Uncle Bob Martin: A Long Thank-You to Frank, Part One
The first that I heard of Frank Henenlotter was on a perfectly awful cable tv show that aired on Manhattan's Public Access channel in the 1970s.
"The Nikki Haskell Show" was a self-indulgent half-hour cable show hosted by Haskell, a wealthy socialite-divorcee and former stockbroker who now claims that her show marked the invention of "reality television." About a year ago, after her diet pill company got in trouble with the NFL over a "secret ingredient" that should have been labeled, Haskell signed up for an account at YouTube and started posting clips from the 30-year-old program, but she seems to have lost interest after posting just ten of them.
The main reason I'd tune in Haskell's silly show was the programming that followed it, "adults only" programming like Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein's "Midnight Blue," porn performer Robin Bird's "Hot Legs" show featuring New York's leading "dance talent" and, most outrageously, Ugly George Urban's "Hour of Sex, Truth and Violence." These programs were not prurient so much as they were exercises in bad taste, as anyone who recalls the layer of scum that topped the pool at Plato's Retreat can attest.
I'm only saying that it was Nikki Haskell's job to warm up my TV for the naked asses that would occupy it at a later hour, and I seldom paid much attention to her vapid blathering.
But on one memorable occasion, Nikki had dipped into her alimony or perhaps her stock portfolio, in order to allow her program the budget to go on location to the Cannes Film Festival. Having recently acquired the position of editor for a nationally-distributed magazine about film, I paid a bit more attention than usual to the sycophantic goings-on.
If you were to tell me at that time to listen carefully to a poolside interview between Haskell and Film critic Rex Reed, and that this interview would contain some information that would change the course of my life, I think I would have done you violence, though I am not by habit a violent person.
The thought of Haskell and Reed having any power over my life is disturbing to me even today.
But as the two lounged at poolside, Haskell asked Reed -- who appeared to be either inebriated or severely jet-lagged -- if he had seen any films of particular note at the fest. With barely a moment's hesitation, Reed recommended that Haskell and her audience should catch an independent film titled Basket Case at their first opportunity.
I don't recall what other specifics about the film Reed disclosed on that broadcast that caught my attention, and months later, I was surprised to see Reed savage the film in his published review, saying "Basket Case is the sickest movie I've ever seen," and not meaning it in any positive way.
Either Reed had been playing a cruel trick on Haskell's audience or, as was often rumored, Reed did not always write the reviews that appeared under his byline.
Whatever the case, by then my life had already changed course.
The day following Haskell's broadcast, I pored through the stack of Variety and Hollywood Reporter issues that littered the Fango office, searching for a clue on how to get information on Basket Case [no Internet, no web, no Google!]. If I recall correctly, I found a festival screening review (or at least a plot synopsis), and a short blurb indicating that the film would be distributed by "Analysis Film Releasing Corporation," and I proceeded to create a brief write-up for our "Monster Invasion" section of film news based on these. I also made a call to Analysis, requesting to be put in touch with the director.
Analysis, like many New York-based film companies of the late 1970s, had its roots in the porn industry, but emerged into the sunlight of legitimate film distribution by baby steps, starting with the Tinto Brass/Bob Guccione monstrosity Caligula [which mostly played midnights, as would Basket Case], and during their brief span of operation they handled Matt Cimber's Butterfly and William Lustig's Maniac, as well as Henenlotter's debut classic.
Frank certainly received what Tobe Hooper once called "the inevitable first-film screwing" from the distributor [Frank is not the only filmmaker to tell me that Analysis was a den of thieves], but the deal ultimately worked to his benefit, when Analysis collapsed, owing everybody money of course, and the rights to Basket Case reverted to its makers. Since regaining ownership, Frank hasn't been made wealthy, but the man lives modestly, so the BC income has, to some extent, helped him to maintain his dignity through some lean years.
Analysis never did put me in touch with Frank, but as the first ads promoting the coming midnight run of Basket Case at New York's Waverly Theater appeared, I redoubled my efforts to make contact.
At that time, there was a strange network of exploitation film enthusiasts and their zines growing through the New York/New Jersey area like untamed kudzu.
Michael Weldon's Psychotronic, Rick Sullivan's Gore Gazette, Bill Landis's Sleazoid Express were the three to always be mentioned, but equally worthy titles like Richard Green's Trash Fiend, Don Farmer's Splatter Times, Steve Puchalski's Slimetime [later Shock Cinema], Michael Gingold's Scareaphanalia, and no doubt many other genius works that no one bothered to send to me, rose and fell in their wake.
To my perception, the hub of this network was the weekly Monster Movie Club, regular Tuesday night screenings held at Ann Magnuson's night club and counter-cultural salon, Club 57. At least, it was attending these screenings that put me in touch with several zine scenesters, including Tom Scully (who ran the movie club screenings in partnership with future actress Susan Hannaford) Rick Sullivan and Michael Weldon. And it was via this network, if I recall properly, that I finally acquired Frank's phone number.
At that point in my career, I still was not accustomed to cold-calling filmmakers and asking them for their time. Dealing with New York public relations firms in order to get access to filmmakers was a nightmare. All conversations started like this:
"Where are you from, again?"
"How do you spell that?"
The worst of the worst was Peggy Siegel, now a "superpublicist" whose continuing power in New York is incomprehensible to me. She was only just starting her career back then, but for some reason was considered an up-and-comer at PMK, the PR firm where she kept an office. On one occasion I was talking to a different PMK publicist who put me on hold briefly, and by some accident, Peggy picked up the phone and started rattling off to me the arrangements she had made for some fabulous and star-studded party.
I recognized her voice. "Peggy," I said, "I think you picked up the wrong phone."
"Who is this?" she demanded.
"This is Bob Martin. From Fangoria."
"Bob Martin?" she asked angrily. "I don't need to talk to you. I don't want to talk to you." Then she hung up on me.
But I would certainly have been a liability at any of Peggy's parties. For one thing, I never dressed well. Even in 1980, living in New York City on $12k a year (my starting salary at Fango), you are lucky if you can make your rent. On one occasion, for an event in honor of Stephen King, I wore a shirt and tie combination that prompted Oliver Stone to tell me (as if I didn't know) that I "dressed like a Puerto Rican." I know it was well-meaning advice -- but Stone, son of a stockbroker, product of Trinity School, The Hill School and Yale, will never have a clue of what it's like to live getting through by the skin of your teeth. While I pretty much stand toe-to-toe with Stone's politics, I've got to say it; the term "limousine liberal" was coined for men of his type.
Of course, in another couple of years the PR firms would come around, including Fangoria in their "campaign strategy" for any major horror film release, as they do today, without regard to any sartorial failings on my part. But during that first year, I learned to put the magazine together with no P.R. input whatsoever. Sean Cunningham's Friday the 13th, Don Coscarelli's Phantasm, Stone's The Hand, Henenlotter's Basket Case are the films that made Fangoria in those early years, and none of these films had any major P.R. apparatus attached to them. For all of them. I mailed out issues, made phone calls and made personal contact with the filmmakers. In all of the PR universe, only Mick Garris, who then handled press for Avco Embassy Pictures, was a friend to Fangoria, and his contributions to our coverage of The Fog, The Howling, Prom Night and Scanners were essential to the magazine's success.
I especially remember going through hell and back to get 15 minutes on the phone with John Carpenter to discuss The Fog, after Peggy Siegel (who was repping the film in NY) had stonewalled me. That was when I first made contact with Mick Garris, who helped me to get in touch with Carpenter. Carpenter's final agreement to an interview came in a letter (preserved in a box back East somewhere) in a tone that was more than a little annoyed. I had, at some desperate point in the exchange, declared that I was merely trying to "cut through the bullshit" in an effort to provide the best-possible coverage for Fango's readers; his response said, in part, "Congratulations, you have 'cut through the bullshit,'" which I interpreted to mean he did not like me even a little bit. Not long after, when Mick Garris and I became friendly, I persuaded Mick to sound out Carpenter on what he thought of me, and was somewhat assured when Mick told me, "He thinks you're very industrious." So he probably did think I was annoying, but at least considered me goal-oriented.
If dealing with PR hurdles was the nightmare, dealing with Henenlotter was the dream. He knew and enjoyed the magazine, and welcomed me into his home.
Anyone who has enjoyed Ted Bonnitt's documentary Mau Mau Sex Sex has a pretty good example of what it's like to visit Frank at his Greenwich Village co-op apartment. All the film freaks who have seen the film immediately notice the wall of VHS video that frames Frank as he describes the esthetic of Dan Sonney and David Friedman. What they don't know is that similar shelves coat all the walls of his apartment, ceiling to floor, and that, on each of these shelves, the videos are in rows two-deep, a collection that would grow in fat bursts whenever he was invited abroad for a film fest or retrospective, as he would always find the time to hunt any foreign nation's video shops in search of unreleased, uncut, or properly transferred titles of interest.
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Because Basket Case carried a dedication to Herschell Gordon Lewis, a name only vaguely familiar to me at the time, the "godfather of gore" was the topic of the first of many illustrated lectures Frank gave to me on the topic of exploitation filmmakers -- lectures that would have been so much easier if DVDs and "chapter selection" had been available. (Not long after Henenlotter introduced me to his films, Frank introduced me to H. G. Lewis himself at a gathering at Henenlotter's apartment that included a wide assortment of New York's film geek elite. Shortly after this meeting, there was a huge resurgence of interest in Lewis, as his various works were released to VHS for the first time. As interest in Lewis snowballed, I was convinced that the guy who started that snowball rolling, more than any other individual, was Frank H.)
Every visit to Frank's, and they were frequent, resulted in another lesson in exploitation's extremities. I was not always the best of students -- I never really understood what Frank wanted me to apprehend regarding Jesse Franco's films, though many years later I would find Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun, and finally be convinced of Franco's genius.
My interest in seeing Fangoria succeed was too strong for me to ever fully adopt Frank's esthetic; I wasn't about to bump Friday the 13th Part 3 in 3D in order to make room for a detailed R.D. Steckler retrospective. But Frank's influence in the pages of Fangoria was an essential component, that remains with the magazine to this day. Soon it became my habit to refer to Fangoria as "the magazine of horror and exploitation film," as a statement of identity (a Google search indicates that I am the only person to refer to Fangoria as such). Without Frank, I'd never have embraced the word "exploitation," a word the majority of mainstream filmmakers still shun. One reason that Fangoria, in those days, was not generally perceived as a complete tool of Hollywood was our obvious regard for outsider/exploitation filmmakers.
[A magazine that adhered more closely to Frank's aesthetic appeared in the early 90s; Cult Movies published 40 issues over 15 years, but came to an abrupt end with the publishers' physical illness and descent into poverty and madness, a situation that would not likely have occurred if the US had a proper national health care system.]
End part one
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