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The Frankenstein mythos doesn’t exactly lends itself to a heartfelt, lighthearted treatment.  This archetype is built around a doctor whose ambition outpaces his morality and a living-dead creature driven to insane violence by the unholy nature of its condition.  If you were to take that archetype and plant it in Times Square during the end of its Sodom and Gomorrah era, complete with crack cocaine and hard-luck hookers, it would seem to be a formula for grotesque sick humor.

Frankenhooker delivers all of the above… yet it’s an oddly sweet-natured and affectionate creation more like to inspire smiles than screams, at least from exploitation movie fans who can see the natural humor in their obsessions.

In this take on the mythos, the hero is Jeffrey Franken (James Lorinz), a likeable schlemiel who works for the power company and dabbles in science on his off time.  He manages to keep one foot in normality through his plump but kind girlfriend, Elizabeth (Patty Mullen).  Unfortunately, that lifeline is tragically cut off when she makes the mistake of stepping in front of a remote-control lawnmower that Jeffrey made while demonstrating it.

Jeffrey descends into depression but he doesn’t give up on his lady love: he salvages her head and a few other parts, keeping them alive with a special solution, and plots to reassemble her using new body parts then revive her via electro-chemical methods.  Of course, he must first get the body parts, which leads him to investigate the hooker population in Times Square.  He manages to revive his lady love… but playing God always has unintended consequences and there will be more death, resurrections, perversions of science and plenty of gallows humor before the story is over.

If looked at strictly in terms of grindhouse elements, Frankenhooker easily delivers the goods: the taut 85-minute running time delivers New York sleaze, gratuitous nudity, humor about all sorts of forbidden subjects and multiple exploding hookers.  That said, the film never feels coarse or mean despite portraying this bill of fare.  How does it pulls off this balancing act?  The answer lies in the work of co-writer/director Frank Henenlotter: he approaches his oddball material with a distinctive mix of gonzo wit, enthusiasm and affection that makes Frankenhooker an unexpectedly charming experience for cult movie types.

Indeed, Henenlotter goes out of his way to make the viewing experience fun.  He weaves plenty of gags into each scene, not to mention skillful horror references (former Fangoria editor Bob Martin was his co-writer, which adds to the strong genre pedigree).  The director maintains a snazzy pace that keeps the energy high and goes for a candy-colored look, with an emphasis on pink and blue that reflects the neon sleaze of the urban settings in a playful way (even the visual effects emulate this color scheme).

Henenlotter’s playful approach is bolstered by collaborators who give the film unusually impressive production values for a low-budget effect: the photography by Robert Baldwin (with an assist from Henenlotter) gives the film a neon comic-book look and Joe Renzetti adds a playful musical score that includes a great jazz closing-credits theme.  The same can be said for the special effects: Gabe Bartalos adds nicely rendered makeup effects, including a great “creature” design for Elizabeth and deliberately cheap-looking gore effects in a H.G. Lewis style so the film’s gross-out gags prompt laughs instead of squirms.  Al Magliochetti deserves equal praise for some quality optical and miniature effects in the big resurrection sequence.

However, the key part in conveying the film’s sense of wacked-out fun lies in the performances and that area pays off here thanks to smart casting.  James Lorinz, known to many a horror/exploitation fan as the wisecracking doorman from Street Trash, excels here as Jeffrey, bringing the expected deadpan wit but also adding a layer of pathos that allows the viewer to root for him even when he’s blowing up hookers with killer crack. There are also fun cameos from Louise Lasser, who is sweet in a world-weary way as Jeffrey’s mom, and Shirley Stoler as a butch barmaid.  Perhaps the best of these cameos comes from David Lipman, who steals every shot as an eager customer of Elizabeth’s monstrous alter ego.

However, the surprise is an excellent comic performance from former Penthouse Pet Patty Mullen as Elizabeth, who essentially plays a dual role here.  As the pre-accident Elizabeth, she’s appropriately charming.  When she is reanimated, she crosses over into the kind of madcap comic greatness you usually only get in vintage Mel Brooks films.  Her distaff version of the Frankenstein monster, blending Tex Avery cartoon facial tics with random interjections of hooker speak, is a sublime sleaze-comedy creation.  It’s a shame this was her last feature because she would have made a great comedienne.

To sum up, Frankenhooker is the most entertaining of Frank Henenlotter’s features because he’s able to temper the usual dark edge of his exploitation-horror vision with the kind of childlike glee that you get from a filmmaker who is getting to revisit his childhood obsessions in homage form.  Even cult movie fans who aren’t into the seedy side of horror and exploitation filmmaking might be won over by the joyful verve of this tongue-in-cheek gem.