Far From the Madding Crowd / Frankenhooker

Like a lot of Americans I was obsessed with eating at McDonalds when I was a child. In fact, I was so single-mindedly fixated on happy meals that I refused to eat at any other restaurant. If my family wanted to go to a place that was serving actual food I would pitch a fit about it and drive them crazy. It got so bad that eventually my parents struck a deal with me: if I would sit still and behave for an entire meal at a sit down place than I would get to eat fast food in the car on the way home.

Now that I'm an adult that behavior makes absolutely no sense to me.  Little kids are the squirmiest, least patient creatures on the Earth, so the idea that child-me was willing to be polite and calm for upwards of an hour just so I could sabotage my parents attempts to feed me nutritious food seems kind of insane. But then again... not too insane, because I kind of still am that kid.

Oh, don't get me wrong - I don't eat fast food very much anymore. No, I mean that in a broader sense. I'm still the guy who will pass up ten nice things for the one crappy-ass thing that's more his speed. For example: last night I did a double feature of Far From the Madding Crowd, a picturesque romance based on Thomas Hardy's classic novel, and Frankenhooker, a movie about a mad scientist who tries to rebuild his recently departed girlfriend using spare parts he collected from the bodies of dead hookers. Guess which I enjoyed more?

Far From the Madding Crowd is your classic prestige picture. It's got it all: tasteful source material about the erotic entanglements of English aristocrats, a foreign director (Denmark's own Thomas Vinterberg) and an Academy Award nominated actress in the lead (Carey Mulligan). Hell, it even has a rustic setting to seal the deal, since it's set on a rural farm in the 1870s. It's about a young woman named Bathsheba Everdene and the three rival suitors that are trying to win her favor: a thick shouldered sheep herder who is silent and practical; an estate owner who is socially awkward but rich; and a military man who is full of charm but also a bit of a rascal. Oh, who will our dainty debutante pick?

I know that I shouldn't be overly dismissive of Far From the Madding Crowd. It's well done as far as these things go, especially the parts between Bathsheba and the sheepherder - that's the pairing that best exemplifies the exquisitely subdued lustfulness that people seem to want from a period romance like this. It's just that I'm too modern and cynical to get too emotionally invested in this sort of melodrama. When Bathsheba was coyly flirting with suitor number one I kept thinking "wow, this is a lot of work to gain access to one lady's junk." That feeling didn't subside when she was struggling to juggle three of them.

Actually, the stacking of suitor upon suitor upon suitor is Crowd's secret saving grace - the more melodramatic the plot became the easier it was to snarkily enjoy the movie. I understand the appeal of the story's basic fantasy - after all, who doesn't want to be wanted? - but as a person who has never been particularly pursued by anyone her constant bombardment from marriageable men struck me as faintly ludicrous. I just don't buy the sentimental hogwash the script is trying to sell me: she seemingly can't open her front door without meeting a new dashing fellow with a ring in his hand, and yet her equally alluring hand maiden never gets any attention from the fellows... Which suggests to me that while Bathsheba's beauty and boldness might be attractive the hundred acres she owns might be the real star of the show.

That said, I left the theater with the feeling that the disconnect was my fault, not the movie's. There are people that love understated stories of submerged desire, and by all means, they should all line up to see Far From the Maddening Crowd. However, I had better things to attend to - specifically, a little movie called Frankenhooker was waiting for me at home.

As you might be able to guess from its title Frankenhooker is not a particularly subdued movie. In the opening scene a young woman accidentally decapitates herself with a remote control lawn mower. (Trust me: it was one hell of a lawnmower.) The trauma of this incident pushes her mad scientist boyfriend Jeffrey deeper into madness, and he begins to grow more and more fixated on bringing her back to life. But how? The only body part he managed to rescue from their front yard was her head; the rest were scooped up by the EMTs before he could get there. Well, maybe if he got some alternate body parts he could build her a body... But where do you get spare body parts? Well, from people who sell their body...

Like a lot of B-movie "classics", Frankenhooker is really riding the line of good taste. I think that it (mostly) manages to stay on the right side of that line, but I'm sure many feminists will disagree. After all, Frankenhooker does feature an extended sequence where seven or so half-naked prostitutes smoke a form of crack cocaine that is so supercharged that it causes them to explode almost instantly after they get high. I understand why a semi-comic depiction of violence against underprivileged women would have problematic overtones for a lot of people, but I just couldn't take that scene that too seriously. First of all, every "woman" who exploded was clearly a dummy with a firecracker in their torso (which looked absolutely ridiculous), and secondly the idea of producing a crack cocaine that is so potent that it causes the user to self-detonate is just funny to me. 

The ultimate question about any movie with a name as provocative as "Frankenhooker" is: can the movie cash the checks it's title is writing? In this case the answer to that is an unqualified yes. The phrase "Frankenhooker" suggests a certain amount of goofiness and sexual explicitness, and this movie manages to balance both of those semi-contradictory traits admirably. It isn't shy about showing nudity, but it is so focused on moving it's silly plot forward that it doesn't make time for the truly gratuitous T&A scenes that often make cheesy exploitation films like this feel sour and gross. Honestly, I probably wouldn't have enjoyed Frankenhooker if its sex scenes hadn't been played for laughs, so it's good that they were all portrayed with a certain juvenile charm. Whatever misgivings I felt about what happened to that cluster (gaggle? confluence?) of hookers disappeared once the tables were turned and the Frankenhooker started accidentally exploding her Johns with the touch of her overly-electrified arms.

No one is ever going to vote Frankenhooker the best movie of all time. No one is ever going to show it in a tenth grade English class in the hopes that it will educate some kids who are too lazy to read a book. But it is the sort of movie I like: silly, over the top and full of cheap-looking explosions. So, so many cheap looking explosions.

As I've gotten older my taste has improved. I don't eat fast food very much anymore, and I have grown a tolerance for, say, hummus that was completely unthinkable in my younger years. But as much as it pains me to say it, there's probably a hard ceiling on my classiness. I know the answer to the question: "what can't I have nice things?" It's because they would clash with the other tacky shit I already own. A Far From the Madding Crowd would poster would look out of place on my wall, while a Frankenhooker poster would perfectly compliment the Samurai Cop poster I won at B-Movie Bingo a few years ago. It's like that old saying: "You can take the McDonalds out of the boy, but you can't take the Frankenhooker out of the man." (That's a saying, right?)

Far From the Madding Crowd: Winner: Draw

Frankenhooker: Winner: Me

Far From the Madding Crowd on IMDB

Frankenhooker on IMDB