by Sean McTiernan
When someone stops doing something for 16 years and then gets back in the game, you expect them to be a bit rusty and outdated. The films Frank Henenlotter directed during the first decade of his career were probably quite shocking at the time, but with the “4chanification of our generation” (to quote the worst sentence I’ve ever read in a college paper) they seem almost quaint. Well, maybe Frankenhooker couldn’t be classed as quaint, but it certainly comes across as effective gross-out campy fun rather than a movie that makes you cover your face with fear.
A lot has changed since Basket Case 3 came out in 1992. The Scary Movie series annihilated most of the potential for horror films to subtly mock their own conventions. Torture porn, shot in that psuedo-Korn video style, has become what most people think of when they think scary movies. Hollywood keeps producing music-video style remakes which-though horror traditionally borrows and repeats itself-serve no purpose and strip all the character from the source material. And even before that a generation of directors was busy squeezing out variations on Scream while missing all of the irony and self-awareness that movie possessed. It seems impossible a man from a different time in horror history could come close to producing a movie that could shock and disgust in the way he so loved to do.
That said…holy shit: Bad Biology.
I’ve seen Bad Biology described as a “love story” in reviews.That’s not true. It splits into three parts: the story of two characters and what happens when they come together (boom boom). Which two characters? Well, Jennifer-a woman with 8 clitorises-and Batz, a man with a sentient penis that detaches from his body. Obviously.
Batz’ story could easily have featured in any ’80s Henenlotter movie. Due to an unfortunate complication at birth, his penis had to be re-attached and thus never really worked as it should. Once puberty became an issue and he realised he couldn’t avail himself of the main activity availible to 13 year-old boys (no, not trying to get all the animalities in “Mortal Kombat”) he got pretty upset. His parents refused to by him “hard-on pills” so he was forced to turn to injecting steroids and growth hormones into the trouble spot. Now, years later, his dick has developed a personality of its own and Batz wanders from dealer to dealer, trying to get the chemicals he needs to keep it under control. He mainly needs to use machines for release but when we do see him have sex, 2 minutes of his mournful pumping leaves a prostitute in paroxysms of ecstasy that necessitate dumping her in an alley, still moaning.
Jennifer is a whole different animal. Being born with “7 known clitorises” has given her a completely different experience of sex from that other humans. She’s in a constant state of arousal, has a large number of sexual partners and goes through all the emotions of a relationship in the time it takes to reach climax. This means she often murders the men she does it with. No big deal. She also has a baby two hours after each sexual encounter and once she gives birth, she immediately discards it. The first time we see this there is a lingering shot of the mutant infant, left to die in a bathtub. The viewer is given a couple of seconds to judge her before she quickly turns around to admonish us directly. She contends, in what has to be one of the most bizarre commentaries on abortion I’ve seen in a film, that “they’re not real babies, real babies take nine months to grow.” I can’t even tell what side it’s supposed to be on. Jennifer’s interior monologue is at least as shocking as some of the crazy stuff that makes it onscreen. Her monologue about being designed specifically by God for one purpose- “God wants to fuck me”-is probably being recited in youth drama schools all over American as we speak. Probably.
Jennifer funnels her lifestyle into a job taking sexually explicit photographs. One gig brings her to an abandoned mansion to shoot Jedi Mind Tricks’ Viinne Paz palling around with some ladies wearing giant rubber vaginas on their places. The mansion happens to belong to Batz. So this whole twisted interaction is set off by hip hop. I’m not going to spoil what happens when these two sexual aberrations finally become aware of each other, because my feeble words can’t do this insanity justice. You’ve got to see it for yourself.
Speaking of hip hop, it’s all over this movie. J-Zone is Batz’ drug dealer, Remedy organises the video shoot and RA The Rugged Man is the first man ever to attempt sleep with Jennifer. RA is the key component to this movie: his funding and friendship with Frank are what got it made. These two men are, on the face of it, unlikely compatriots. They met because RA was a fan of Frank’s and asked him to shoot one of his music videos. Frank Henenlotter was not a big hip hop fan at the time, but decided “what the heck” and gave it a go. It resulted in a fascinating and inspiring creative partnership. These guys seriously have so much respect for one another that seeing them go back and forth is heartwarming:
I had planned to write a big paragraph on how many hardships befell this production. Then I realised that would be completely redundant, seeing as RA has recorded an excellent song about just that. Unbelievably all of this, including Henenlotter’s brave and badass fight with cancer, is all true. Listen and be amazed that the movie exists.
Also: It would be a terrible omission on my part if I covered the Henenlotter movies and neglected to mention Beverly Bonner. Bonner played the friendly hooker Casey in Basket Case and has featured in every Henenlotter movie since then. She is as much a part of his trademark as unique character design and off-kilter humor. It’s always interesting to see where she pops up; in Bad Biology she’s unfortunate enough to witness Batz beating his angry penis with a door.
I’ve harped on a lot about how audacious and shocking this movie is but it’s important to note: it’s the right kind of shocking. All films are hard to make, but it’s easy enough to come up with a Human Centipede or an August Mordum. Plenty of people can try to be as brutal as possible: just look at 4chan (actually, don’t). It takes skill and craft to completely overwhelm an audience while still retaining a spirit of joy.
Bad Biology may be shocking, all of the characters may be repulsive in some way or another but none of it seems deliberately malicious. “Mischievous” maybe isn’t the first word you’d associate with a movie that features a disembodied penis forcing itself through walls so it can force itself into women, but I really do think it applies here. Bad Biology focuses on sex because, as Henenlotter points out, it’s the thing that still makes people squirm. Henenlotter’s movies are made to shock you into laughter; his aim is always to entertain. So basically, if someone finds Bad Biology offensive, you shouldn’t be mates with them and they’re bad at movies. That’s a fact, feel free to quote me on it.
Actually, I’ll happily extend that to all of Frank Henenlotter’s offerings. His shlock Glock weighs a ton, he’s a national treasure doing great work to keep truly strange cinema alive. Important as his conservational efforts and projects as a documentation are (any horror fan worth their salt should check out his predictably fantastic film on Herschell Gordon Lewis), I would urge you to see Bad Biology is a beacon of hope as well as filth. Maybe, especially now with the power of hip hop on his side, he can be coaxed into making another movie. So go to Something Weird Video and make some purchases. Also make sure to pick up Bad Biology on DVD. Do anything you can to help put him back behind the camera so he can roll out another classic. American Cinema deserves it.
Sean Mc Tiernan has a blog and a twitter. So does everyone, though. He also has a podcast on which he has a nervous breakdown once an episode, minimum. You should totally email him with your questions / insults/ offers of tax-free monetary gifts.