Feminist Themes In Frankenhooker
Frankenhooker, written and directed by Frank Henenlotter, fits easily into the is a 1980’s counter culture horror genre. It shares stylistic and thematic material with films like Society, The Stuff, Terrorvision, and Meet The Applegates. It was released in 1990 just as the nation was emerging from the avarice and egotism of the Reagan era. Frankenhooker addresses these trends but it introduces some feminist themes. It particularly addresses objectification and its intersection with capitalism.
The opening shot of the film is a close up of a horrible distended eye. It is not a normal eye, it is bulging out of a glossy purplish brain. The first image we see is a human abbreviated down to an eye and a brain. It is symbol of the gaze, the one who sees, the one who witnesses and objectifies.
It is also a playful teasing reference to the audience. The camera switches to the brain’s point of view and the main character steps into view. Leaning in he speaks not only to the brain, but to viewer, “Watch the hand, come on do something wake up, let’s go, let’s see that peeper.”
From the beginning the film sets out to confront the relationship between subject and object, between seer and seen. The eye-brain creature becomes a reoccurring presence in the movie motley reminding us of the films premise.
As characters are introduced so are issues of being a woman in America in 1990. We hear a women admonished by her mother for eating too much and she complains about all the many diets she has tried to no avail. This woman turns out to be Elizabeth the woman who is destined to become the monster.
She is killed in a ludicrous and comical lawnmower accident but her fiancé, Jeffry, secretly promises the decapitated head that he will bring her back to life. Later that day he shows the lifeless head a series of collages he has made using photos of her head glued on to a variety of women’s naked bodies cut out of pornographic magazines. Elizabeth’s head of course does not respond but he gets more and more excited until he exclaims “I can make you into anything you want! I can make into the centerfold goddess of the century!” The scene seems to imply that he is selfishly planning to make her into a sexual play thing however after hearing Elizabeth previously complain about her body one might wonder if she might approve of his plans to give her a body idolized by men.
A strange and revealing scene is when Jeffry is trying to figure out how he is going to build his dream girl. Unable to figure it out he opts to drill into his head with a power drill (perhaps a reference to Killer Driller.) There is some pretense that he may be stimulating some area of his brain but surely he is doing nothing but shredding it. It seems to work and he stops as if something has come to him. The implication being that in order to effectively think like a man he needs to damage his brain. Not only intellectually but morally as well.
In a eureka moment he says “That’s simple, if I need female body parts I’ll buy female body parts. There’s a place across the river where there are 1000’s women anxious to sell their parts.” This is the first time the double usage of body parts occurs. Jeffry conflates prostitution, the selling of body parts with butchery, another kind of selling of body parts. Both types share a disregard for the life being objectified.
Jeffry’s plan ushers in several scenes of him cruising New York City evaluating the body parts of the women he sees. This would seem like common place objectification, the sort that happens casually every day, but in the light of his plan to harvest their body parts this common activity reveals the dehumanizing premise that underpins it.
Jeffry throws a party in order to trap several prostitutes and choose which one’s body he will steal. He has last minute doubts and begins to back out but the prostitutes read this as him trying to stiff them. Jeffry is disgusted by their greed and so decides to follow through. He yells at them “Money! You’re talking about, money? I’m talking about human life.”
The film shifts blame here and ends up moralizing about the prostitutes almost implying that they deserve their fate for being so mercurial. Eventually due to a toxic drug they have greedily taken from Jeffry all the prostitutes begin to literally explode.
The explosion scenes immediately confront the viewer with violent treatment of half naked, sexualized women. However this is how a woman is turned from a human being into a pile of objects. The room is littered with body parts that fly through the air and bleed on the carpet. This is objectification made literal and concrete.
In addition there is an actual objectification in that the actresses who play the prostitutes are replaced by fake versions of themselves just before they explode. This provides another layer to what we are watching. We see the living actress replaced by an obviously fake facsimile and then see that facsimile destroyed.
The actual scenes of the Jeffry creating of Frankenhooker make several references to the many Frankenstein films that came before it. It is perhaps the first time that the viewer associates the story with the original book or early films. We remember that Frankenstein is a tale of hubris and regret. This reminds us that we are dealing with a tragedy. The film has many comic and horror elements but the end is foreshadowed and it looks grim.
There is a comic and gruesome scene where Jeffry rifles through piles of body parts seeking out the choicest pieces to sew onto his creation. This is the climax of the objectification message. He handles a pile of breasts as if they are toys. He plays a frantic game of mix and match without any thought to what he is actually doing.
When her completed body is revivified and revealed she is a complex vision of ugliness, horror and beauty. The make-up and costume are carefully balanced to create a dissonant image of scars, dead flesh and sexy curves. Then she speaks but all she can say are things prostitutes would say as if she has a pull chord in her back like a doll and each time you pull it she says “want a date” or “got any money?”
She escapes and goes on a rampage. Even with her bizarre appearance men still proposition her and she kills them with her electrified body. The Johns suffer the same fate as the exploding prostitutes tying Frankenhooker to the rape revenge grid house genre.
Elizabeth stumbles into a bar and starts eating pretzels. Spike, the female bartender, tells her “Hey girl for your own girl go easy on those pretzels” but the empowered Elizabeth growls at Spike like an animal. She is no longer cowed by the patriarchal ideal.
When Jeffry gets her back to the lab and jump starts her brain she awakens from her animal state and speaks like the normal Elizabeth we remember from the opening of the film. At first she is grateful to Jeffry for saving her life but when she realizes the true nature of what he has done she is horrified. Just as she begins to rant the pimp, who owned all the prostitutes who were killed, bursts in wanting to claim her as his. The pimp decapitates Jeffry, but the pimp’s success is short lived.
Again we are treated to a kind of rape revenge scenario but this time the pimp is cornered and overwhelmed by grotesque slimy fusions of all the excess body parts that Jeffry did not choose. A grimacing mouth fused to a piece of torso and foot lunge at the frightened pimp. Piles of animated body parts overwhelm and kill him. The pimp is destroyed by the objectification he perpetrated on women.
Elizabeth uses Jeffry’s notes to bring Jeffry back to life, but she has sewn him a new body out of more prostitute parts. Jeffry awakes to find himself with a female Frankenstein body. He screams and it sounds like the garbled voice of Frankenstein.