The man who would go on to direct such outrageous sleazy-but-smart films as “Basket Case,” “Brain Damage” and “Frankenhooker” began life as a good Catholic boy in Long Island – which, Frank Henenlotter says, explains a lot.
“Back in the ’60s, there was this thing called the Legion of Decency,” Henenlotter recalls, “and every year you had to take a pledge in church that you would never see a film that the legion condemned, under the pain of mortal sin. I couldn’t wait to see a condemned film. It was all I thought about.”
The chance came via the deceptively named Fine Arts Theater, where the woman manning the box office was “so damn blind she had no idea who you were, what age you were and you could walk right in without showing any kind of proof.” Henenlotter’s first nudie-film double feature was “Prowl Girls” and “House of Cats,” neither of which is known to survive, and he was hooked. “I’ve always been attracted to all things exploitation and transgressive and underground,” he says.
Henenlotter revisits that world in his new documentary, “That’s Sexploitation!”, which recounts the raucous history of adult film in the decades prior to the emergence of hardcore porn. Produced in conjunction with Something Weird Video, which has been releasing such obscure oddities since 1990, the film features hundreds of clips of bizarre silent shorts, sex hygiene films, nudie-cuties and nudist camp movies, burlesque and stag reels, and countless others.
“They’re not something that most of the world are readily aware of,” Henenlotter says. “They were always films that played in a cinematic ghetto. They were once offensive and now they’re just plain silly, and I think each day that goes by takes the edge off them. They’re just so damn funny and crazy.”
The film’s narrator and guide is the late David F. Friedman, a “human encyclopedia” of the genre who was responsible for some of its most notable entries as producer of titles from “Goldilocks and the Three Bares” to “Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS,” to the films of the Godfather of Gore, Herschell Gordon Lewis. But the true star is the endless parade of truly strange film clips compiled by Henenlotter.
“A lot of my criteria was simply, ‘How funny is this clip?’” he explains. “I’m just so attracted to really ludicrous sexual images. Even if they don’t make you laugh out loud, you sit there shaking your head, saying, ‘Did you see that? Why was a semi-naked girl wearing a scuba mask and flippers indoors? Why is that buxom topless woman chasing a stork?’ There are a lot of those strange moments in the film.”
Sept. 13, 7:30 p.m.
531 N. 12th St.