B movies are often viewed as being campy, over the top, exploitative in content -- often, all of the above. Indeed, these low-budget films that have a better chance of gaining a cult following than many major motion pictures are quite popular among underground cinephiles due to their ridiculous nature. However, while they are often played for laughs, there can be a message hidden deep within the film’s content that can make it a landmark among viewers. Frank Henenlotter’s 1990 film Frankenhooker, starring Patty Mullen and James Lorinz, features perhaps unintentional underlying themes about feminism and the empowerment of women in different walks of life. Through this, the film has become a hit that, while relatively unknown to the average movie-going public, resonates deeply with audiences who find it difficult to portray exploitative themes in a humorous light.
In the first five minutes of the film the audience is introduced to Jeffrey Franken (Lorinz) and his fiancee Elizabeth (Mullen). Elizabeth (Mullen had to wear a fat suit to portray this character) is ridiculed by her mother when she sees her eat a copious amount of pretzels. When her friend comes over to talk to her, Elizabeth laments that she has tried several diets in order to lose weight. She then admits that in a more dire attempt, she even allowed Jeffrey to staple her stomach, much to her friend’s surprise. This can be further explored in British author Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In it she writes, “Men and women must be educated, in a great degree, by the opinions and manners of the society they live in” (190). In the 1980s and 1990s, many American women attempted to adhere to a standard of beauty that had been instilled in them by tabloids, teen magazines, adult content (Mullen herself being named Penthouse Pet of the Year in 1988), television, and other forms of media. While females were at the helm of some of these media outlets, the American standard of beauty was defined primarily by men. It stands to reason, then, that the education men and women receive is exploitative and as informative as watching a blank screen, because even though it reflects the opinions and manners of the society, is it correct? Does it really count if it is an ill-intentioned opinion that can cause strife and trauma in humanity? Though broad, the answer lies in the fact that what people perceive is what they believe to be real. Wollstonecraft’s statement about education resonates here because the education that was received in the late 1700s heavily differed from the education in the 1980s-1990s, which differs from today.
Shortly after the duo’s conversation in Frankenhooker, Elizabeth is killed in a lawn mower accident during which her body parts were decimated or severed. Unbeknownst to anyone, Jeffrey steals the parts that he can salvage, including her head. He keeps her body parts in an estrogen-based serum in a freezer in order to preserve her body parts while working tirelessly, in the spirit of Romantic author Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, to find a way to bring her back to life. One night Jeffrey pulls Elizabeth’s head out of the freezer and has a “date night” with her. He speaks with her about an incoming storm and how he will bring her back using the parts of another woman. He claims that he can make her into anything she wants to be, showing her centerfolds he has cut out the entire time. Mia Mazza makes a strong point in her paper “Postmodern Feminism and Frankenhooker” when she asserts that what Jeffrey really means is that he can transform her into the person he really wants her to be; further, this is a shining example of “the clear-cut, unmitigated desire of the male to construct the female body” (38). It is the stereotypical male mindset at play here as Jeffrey shows Elizabeth’s severed head these nude centerfold models with her head nonchalantly placed over their faces. His objective is to turn Elizabeth into his dream woman, which is controversial because it seems as if Jeffrey cares more about Elizabeth’s appearance than the person she really is. In a nod to Wollstonecraft, his education convinces him that he can make the “ultimate Elizabeth”: a woman that he can design, that society will accept, and in some warped sense of rationale at the surface of his mind, whom Elizabeth herself can accept.
Later on in Jeffrey’s quest to find Elizabeth what he deems the right body parts, he concludes that the best way to go about getting them is by hiring prostitutes and selecting one to take her place. He strikes a deal with a pimp named Zorro and gets some of his finest girls, all of which have a branded “Z” on their arm, for a party he’s throwing in order to find the right girl, naturally under the guise of an actual party and not selection for an execution. He notices that the women are addicted to crack and asks Zorro for a bag. He goes to his lab and synthesizes a more powerful form of the drug which he names “super crack,” planning to use it to kill the winner, who, once she has taken the drug, will explode. The night of the party, Jeffrey goes through the motions with each of the women, examining them all in order to find the right body for Elizabeth. By the end of his search, however, he experiences a moral crisis and determines that he cannot go through with the plan. The hookers, tired of waiting for Jeffrey to make his decision, tell him that he needs to pay them for their time. He throws them a bag full of money without realizing that the super crack is in the bag as well. The hookers find it and smoke it. In the process they engage in a string of actions that Jeffrey finds to be immoral such as playing rock n’ roll music (which Jeffrey calls “the Devil’s music”) and kissing each other until they inevitably explode. The themes in this part of the film are illuminated in Donna Haraway’s essay “A Cyborg Manifesto science, technology, and socialist - feminism in the late twentieth century.” Haraway writes, “In the traditions of ‘Western’ science and politics—the tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture; the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other—the relation between organism and machine has been a border war” (7). What makes Jeffrey so powerful in this scenario is that even though he may not be an attractive or strong man, he is still a white American man who has the means to acquire what he wants. Jeffrey has the resources and ingenuity to create an estrogen-based serum to keep his dead fiancé’s head preserved, he has the money to pay a bevy of prostitutes for simply giving him their time, and he has the ability to create a deadly biochemical in the form of super crack. Jeffrey is set in his ways and sees his perception as the right path. When he condemns the hookers for their “immoral” actions, the playing of the music and their sexual nature, he is trying to repress any sort of progress that might be made. Jeffrey is absolutely appalled by what he’s seeing, but writes it off as wild acts that are committed due to the influence of drugs; this is the only sound explanation he can find in order to justify these behaviors that exist outside the norms of his patriarchal perspective.
On the night of the storm, after scrambling to find the right parts from the scattered prostitutes, Jeffrey glues all of the parts together with Elizabeth’s head on top. He places the body on a bed and raises it to be struck by lightning, as it goes with any incarnation of Victor Frankenstein’s creature. When the body is lowered, Elizabeth emerges reborn as Frankenhooker, wearing platform shoes, a purple mini skirt, and a purple bra. She can only mimic what the hookers have said in the movie, shouting out phrases such as “Wanna date?”, “Feeling lonely?” and “Looking for some action?” among others. Frankenhooker knocks Jeffrey out after a brief interaction and hits the streets looking for money and action. If men decline her advances, then she shoves them away with a force that obviously comes from more power than what could be possessed by one person. She also comes across men who look to exploit her sexually due to her status as a hooker, a group of people who are perceived by society to be used in such a way. The tables are turned, however, when the men die in a rather campy fashion of being electrocuted and then exploding. This all comes to a point where Frankenhooker goes to a bar where Zorro and his hookers frequent and she sees a bowl of pretzels, which she goes on to devour. A bartender tells her that she should go easy on the pretzels, similarly in fashion to how her mother told her to, and this enrages Frankenhooker causing her to let out a fierce growl. To return to Wollstonecraft’s point on education, Frankenhooker acts here as an informal lesson. Specifically, she challenges the norm on several fronts. While women are expected to be a quiet, passive force, an idea that Wollstonecraft writes about, Frankenhooker is something entirely different. Her voice and her actions demand to be heard. Elizabeth is a stereotypical soft, submissive American female, but Frankenhooker is bold and brash. She makes it known that she is not living for the education that society has provided for her. Instead she forges her own path and decides that she will be her own teacher.
Jeffrey finds Frankenhooker at the bar after an incident with a man trying to push himself on her goes wrong, causing a dramatic scene at the bar. Zorro, noticing his brand on Frankenhooker’s arm, nearly decapitates Frankenhooker in the chaos. He then goes on to follow Jeffrey and Frankenhooker to Jeffrey’s lab. Jeffrey stitches Frankenhooker back together and gives her another jolt of electricity to revive her yet again. Elizabeth returns to consciousness and, while happy to be alive, is horrified when she discovers how she came to be and how she can feel different individuals inside of her. Jeffrey and Zorro’s attempts to constrain Frankenhooker can be best described by examining Albert Anthony’s work “Menacing Technologies: Counterfeit Women and the Mutability of Nature in Science Fiction Cinema.” Here Anthony states, “Indeed, the degree to which Western narratives obsessively posit unrestrained feminine sexuality as disruptive to masculine authority and subjectivity has been shown to reveal anxiety about the stability of the masculine subject, an anxiety that is equally bound up with a phobic response to technologization.” Frankenhooker exists as an anomaly, so to speak. Everything about her is unnatural, from her unconventional creation to her mannerisms.
When Jeffrey sees her revived on the table, he is relieved and happy, but when she acts in a way that is different from what he expected, she becomes a problem. As she parades around in the streets Jeffrey is at a loss when trying to find her, knowing that the woman that he once loved may still be gone and replaced with this being that has an unbound sense of sexual freedom: one who does not belong to him. From then on, the phobia that Anthony notes is ever present in the act of unintentional killing that Frankenhooker does. In her mind, she is simply living freely and doing what she wants, but this unrestrained female sexuality is killing men. Without the confines of having a man, Frankenhooker is a force to be reckoned with. She is literally stronger than most men and will give any man an explosive “good time.” When Zorro is presented with the problem of his “bitches” being nearly as strong as he is and no longer serving him, his immediate response is to make a claim on Frankenhooker. When she resists, he responds with physical violence.
Another effect of Frankenhooker and Jeffrey’s relationship can be examined in light of Wollstonecraft’s work. She states, “Men, indeed, appear to me to act in a very unphilosophical manner, when they try to secure the good conduct of women by attempting to keep them in a state of childhood...children, I grant, should be innocent; but when the epithet is applied to men, or women, it is but a civil term for weakness” (189). Elizabeth has been reborn as a new entity in Frankenhooker. Jeffrey, when confronted with this newborn, attempts to educate her. He expects things to go back to the way they were but when he sees that Elizabeth is no longer the same person, he tries to reason with the new being he is presented with. Jeffrey tries, shortly and fruitlessly, to groom Frankenhooker into the insecure woman that he fell for and who would never leave him. He attempts to keep this newborn child in a state of childhood; ultimately, he wants to keep her weak and controllable.
Anthony refers to Frankenhooker as one of the “artificial females positioned firmly within the iconography of the ‘pleasure model.’” When he uses this term, he indicates that Frankenhooker is being used as an object to exploit. While this may very well be the case, the character Frankenhooker acts as a symbol for feminism that exposes the way that women are exploited and used when their behavior deviates from the norm. What makes the character so unique is that in being an artificial lifeform, a “cyborg,” or a “child,” Frankenhooker seems like she can be easily molded by men and society in general to be a product of western expectations and desires. Rather than being confined by all of these conventions, though, Frankenhooker marches to the beat of her own drum, causing the film to be an unsung triumph that, if not given proper exposure like most B movies of the time, will only be discussed and appreciated by the underground film lovers who see B movies as material that is both fun and enlightening. Enlightening in the sense that feminism is an important topic, now more than ever. The freedom for women to choose how they use their bodies, as seen in Frankenhooker, is a harsh, winding road to a destination that is becoming farther away. Even with equal education, there is still not equal opportunity. There is still sexual harassment and exploitation in the workplace and in other parts of the world. The reason why Frankenhooker can be so influential, is that while it is humorous, it has the power to create dialogues and inspire people to learn more about how trends and patterns from 1990 persist today.
Anthony, A. (2004). Menacing technologies: Counterfeit women and the mutability of nature in science fiction cinema. Femspec, 5(1), 1.
Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto.” Manifestly Haraway, 1984, pp. 3–90.,
Henenlotter, Frank, and Robert Martin. Frankenhooker. Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment, 1990.
Mazza, Mia, 1991. Postmodern Feminism and Frankenhooker
Wollstonecraft, Mary, 1759-1797. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman : with Strictures on
Political and Moral Subjects. New York :G. Vale, 1845. Print.