Color, 1990, 85m.
Directed by Frank Henenlotter
Starring James Lorinz, Patty Mullen, Louise Lasser, Joseph Gonzalez, Jennifer Delora
Synapse (Blu-Ray) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9) / DTS-HD MA 5.1, Unearthed (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Similar (US R0 NTSC), X-Rated Kult (Germany R2 PAL)

Velvet VampireAfter exploring the mean streets of New York with his sympathetic monsters in Basket Case and Brain Damage, director Frank Henenlotter decided to turn his gaze in his next project with a tale of lost love and mad science in the wilds of New Jersey. This whacked-out spoof of Frankenstein managed to attract the attention of sleaze gourmets and VHS consumers everywhere with its wild ad campaign, including an irresistible video box that, when pressed, shouted out, "Wanna date?"

Luckily the film lives up to its deranged potential with the story of forlorn Jeffrey Franken (Street Trash's Lorinz), a drop-out fledgling scientist and power company employee whose beautiful fiancee, Elizabeth (Shelley), is gruesomely ground into chunks by a new remote-controlled lawnmower at a birthday party. Luckily Jeffrey's skill with electricity and anatomy (which has already yielded a functioning brain with an eyeball in a jar) comes into play when he keeps Elizabeth's head and concocts a plan to bring her back to life. The first step, of course, involves a journey to Times Square, where Jeffrey rounds up plenty of hookers for potential body parts and gets more than he bargained for when a new, explosive form of "super crack" sends them bursting to bits all over the room. With his beloved finally reassembled, Jeffrey unfortunately realizes the error of his ways when his new, neck-bolted creation turns out to be a statuesque killer hooker!

Velvet VampireThough some critics railed against Frankenhooker for its supposed misogyny and bad taste, the film is far too absurd and playful for these criticisms to hold up. The sight of killer crack blowing up a group of lingerie-clad ladies of the evening in a crackling electrical explosion is one of the most unforgettable moments in the Henenlotter canon (and there's certainly a lot to choose from there), and the table-turning twist ending is an amusing touch obviously designed to ward off any charges of hatred towards women. Lorinz is absolutely perfect as usual, dishing out sardonic one-liners without ever breaking character even when he has to carry long stretches of the film solo; likewise, Mullen proves to be a good sport with a role requiring her to go from a victimized, wholesome girl to a shambling, grimacing streetwalker. Joe Renzetti (fresh off the back-to-back production of Basket Case 2) turns in an amusing, vaguely sleazy score, and the gaudy production design packed with gaudy colors pins this perfectly as a film produced during the waning hours of the 1980s.

Velvet VampireFrankenhooker first appeared on video in both R-rated and unrated versions (the former missing quite a bit of exploding hooker footage, for example), only available for the early years of DVD in a cut, shoddy budget release from Simitar. (The unrated version did turn up on German disc, albeit from the same old lackluster tape master.) Unearthed's 2008 revamp jumpted light years ahead of past editions with rich, deep blacks and much-improved detail. The widescreen framing was also a huge improvement over the previous full frame (open matte) editions, which threw all of the compositions out of whack.

However, the real treat for Frankenhooker fans lies in the 2011 Blu-Ray version from Synapse. The presentation is, surprisingly, pretty spectacular; the dimly-lit opening shots are a little misleading at first, but once the action shifts to daylight, the film takes on a very impressive amount of depth and clarity. If it weren't for all the loud neon-hued colors, you'd almost swear it was shot yesterday. Details in the crazy prosthetics and intentionally kitschy production design are far more visible before (so watch out for that slimy climax), and the revamped 5.1 surround mix is actually very lively with some amusing split rear channel effects (the first really occurring right before the opening credits). The original two-channel stereo version is included in DTS-HD as well. (Click on any of the frame grabs here for a peek at it in full res.)Velvet Vampire

The most significant extras from the Unearthed version are carried over here as well, beginning with a jovial, fact-packed commentary track with Henenlotter and frequent FX collaborator Gabe Bartalos. (If you're a fan of the Basket Case sequels, this would play nicely as a companion to them as well since all were shot closely together.) The various locations, FX necessities, and cast wrangling are covered in fun detail, painting an enjoyable portrait of fast-and-cheap New York filmmaking that doesn't really exist anymore. Though Lorinz is strangely nowhere to be found, Mullen picks up the slack with an entertaining featurette, "A Salad That was Once Named Elizabeth," in which she reminisces about the casting process, working with Henenlotter, and the nature of her make-up and demanding performance. Co-star Jennifer Delora also appears for "Turning Tricks," offering a somewhat more B-movie-based take on the film with few memories of her work on other horror and softcore projects as well and her tips on differentiating all the prostitute roles she had around that period. Her photo scrapbook is also included as a nice additional supplement. "A Stitch in Time" focuses on the special effects, which are all charmingly latex-based and much more naturalistic than CGI could have provided years later. (The Unearthed version tosses in a couple of trailers, for Nails and Bone Sickness, and a bonus production photo gallery; not a huge incentive to keep that one.) The giddy theatrical trailer rounds out this wildly enjoyable release, which is also a pleasant surprise as one of the first Henenlotter films to make it out of the gate in high defintion.

Reviewed on 9/23/11.