“Basket Case” (1982)

basket-case-dvd-scan

Directed By
Frank Henenlotter

Version Reviewed
20th Anniversary Special Edition Something Weird Video DVD ©2001, Region: 1, Format: NTSC

Total Runtime
~1 hour, 30 minutes, 58 seconds

Synopsis
It’s late one night when a Dr. Lifflander is startled by strange noises outside his home. He locks the front door, shuts his windows and dials the police. Mid-phone call the phone line is cut. So too is the power.

“Oh God, no! No!” he cries as the room goes black. With a crazed look and full flaring of his nostrils, he grabs a revolver and blindly fires all six rounds at the darkness. For a brief moment, silence. Did he get, uh, whatever it was? Hardly! A monstrous hand reaches up from the shadows, ripping his face to shreds. The last thing we see are spurts of thick, painty blood shooting onto a file folder.

Another Rorschach test. Credit: Something Weird Video DVD

Another Rorschach test.
Credit: Something Weird Video DVD

A young man with a large, lidded basket in hand makes a bee line down 42nd Street past a row of Kung Fu grindhouses and XXX book stores selling “rubber goods”. A drug dealer walks up beside him and starts pitching everything you could imagine. “I got joints and bags, nickel and dime bags, gold Colombian smoke.” the salesbro begins. “I got acid, blotters, rainbows, window panes, speed, downs… Valium, mescaline, THC. I’ve got some good cocaine, Quaaludes, beauties, Methergine, chiba, Panama red, angel dust. Check it out, man. Tranquilizers, amphetamines, lithium, Thorazine, Thai sticks, methadone, nugget, rock red, junk, morphine. What do you want, some girls?”

No response.

The drug dealer gets fed up and exits stage right. I love this part because it really paints a picture of how sleazy the film is. Hilariously, the young man with the basket never even breaks stride or acknowledges the persistent pill pusher. He’s walking with a purpose.

He stops at the first hotel that he comes to, a seedy hole in the wall called the Hotel Broslin, which is, to no one’s surprise, inhabited by an equally seedy cast of misfit characters. The man with the basket pulls a fat wad of fifties from his back pocket (according to Mr. Henenlotter, the film’s entire budget) to rent a room, raising the eyebrows of an older man who later exclaims to the manager in a lilting Irish brogue, “Did you see that? He’s loooaded!”

Up in Room 7, the man says “We’re here.” to whatever he’s got in his basket. He steps out, returns with a bagful of burgers, and feeds them affectionately to his cooped-up companion as cartoon munching sounds can be heard. After that, he thumbs through the same blood-stained file folder from earlier. If it wasn’t already obvious, it’s now crystal clear the young man and his basket bud are the ones who killed Dr. Lifflander. But Lifflander isn’t the only doctor on their hit list. They’ve still got a score to settle with a Dr. Kutter and a Dr. Needleman.

Why? I’ll tell you.

[continued below]

Thoughts (Possible Spoilers)
Our main man with the basket, Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck), was born with a monstrous, malformed twin named Belial conjoined to his side. Duane was in all other respects a normal, healthy boy. His parasitic sibling, however, was little more than a gross face with arms. Their mother died giving birth to them. Their father blamed Belial for this, and later paid the above-mentioned doctors to separate the sons out of spite, hoping Belial would die in the process and Duane would be able to phase in with the normies and live out a traditional, boring life.

This is the same look I use when I'm feigning amazement at something my wife says. Credit: Something Weird Video DVD

This is the same look I use when I’m feigning amazement at something my wife says.
Credit: Something Weird Video DVD

The catch is… Belial survived. The brothers (who, by the way, share a telepathic bond) took swift revenge on their disdainful dad, bided their time for about eight years while they lived with their aunt, then finally set out for the Big Apple to bump off the physicians who tore them apart.

A conflict arises when Duane falls for big-breasted, wig-wearing receptionist Sharon (Terri Susan Smith). Belial grows increasingly jealous of his brother’s new love interest and cockblocks him at every pass. Their feelings of resentment toward one another crescendo in a burst of sibling rivalry that will make your own family seem like the Brady Bunch by comparison.

_________________________

It struck me the other day that I’ve mentioned this movie a shit ton, but never actually written about it in depth. Basket Case is a movie that’s near and dear to my heart for at least a few reasons. Besides the obvious — being endlessly entertaining — it’s also the first movie I ordered out of a catalogue. Going solely off of the blurb and the limitless potential of the title, I sent away for a copy of the Something Weird Video DVD from a place called Cinema Wasteland (after having ordered their catalogue from the back of Fangoria magazine). On top of that, Basket Case was one of the first horror films of its kind I exposed myself to. Up until that point, I was only really familiar with mainstream horror (most franchises, “classics” like Poltergeist and The Exorcist, Stephen King movies, etc.) and whatever else there was at my local video store. I’d never actually explored the world of low-budget schlock before. Basket Case had a very profound effect on me as a horror fan and turned me on to the weirder, more obscure stuff.

How’d such an influential film come to be? you may ask.

“The inspiration came from the title and nothing more than that.” director Henenlotter told The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope in 2009. “…I was thinking of Psycho-sounding titles. When I came up with Basket Case, I just laughed and said, ‘Okay, we have a monster that lives in a basket.’ I had all these wonderful visuals… Then, I was in Times Square, at what used to be the great Nathan’s hot dog stand… and all of a sudden it hit me that they were brothers and I started writing the dialogue right there…”[1]

I remember reading a different interview where he said he scribbled that dialogue on the hot dog stand’s napkins.

Photography took place sporadically over the course of a year on a shoestring budget of $35,000. In his own words, director Henenlotter (who’d dabbled in filmmaking prior to this as a hobby) was emboldened to make a legit feature-length film because he didn’t think people would see it. His first idea was a mad scientist movie called Ooze. Drag queen Divine (the one who sucks dick and eats dog poo in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos) was attached, but funding never came through and the project failed to materialize. Henenlotter’s second idea was this. Again, he was going into production thinking no one would see the end product. He was later “horrified” when his brainchild opened at midnight in 1981 and played for the next two years.

You thought you were fapping in private? Think again. Credit: Something Weird Video DVD

You thought you were fapping in private? Think again.
Credit: Something Weird Video DVD

Terri Susan Smith (now a traveling tour guide named Ahu Smith) described the film at the time in a radio interview (which is coolly available as an extra on the DVD) as “gore with charm” and “the most charming horrible movie you’ll ever see.” And I think that sums it up well.

It’s definitely “horrible” in the sense that its disfigured sideshow freak monster, multiple messed-up mutilations, male and female nudity, New York City locations, and grainy 16mm film aesthetic give the proceedings a greasy, sleazy vibe. On the other side of the coin, the enthusiasm that pours from its colorful non-actors and amateurs, and its humorous, fun-loving approach are endearing. Basket Case manages to be both distasteful and heartwarming at once.

The movie is jam-packed with unforgettable moments. One of my favorites is Dr. Kutter’s demise. The woman has five bloody scalpels sticking out of her face, yet she still has the presence of mind to make all these clenchy, dramatic hand movements. I’m also fond of Belial’s poorly executed stop-motion temper tantrum. Then, of course, there’s Duane’s penis — it jumbles around in a sexy dream sequence that sees him run buck-ass-naked through a deserted neighborhood. If that’s not awkward enough, Belial mounts his brother’s sleeping girlfriend and rapes her til her no-nos bleed and she dies.

What I’m trying to say is, there isn’t a single scene that’s not off-the-wall goofy, gruesome, or grimey in one way or another, and that’s why Basket Case remains one of my all time favorite movies and trustiest standbys. I revisit it often.

It’s a movie that’s grown on me over the years like a monstrous malformed twin of my own. At first glance back in 2008ish, the whole thing was rough. Really rough. But each time I watched it, my love for it deepened — the acting improved, the sets and effects seemed a little less chintzy, and more and more of its twisted-mad genius bubbled up to the surface. I began to notice new things and appreciate all of its shortcomings.

Like this new wave guy on the left, for example. I can't unsee him now. Straight baller status. Credit: Something Weird Video DVD

Like this new wave guy on the left, for example. I can’t unsee him now. Straight baller status.
Credit: Something Weird Video DVD

I think one of the reasons this movie works well and stands out to me is because it’s not structured like a dime-a-dozen slasher. Its killers are also its heroes, which makes for an interesting dynamic. It’s easy enough to boo bloodthirsty Belial, but Duane’s so naive and soft-spoken it’s hard not to feel for him.

Another reason this movie works well is because you can tell it was filmed from the heart. It’s a crude, crude tribute to the crude exploitation films Henenlotter grew up on, as well as the city he lived in and still lives in now. There are shots of the Twin Towers, the Statue of Liberty, and of course, 42nd Street. I’ve never been to New York, but this flick makes me wish I could hop in a time machine and go back to the dirty NYC of the past, if only for an afternoon.

Scratch that, I can’t stand big cities. Downtown Chicago is an hour and a half from my place, and it reeks so strongly of hipster pretentiousness, hobo piss and despair I can barely stomach driving through on my way to far nicer places.

basket-case-bluray-scan

As much as I love this movie, I think I prefer the first sequel. Basket Case 2 is on a tier all its own. Part 3 is a bit of a step down when it comes to originality, but fun nonetheless in the same way Child’s Play 3 is. I would definitely recommend the entire trilogy. The blu-ray steelbook set (pictured left) is still affordably priced at, like, $45 and worth every penny.

Extra features for the Something Weird Video DVD include two trailers, a TV spot, radio spots, the above-mentioned radio interview with Terri Susan Smith, audio commentary with Frank Henenlotter, producer Edgar Ievins, and actress Beverly Bonner, excerpts from what looks like a public access TV show starring Beverly Bonner, various outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage (including a boob not seen in the movie!), a gallery of production stills and promotional artwork, a video tour called In Search of the Hotel Broslin (15:29), co-hosted by Henenlotter and rapper friend R.A. the Rugged Man (co-writer/producer of Bad Biology), and to top it all off, a cool animated menu. In my opinion, this disc is a must-have for any half-serious cult movie collector. It’s one of the best, most comprehensive, well-packaged releases I’ve come across. A lot of care obviously went into it. Many thanks to all those responsible.

You can't spell Hotel Broslin without Hot Bros. I'm sure there's a joke there. Credit: Something Weird Video DVD

You can’t spell Hotel Broslin without Hot Bros. I’m sure there’s a joke there.
Credit: Something Weird Video DVD

One last bit of trivia: the fictional Hotel Broslin was cleverly cobbled together from several different locations. The check-in desk, for example, was a freight elevator the crew jammed open. The stairwell was part of a separate building, the rooms and hallways were built for cheap in a loft, and the neon sign (pictured above) was hung from a fire escape outside Kevin VanHentenryck’s studio apartment. I, like many people, assumed the cast and crew had set up shop in a real hotel when I first watched this years ago.

Body Count
5.

Bod Count
2.

NAME

M/F

PENIS

BOOBS

Duane

M

Sharon

F

Overall Enjoyability
5 new wave guys out of 5.

I Got My Copy From
Cinema Wasteland.

Recommendations
Brain Damage (1988)
Slime City (1988)

these sideshow freak/carnival horrors:

Freaks (1932)
Carnival of Souls (1962)
The Incredibly Strange Creatures… (1964)
She Freak (1967)
Vampire Circus (1972)
The Funhouse (1981)
The Ventriloquist’s Dummy (Tales From the Crypt episode, 1990)
Howling VI: The Freaks (1991)
Humbug (The X-Files episode, 1995)
Hideous! (1997)
Sideshow (2000)
Crustacean (2009)

References
1. Freese, Rob. “That’s Franksploitation! Frank Henenlotter From Basket Case to Bad Biology!” The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope. Fall 2009: Page 34. Print.