FRANKENHOOKER: Camp, Sex Work, and Toxic Masculinity

Frank Henenlotter’s 1990 comedy horror cult classic, Frankenhooker, is a campy spin on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in which Jeffrey, a failed med student, reanimates his recently beheaded fiance, Elizabeth, after a freak accident. Jeffrey, who is part mad scientist and part obsessive lover, concocts a plan to build Elizabeth a new body, attach her severed head and revive her so they can be reunited. After making a deal with Zoro the pimp, Jeffrey chooses his desired parts from branded prostitutes, hoping for a big payday. After they literally explode from super crack, he’s able to rebuild and revive Elizabeth. Elizabeth doesn’t quite return the way he expects, and Jeffrey must try to bring her back before he loses her again — or before Zoro has his head.

Jeffrey uses his love for Elizabeth to justify creating a fantasy vision of a woman devoid of any humanity, built like a machine and crafted to be anyone but Elizabeth. Her headshots are plastered on the walls with no signs of admiration for the rest of her, even with Jeffrey’s whispers of love echoing back to him. The blueprints for her body are filled head-to-toe with numbers and connections for electrical currents, while a tiny headshot of Elizabeth lies dwarfed at the top. The bubbling purple fluid from Jeffrey’s own concoction (which is estrogen-based) is the single thing keeping Elizabeth’s severed head preserved perfectly for Jeffrey (who doesn’t mind the crickets when he shares a whole evening with her). If the silence accompanied with the collages of Elizabeth’s head superimposed on skinny women isn’t literally the male gaze, I don’t know what is.

His desperation (and numerous holes in head that intoxicate him) lead him to the seedy streets of New York to seek out women’s bodies to purchase. The sex workers roam the streets as Jeffrey searches for parts as if he’s shopping in a strip mall. As outrageous as the scene in which he examines the group of women is, it’s not so far removed from the reality of women whose labor is sold for sex but are viewed as products to be bought.

The prostitutes in the film are controlled by their pimp, Zoro, who dangles drugs in their face, controlling them via addiction. Zoro is a buff, hyper masculine pimp who, like Jeffrey, views the women (workers) as merchandise. Zoro serves as one end of the spectrum of toxic masculinity — extremely controlling with no denying his blatant patriarchal views of the workers — and Jeffrey, who is in complete denial and uses love as a smoke-screen in order to feed his ego in scientific breakthroughs, serves as the other. Throughout the film, they are juxtaposed as if polar opposites with differing intentions and views, yet, they each seek to control the workers and flex their qualities in order to intimidate them; smarts or muscles. Often, men differentiate themselves from overtly masculine sexists by displaying sensitivity to mask ulterior motives. Jeffrey’s agreements with the sex worker on TV who advocates for sex workers’ rights doesn’t mean much while he’s actively creating superdrugs to intoxicate workers in order to buy their “parts.” As soon as reality begins to settle like a thin layer of dust, he drills a hole in his brain, wedging any sense of reality further from his ability to determine right from wrong. But what is a seemingly throwaway scene is actually a demand for sex worker rights, which is still relevant today.

The scene is early in the film in which Jeffrey is concocting super-crack as the camera zooms in on a talk show, Motormouth. The male host laughs at the sex worker advocate from H.O.O.K.E.R. (Hold On to Our Knowledge of Equal Rights), who talks about the problems they face in the city since prostitution is illegal. She explains that sex workers have no protection from the law, they are in constant danger and treated like second class citizens. Even today, sex workers’ rights are a constant struggle as prudish social stigma remains; there has yet to be legal prostitution in the US (with the exception of Nevada). The reason why this is so important is because sex work must be recognized in order to be able to form unions and fight for fair wages like any other job. Jobs under capitalism are exploitative, but by gendering sex work, attitudes towards the workers colludes sex work with sex trafficking rendering workers as solely exploited victims.

Although this small segment is glossed over, the film itself shows the agency of Elizabeth once she is revived; she immediately rejects Jeffrey. As she stomps her way to Manhattan in her high platforms, multiple men come onto her forcefully, but willing to pay for her services and each endure the same fate: explosion. Her unapologetic nature is a combination of the workers themselves, who were lured into this mess as well as Elizabeth before her death (who dealt with societal pressure to lose weight). The culmination of frustration results in Elizabeth’s sneer at a woman who tells her to watch her eating habits when she grabs a handful of pretzels and disregard for the exploding men who view her as an object. Meanwhile, Jeffrey desperately searches for his creation even though he got what he expected: a skinny, attractive woman with Elizabeth’s head.

After being nearly decapitated, the real Elizabeth is revived, confused and unaware of her own death and adventure in the streets of Manhattan. Moments after, Zoro (who is seeking revenge for his “lost property”) decapitates Jeffrey only to be taken down by the animated remains of the workers who take their revenge on their heartless pimp. The branded limbs of the women became aware enough to take down a buffed out pimp who lost complete control. Meanwhile, all that’s left is his head. Elizabeth swiftly uses the spare parts of the women and mixes in estrogen based chemical Jeffrey used before to bring him back to life.

Similar to Elizabeth, Jeffrey wakes up in a body he doesn’t recognize or want to inhabit, but must endure in order to live. The table-turning scene highlights how Elizabeth’s body was constructed for selfish reasons and how outrageous it is when Elizabeth uses love as a motive to bring back Jeffrey. His reaction to his new body is met with disgust and a bruised ego, as Elizabeth brought him back with ease after he dedicated countless hours to figuring out how to perfect the process. Elizabeth’s love is sincere, which is rather contradictory to the message of the film; even knowing Jeffrey’s motives, she still brings him back. Either way, though the film itself appears outrageous and campy as hell, Henenlotter illustrates a pro sex worker, feminist character who endures hell but makes her creator pay.

La Virgen

La Virgen is a part-time artist, student and worker based out of Los Angeles who commutes via bike to dodge LA traffic. When she isn't at work she dedicates her time to school, Black Rose/ Rosa Negra, and watching as much films as time and (working class) money can allow. The lack of diversity among professional film critics gets her heated which motivates her to write and provide a working class perspective when reviewing film. In her spare time she discusses politics with comrades and goes on road trips with friends and her dog.
La Virgen
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