From The Parallax Review Vaults: Bad Biology (2008)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Bad Biology was for the “DVD Insanity” column of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

Each week some of the strangest films ever thought up are released straight-to-DVD and we’re committed to finding the craziest ones out there. They aren’t all going to be winners, but with DVD Insanity, we will strive to bring some attention to the most boundary-pushing, unusual, and just plain wacky films available.

While he seems determined to wallow in the gutter with every film he makes, cult New York City filmmaker Frank Henenlotter puts just enough sneaky intelligence behind his twisted tales to make them more than mere shock vehicles. His 1982 debut Basket Case is definitely schlocky and aims at the lowest common denominator, but underneath it all, there’s a fairly astute look at the psychological toll codependency and revenge can take on a person. His follow-up, 1988’s Brain Damage, besides being incredibly funny and gory, is a surprisingly harsh look at drug addiction. Sure, his films became sillier and sillier as the ’80s gave way to the ’90s. The two Basket Case sequels were goofy exercises in campy excess, and Frankenhooker, while funnier than it had any right to be, gives you an idea of its mental state with its title. But even with his lesser films, Henenlotter has shown himself to be a true filmmaker — a craftsman always in control. After a 16-year absence, he returned in 2008 (when it first started playing festivals — the film was not released to DVD until early 2010) with a film that pushed the limits of taste further than he had ever gone.

It’s incredibly hard to write about a film like Bad Biology in a tasteful manner without sounding like I’m talking around certain subjects. Since I don’t want to play coy about some of the more explicit subject matter, I will just urge anyone who is easily offended by overtly sexual discussions to stop reading. After all, if you’re bothered by my fairly dry descriptions of what happens in a movie that is soaked in sexual imagery, you’re not going to be interested in watching the film.

Jennifer (Charlee Danielson) is a commercial photographer who shoots everything from hip-hop magazine covers to porn. In her downtime, she likes to take photographs of her numerous one-night stands while they’re in the throes of ecstasy and then digitally manipulate the photos until it’s hard to tell if the subjects are caught in the midst of exquisite pleasure or extreme pain. All of this wouldn’t seem so odd if not for the fact that Jennifer sometimes loses control of herself during sex and kills her partners while caught in the grip of intense orgasms. This intensity is explained by the first line in the film, delivered by Jennifer via voiceover: “I was born with seven clits.”

Meanwhile, Batz (Anthony Sneed), a haunted loner, lives alone in a rundown Brooklyn mansion that he inherited. The only human interaction he has is with his drug dealer (Jzone), who supplies him with increasingly hard-to-find specialty drugs. It seems that when he was born, the doctor accidentally cut off his penis instead of the umbilical cord. While it was reattached, he was horrified to discover as a teenager that he was unable to get an erection. In desperation, he started treating his damaged member with various stimulants and steroids. While he managed to become aroused, his treatments had some unintended side effects, all of them incredibly destructive to Batz. Not only did he become addicted to the drugs he was injecting himself with, his penis grew to a ridiculously large size. Even worse, it gained consciousness and began hounding Batz for sexual gratification around the clock.

From the moment we learn the backstories of Jennifer and Batz (delivered in striking moments where they address the camera while going about their bizarre routines), it’s obvious that the two of them will meet. What will happen when they meet is what remains as the film’s central mystery. It’s clear that Batz sees his condition as a curse, but Jennifer, while occasionally ambivalent to some of the odder side effects of her condition, has embraced her constant state of heightened arousal. Will they connect emotionally in the same way that they seem destined to connect physically? Or will their meeting be as destructive as throwing gasoline on a fire? Everything in the film builds to the moment when they get together. Unfortunately, that’s the exact moment when Henenlotter fumbles the ball.

It may sound strange to say so, but for most of the running time, Bad Biology is able to find the drama and dark humor in its incredibly lowbrow plot. While he never shies away from pushing the envelope with some of the more sexual material (the reveal of Batz’s enlarged — and lively — penis is both shocking and hilarious), Henenlotter is able to keep most of the film rooted as a character study of two very unusual people. It’s still an exploitation film with a ton of nudity and blood, but the script balances the gratuitous sex and sophomoric humor with some fairly dark character beats that dig into the seedy, truly ugly side of drug and sexual addiction.

Surprisingly, given its obviously low budget, the film looks and sounds like a million bucks. An old-school director, Henenlotter chose to shoot on 35mm film. After watching so many no-budget indie sleaze and horror flicks over the last few years that were shot on digital video, the effect was astounding. In this digital age where any hack with a Hi-Def camera and a few thousand dollars can string together some poorly shot, acted, and edited scenes and make back their money on a bad DVD deal, the clean presentation of the film image and a competent sound design worked miracles here.

I don’t want to give the impression that the film is a virtuoso work of visual style. It’s not, but Henenlotter knows how to shoot and edit for maximum effect on a minimal budget. His no-nonsense shooting style allows the story to unfold as naturally as a story about an over-sexed woman and a man with an enormous, conscious penis can.

But what Henenlotter really succeeds at is capturing the scummy atmosphere of dive bars, cheap New York apartments, and drug deals interrupted by screeching junkies. This verisimilitude goes a long way to making the film work. Sure, the story is still ridiculous and the acting is spotty, but the world feels real.

If only the last ten minutes of the film had been as entertaining and cohesive as the previous seventy. As though deciding that no one was really going to buy the concept in the first place, Henenlotter goes off the deep end and provides enough gratuitous nudity and idiotic humor to satisfy a twelve-year-old boy for a month. The film ends on a grotesque visual punchline that, quite frankly, just isn’t funny. Even worse, for most of this climax, Jennifer and Batz are on the sidelines, waiting for their turn to get involved in the action.

Still, seven-eighths of a a good movie is better than you usually get from the direct-to-DVD scene and it was great fun to see an old underground director get behind the camera after such a long absence. Bad Biology is far from perfect, but it shows just how important basic filmmaking craft is when it comes to even something as silly and potentially offensive as a direct-to-DVD exploitation flick. Welcome back, Frank. We missed you.

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