Monday , July 22 2024
Frank Henenlotter's low-rent classic, Basket Case

“What’s in the basket? Easter eggs?”

Let others sit through Mel Gibson’s flagellation film for an inspirational experience. Easter Sunday morning I turned to my DVD player for a different kinda viewing treat: Frank Henenlotter’s low-rent classic Basket Case.
I have a major soft spot for this film. It’s the first horror flick I bought on videotape back when I was doing (gulp!) betamax. Originally released in 1982, the film had garnered a cult rep on the midnight movie circuit, which only grew when then-video giant Media Home Entertainment debuted the tape at budget price. I purchased the tape cheap and played it to stretched-out death. This was the first time, though, I’d watched Something Weird’s 20th Anniversary DVD Edition.
The low-budget flick tells the story of two sibs: Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) and his hideously misshapen Biblically-named brother Belial (“He looks like a squashed octopus,” Duane tells a sympathetic hooker). The two were born conjoined, but are separated in childhood via an ultra-splattery operation. The doctors treat Belial as a malignant growth, not as a living entity, so he’s casually discarded: a big mistake since the creature survives the procedure and enlists Duane to enact revenge against their father and trio of quacks responsible for their painful separation.

When we meet the duo, Duane is walking along Times Square, carrying Belial in a padlocked wicker basket, being followed by a drug dealer attempting to interest the young man in his wares. (Among other things, the flick serves as a visual document of the pre-cleaned Times Square.) He rents a room in a skuzzy hotel called the Brosnin and immediately draws the interest of the low-lifes hanging around the check-in desk. Everyone Duane comes into contact with asks him, “What’s in the basket?” but we don’t really get to see for ourselves until halfway into the film.
The creature, a lumpen head with arms and claws that it uses to propel itself across the floor, is a wonderfully cheesy creation that reminds me of something Frank Zappa collaborator Cal Schenkel might’ve created for Uncle Meat. Sometimes it’s a puppet; other times it’s a big rubbery figure that victims clasp to their bodies as they pretend to try and push it away – and in two memorably incompatible sequences, it’s rendered in jerky stop motion. There’s no way you can take Belial seriously, which is probably for the best since his actions grow more unspeakable as the movie unreels.
Duane and Belial communicate telepathically – which means we get a lot of scenes in the movie’s first half of Duane arguing with to the silent basket. (Only sounds to emerge from the heavily fanged Belial are slavering growls.) The duo has arrived from upstate New York to the big city because that’s where two of the doctors in question have their dubious practices. While checking out the first victim-to-be, a greasy low-rent sawbones named Needleman, Duane meets and falls for the office’s goofy, big-eyed receptionist Sharon (Terri Susan Smith). Though he’s still committed to carrying out gory vengeance, Duane also attempts to sneak in some wooing time with Sharon – but it’s hard to be sneaky when your brother is telepathically conjoined to ya. The boy/girl relationship inevitably ends badly – no, make that, horribly.
Basket Case was shot on the cheap and looks it – which is somehow appropriate for a movie largely populated by urban derelicts, flakes and marginal medicos. Writer/director Henenlotter dedicates the picture to Herschell Gordon Lewis and displays his obeisance to the Godfather of Gorefilms through a series of hyperbolically bloody scenes – some of which are plainly improbable but provide great stills for the horror mag crowd. In one killing, for instance, a victim’s face gets shoved into a drawer full of scalpels lying flat on their side – when she re-emerges to face the camera, a whole bunch of the instruments are sticking out of her face. (You wanna guess whether that image shows up on the back of the DVD case?) In another sequence, you can see a murdered victim still breathing, though it’s possible I didn’t notice that detail back when I was watching on betamax.
Despite its sleaziness and grue, there’s a strange sense of innocence to this picture. Some of this can be attributed to Henenlotter’s enthusiasm for his material. From the opening shots, you can see the neophyte moviemaker digging the fact that he’s making his first feature film, and it shows in the John Waters-ian details he includes: the fat identical twin nurses in the office of the scalpeled Dr. Kutter, for instance; or the profusion of smiley faces in the Brosnin apartment of friendly hooker Casey (Beverly Bonner), who receives a late-nite visit from an interested Belial; or the tourist’s eye view of NYC that Sharon offers Duane (“We’ll even buy you 3-D postcards and an ‘I Love New York’ tee-shirt,” she says.)

Henenlotter works overtime at proffering in-yer-face movie moments – and I’m sure that most first-time viewers would agree that he succeeds in his goal – but unlike the “serious” exploitation of so-called “inspirational” films, Basket Case makes no claim of even the slightest veneer of respectability. It’s about a world where people can get bloodily rend into pieces by a creature that by all rights shouldn’t even be able to make it across the room, let alone leap on their shoulders and start clawing at their face – and where brotherly love is repped by an over-the-top killing spree. A movie world, in other words: one that’s arguably more honest in its artifice than the pretend Jerusalem of the year’s Big Easter Hit. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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