Frankenhooker is low-budget cheese, but that's only half the story. Regarding "low-budget cheese" as a genre in its own right rather than an excuse to turn out any old rubbish, Frank Henenlotter packs Frankenhooker with more energy and ingenuity than you'll find in half a dozen higher-budget movies. It has a lively, fast-paced script, full of whacked-out concepts and gross sight gags. It has a cast that's obviously having fun. It has some surprisingly effective visual effects, and also some notably less effective ones... but hell, sometimes good enough is good enough.
James Lorinz is Jeffrey Franken, the deliciously mad scientist of this little morality tale. The characters' names are obvious homages - "Franken" is a gimme, while "Elizabeth Shelley" as his girlfriend has the surname of Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein) and the Christian name of Frankenstein's bride in the novel. Given all this, I wonder whether "Jeffrey" isn't a nod to Jeffrey Combs, the actor who played Herbert West: Reanimator, Lovecraft's very own Frankenstein-a-like mad scientist.
Our hero suffers a bereavement and turns weird(er). He tells his mother about his deteriorating mental state in a kitchen confessional, but this exposition becomes pretty redundant once we see what he's doing down in the cellar. Kicked out of three medical schools, he likes talking to body parts (a habit he retains later in the movie), writes deranged love poems and has the scariest headache cure ever. But even before that, he was playing with a living brain at the kitchen table. This guy ain't normal. (That brain is deliberately goofy, incidentally, with a huge eye growing out of it and the ability to wiggle in its jar. This serves as a warning to the audience... "Warning, Cheap Special Effects Ahead".)
Though having said that, the special effects may be cheap but Henenlotter wrings the most out of them. Nothing medical ever looks convincing (this may be partly deliberate, since completely realistic effects would have made Frankenhooker no fun at all) but Jeffrey Franken's electrical equipment is a joy to behold. He works at the electric company and is waiting for a storm overhead, for lo! Henenlotter is making visual reference to the thirties Universal Frankenstein movies! What's more, it works a treat. Surrounded by glowing valves and transformers, Franken cranks his creation into the sky as the lightning erupts overhead. Later we see that the Frankenhooker is wearing authentic Boris Karloff platform boots. It's that kind of detail which makes this movie such fun. She even ends up with bolts in her neck!
On first viewing, occasionally the effects get in the way. Patty Mullen's fat suit at the start doesn't look remotely convincing (she needed some prosthetics on her face too) while the closing twist is spoiled somewhat by another less-than-perfect rubber suit. Can you say "Ukranian weightlifter"? But the grotesques look amazing and I loved Jeffrey Franken's goofy surgical techniques (purple paste and an arc-welder).
Oh, and even at the height of his mad scientist-ness, Jeffrey Franken retains an endearing naivete. At one point he makes a promise to some body parts that, were it ever fulfilled, would almost certainly be the last promise he ever made good on. This isn't the usual scarily fanatic Frankenstein (e.g. Lovecraft's Herbert West, Hammer's Peter Cushing) but a well-meaning innocent who does it all for love and whose only real crime is to have made some wacky medical discoveries.
I've knocked this movie's visuals a fair bit, but one thing it does superbly is evoke the sleazy sordid pimp world where Jeffrey Franken finds his hookers. I'm not being post-ironic here; that's pretty menacing. Joseph Gonzalez as Zorro the bitch-slapping pimp makes no perceptible attempts at acting, but his steroid-pumped body is all that's required for the role. Scowling and squinting is all he needs to do, and at least he's up to that.
The imdb claims that Beverly Bonner plays "Casey" in this and three of Henenlotter's other films: Basket Case, Basket Case 2 and Brain Damage. (In Basket Case 3, Beverly only plays "Fast Food Manager".)
This movie is simply a lot of fun. I could go on mentioning favourite details all night... Pattie Mullen's comedy mouth movements, the unluckiest guinea pig in the world and that tasteless TV reporter ("reduced to a tossed human salad"). And it's nice to see that Henenlotter has the good taste to cast big-breasted actresses whenever someone's required to take their top off. The lack of gore is sometimes disconcerting, but to make up for it there's fun with severed or partially severed heads. Now I come to think of it, this would be another great film for children! Just don't tell the parents.