it self: To him no Temple stood
Or Altar smoak’d; yet who more oft then hee
In Temples and at Altars, when the Priest
Turns Atheist, as did ELY’S Sons, who fill’d
With lust and violence the house of God.
In Courts and Palaces he also Reigns
And in luxurious Cities, where the noyse
Of riot ascends above their loftiest Towers,
And injury and outrage: And when Night
Darkens the Streets, then wander forth the Sons
Of BELIAL, flown with insolence and wine.
Witness the Streets of SODOM, and that night
In GIBEAH, when hospitable Dores
Yielded their Matrons to prevent worse rape.
FRANK HENENLOTTER’S ANSWER-
That’s an easy one. The father, appalled by the creature and full of hatred after his wife died giving birth, named him after the devil. Or one of Satan’s demons. I’ve heard Belial used as a synonym for Satan, and also as one of the many fallen angels. Either or, doesn’t matter to me. And I didn’t want something too obvious. I mean, calling him Beelzebub would’ve just been silly. Also, way back when, I looked up Belial in some reference book and it said the name translated as “ungodly.” Which certainly fit the look of the creature. More than that, however, I like the SOUND of the name. If you didn’t know the Biblical reference, the name sounds rather friendly: “Hi, Mr. Bradley! Can Belial come out and play today?” And though grotesque, I’ve always thought Belial looked friendly. At least when his mouth is closed.
Writer/ Director/ Historian/ Film Preservationist Frank Henenlotter is a New Yorker like me. He spent his youth absorbing the low-budget exploitation gems that were offered for those of us who wanted something beyond the mainstream. He frequented the soiled seated grindhouse theaters on 42nd Street, now over run with the dis-associative glitz of Disney. 42nd Street used to showcase the wonderful underbelly of cinema, the cheap and psychotronic films that created a whole new landscape to wander around, while the artistic self is just beginning to emerge and the hormones are raging. So Frank Henenlotter grabbed some 8mm film and went off to find himself.
In 1972 his 16mm B&W short called Slash of the Knife played at the same 42nd Street midnight show with John Water’s Pink Flamingos 1972.
Henenlotter had a brief sojourn in advertising as a graphic designer and commercial artist before he immersed himself in his fantastical film career, known for his outrageously unconventional, outré quirky,darkly humorous, seamy atmospheres, and literally bloody good fun with his off center story lines.
It’s what make his films so unique. I discovered him in 1982 when I went to my local video store looking for something different to watch and stumbled upon a peculiar and intriguing VHS cover called Basket Case. So I rented it and went home ready to invest myself in the emergence of the 80s horror genre. Of course I purchase my own copy and still have the original VHS treasure.
I had been weened on Universal classic horrors, Creature Features, Fright Night on WOR Channel 9, campy sci-fi gems of the 50s with giant bugs and shrinking men, mad scientists, Boris and Bela, and then the 70s came and the cinematic sky darkened, the atmosphere closed inward with a collection of starkly creepy low budget films that left my imagination and my tender psyche altered.
But here it was the early 80s and I wanted to embrace the new horrors. So when I sat quietly in my room and witnessed something so creative, so brutally funny and honest in it’s inventiveness, that I fell in love. Call it sleazy, call it gory, splatter, scuzzy, violent, tasteless, grotesque, excessively tacky, twisted in it’s vision, genres are so inter- textually linked that labeling them at this point is futile. Ultimately Henenlotter’s work has a splendidly unsettling lacquer and spirit.
What I experienced was a modern day fairytale about two outsiders. Conjoined Siamese Twin brothers Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) and Belial Bradley who take up residence in room number 7 at a seedy 42nd Street Hotel in NYC. Like the pathos evoked from Frankenstein’s monster and his ‘otherness’ The Siamese Twins, whose at times tumultuous brotherly bond set them off on a mission to punish the hack doctors who surgically annihilated their physical bond. The film made me laugh, shiver, empathize and adore that little guy in the wicker basket named Belial. Who wasn’t a demon or devil or mutant, just a little guy with authentic separation anxiety.
The film co-starred Terri Susan Smith as Sharon, Beverly Bonner as Casey, Robert Vogel as the Hotel Manager and Diane Browne, Lloyd Pace and Bill Freeman as Doctors-Judith Kutter, Harold Needleman and Julius Lifflander. Ruth Neuman plays the boys’ aunt. Richard Pierce plays their father, their mother having died in child birth.
The low key cinematography was done by Bruce Torbet, who also worked on Brain Damage. Frank Henenlotter was responsible for the film editing himself. Editing is key. And the very special Makeup department staff was John Caglione Jr, Kevin Haney, and Ugis Nigals as special makeup effects artists, Ken Clark did hair and make up.
Quote from Basket Case (1982)
Aunt: [Reading to young Duane and Belial] “Art thou afraid? No monster, not I. Be not afraid, for the isle is full of sights, sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will humm about mine ears. And sometimes voices, that if I then had waked after long sleep would let me sleep again. And then in dreaming, the clouds we thought would open and show riches ready to drop upon me, that when I waked, I cried to dream again…”
It’s no wonder the film has attained such cult status. I wound up renting Brain Damage which was released in 1988. Again the premise was so unique and freaky that it made me a fan of Frank Henenlotter for life. Brain Damage I think is the more queasy, darker and provocatively satirical film with it’s skid row orientation, but I’ll always love best, the gory fable that is Basket Case.
Brain Damage, again working almost as a modern fairytale is an allegory about addiction. With it’s young protagonist who becomes the host to an arcane and shiftily phallic parasite that feeds on human brains.
Frank went on to release Frankenhooker in 1990 ‘A terrifying tale of sluts and bolts’, and a two sequels to Basket Case, the last being 1992’s Basket Case 3: The Progeny. This last film revolves around Belial’s romance with female freak Eve, and the Bradley boys taking a trip to Georgia in the company of other freaks and freaks rights activist Granny Ruth (jazz nightclub singer Annie Ross) to seek the help of kindly doctor Uncle Hal (Dan Biggers) who assists with Eve’s pregnancy.
In addition to his writing and directing, Henenlotter’s been a fierce advocate and film preservationist, the force behind the rescuing and re-issuing of obscure vintage 60s and 70s horror, softcore and exploitation film relics from VHS and DVD through the fabulously valuable Something Weird Video. He also has added his witty commentary to several of the releases for the company. Henenlotter was featured in the documentary film Herschell Gordon Lewis – The Godfather of Gore and narrated the film on the 2010 FanTasia. In issue #304 of Fangoria Magazine Frank and comic artist Joshua Emerick started a Basket Case comic strip which offers a three panel piece in each issue.
[on being labeled a horror film director] –
“I never felt that I made “horror films.” I always felt that I made exploitation films. Exploitation films have an attitude more than anything else — an attitude that you don’t find with mainstream Hollywood productions. They’re a little ruder, a little raunchier, they deal with material people don’t usually touch on, whether it’s sex or drugs or rock and roll.” – Frank Henenlotter
“I think eccentrically and I’m a strange little person.” –Frank Henenlotter
From VideoHounds Cult Flicks and Trash Picks -edited by Carol Schwartz on Page 234 The Hound Salutes Frank Henenlotter-
“Since then, Frank Henenlotter has come to be know mainly as a film historian and curator of sorts- but as you may expect, he’s done it in a rather odd fashion. Henenlotter was an expert on cult flicks and trash pick long before books were being written about them. He was rightfully chosen as the premiere interview presented in the landmark volume Incredibly Strange Films, despite the fact that he’d only made one official feature at the time, base solely on the depth of his knowledge. During the 1990s he began helping Mike Vraney of Something Weird Video unearth and release dozens of mind -bending exploitation films-many of them thought long lost-for a series that became known as “Frank Henenlotter’s Sexy Shockers from the Vault” Thanks to preservationists Frank and Mike generations to come will be able to enjoy vintage sleaze like Monster of Camp Sunshine, Bloody Pit of Horror, The Curious Dr. Hump and Olga’s House of Shame. In addition, Henenlotter has brought some interesting new films by young directors to the label”. – Brian Thomas
Frank Henenlotter is beloved by his fans, gracious, accessible, funny, engaged, playful and thought provokingly outrageous. And thanks to his preservation of these lost cult films, I’ve gotten to see Aroused 1966, and Rent A Girl, Satan in High Heels (1962) and so much more!
I still wish he should commission Think Geek to make a Belial plushy. If they don’t I’m just going have to run myself over to Michael’s craft store and design my own friggin puppet already… I think Belial is cute as hell. So many people agree it would be a great iconic novelty.
In closing, special thanks to you Frank. You’re a lovely, eccentrically personable guy-It’s been so wonderful to hear your thoughts on Belial’s inception. I’m with you. I never thought he looked like a monster, even with his mouth open. That’s the point right… the way we ‘otherize’ those who are different. Grotesque is in the eye of the beholder. Look how pin heads are all the rage again since American Horror Story Asylum so successfully paid it’s endearing and intensely nuanced homage to Schlitze from Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)