Basket Case (1982)


Basket Case is one of those movies that transcended everything the director wanted it to be.  We have it in the form that it is due being preserved by the Museum of Modern Art, although it is one of the grungiest horror films one will see.  Writer and director Frank Henenlotter really never thought anyone would see it, and never intended it to find a wide audience, as he was still learning his craft at the time and largely made it as an exploitation gore film along the lines of something Herschell Gordon Lewis would have done. 

Despite this, Basket Case ended up up with two sequels and, when people finally did get to see it thanks to the video rental boom of the 1980s, a huge cult following.  It was made for grindhouse and drive-in theaters, but it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival of all places, where Rex Reed famously said the movie was sick - a tagline Henenlotter was happy to hang on it.  

Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryk) checks into a grungy hotel off of 42nd Street in New York with a wicker basket and a role of cash.  Everyone is curious about what is in the basket, particularly when strange things start happening in Duane's room.  The occupant is his twin brother Belial, who is deformed and was once attached to Duane.  Since the separation was not voluntary the two have been on a quest to find the doctors who performed it and take revenge. 

This hits a snag when Duane falls for Sharon (Terri Susan Smith), the receptionist of one of the doctors.  Since the two share a psychic bond Belial is aware of Duane's feelings for Sharon and soon becomes jealous of the fact that he can't live free of his deformity.  Soon the two brothers, once united in purpose, come to violently resent each other. 

Initially the distributor of the movie cut out all the gore and tried to market Basket Case as a straight comedy.  That failed miserably and, when drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs was asked to promote the film in Texas, he demanded that the cut scenes be restored before he would do so.  Surprisingly, the distributer acquiesced, and though there are comedy elements in the movie (intentional ones - not just the ones that arise from the dialogue and acting) it is in fact a rather intense horror film with disturbing sexual undertones.  

The plot is weird enough, and Henenlotter has enough skill as a director to pull it off, that the fact everyone from the lead on down didn't do much outside of future Henenlotter films is not a surprise.  In fact, the only one to really continue in any fashion is Beverly Bonner, who plays a hooker named Casey who comforts Duane when taking care of Belial becomes too much.  She is one of the better performers here, along with Robert Vogel as the hotel manager, who has an easy job of looking constantly confused and out of sorts by what is going on around him.

Basket Case was made for just around $35,000 dollars, but the gore scenes work, as does the Belial puppet and stop-motion scenes showing the creature on its own.  The stop-motion, in fact, is quite surprising, given the way the rest of the movie is made, and it wouldn't be the last time Henenlotter would use it for creatures in his films.  Also, unlike a lot of the exploitation films Henenlotter was influenced by, this remains focused on the plot and delivers what it promises to the best of its ability.  It is not a surprise that, given a chance to find its audience, it has gathered the following it has.

That doesn't mean it'll be an easy sell for everyone.  Again, the acting in a lot of cases needs to be given a pass, and when the film decides it's going to go places that are uncomfortable it doesn't flinch from doing so.  Despite its comedy elements it gets brutal and, in modern eyes, possibly even quite misogynistic at times.  I have always liked the film and have grown to appreciate it more on every viewing, but even its creator would question it being a work of art.  However, it is a unique piece of cinema, and manages to work despite itself.

Basket Case (1982)
Time: 91 minutes
Starring: Kevin Van Hentenryck, Terri Susan Smith, Beverly Bonner, Mike Vogel
Director: Frank Henenlotter



 

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