Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Basket Case

(1982) Written and directed by Frank Henenlotter; Starring: Kevin Van Hentenryck, Terri Susan Smith, Beverly Bonner, Robert Vogel, Diana Browne and Lloyd Pace; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“Duane Bradley is such a charming character with a really nasty, sadistic streak in him. And I really like how Kevin’s (Van Hentenryck) wide-eyed innocence gets nasty in this.” – Frank Henenlotter (from 2001 DVD commentary)

“…And you know what else? He talks to me, up here. Without words. I just hear him whispering to my brain. Sometimes he talks for hours and won’t shut up. I used to be able to talk to him like that, but that’s when we were still connected…” – Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck)

We’ve all probably met or know about family members that are a little too close for comfort. If not for one, the other might have a fighting chance to lead a happy, well-adjusted life (In theory, of course. If you know someone who’s happy and well-adjusted, please alert me.). Writer/director Frank Henenlotter, one of the true independents, presents for our enjoyment, a twisted tale of co-dependency and revenge, which takes the term “brother’s keeper” quite literally. Shot in 16 mm on a $33,000 budget (according to producer Edgar Ievins), Henenlotter filmed Basket Case* in New York City without permits, off and on over the course of a year. Because of the production’s miniscule budget, he wore numerous hats, pitching in for gore effects, stop-motion animation, and cinematography.

* Fun Fact: upon the film’s initial theatrical release, distributor Analysis Films removed the sequences containing blood and gore, marketing the film as a comedy. In his DVD commentary, Henenlotter credited former New York Times columnist Joe Bob Briggs with championing the release of Basket Case in its original, unadulterated form.

Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck), has just arrived in the big city, and carries around a large wicker basket, prompting the inevitable question “What’s in the basket?” The few individuals who find out wish they hadn’t. Duane seems harmless enough after he checks into a seedy hotel,* but he harbors a sinister purpose – to exact bloody revenge against Drs. Needleman, Kutter and Lifflander (Lloyd Pace, Diana Browne and Bill Freeman), the physicians that conspired with his father to separate him from his deformed conjoined twin, Belial. In a gory flashback sequence, we have a front row seat to the covert surgical procedure. Duane recuperates in bed, while his brother is unceremoniously discarded in the trash. Duane and Belial share a psychic bond (with the exceptions of grunts and the occasional shriek, Belial is essentially mute), with each experiencing the other’s feelings.

* Fun Fact: Contrary to popular reports, there was no Hotel Broslin (the myth is perpetuated, thanks to the end credits, thanking the staff and tenants of the Hotel Broslin). The “hotel’s” exterior was actually the lead actor’s apartment building, with a prop neon sign added.

Kevin Van Hentenryck is perfectly cast as Duane, quiet, gawky and socially awkward. Duane does terrible things, but we’re with him anyway. When he falls for Dr. Needleman’s receptionist Sharon (Terry Susan Smith*), we want him to escape the crushing shadow of his brother, get the girl, and lead a normal life. We know this isn’t in the cards for Duane, but we’re secretly rooting for him.

* Fun fact: Smith sports an unconvincing wig in the film, because she had her head shaved for a punk band.

The practical effects are quaint by today’s standards, but they do the job, adding to the film’s considerable charm. Due to the limited range of movement for the Belial puppet, some of his actions were rendered in crude stop motion.* Considering the level of his deformity he really gets around, leaping on the faces of people foolish enough to take a peek inside the basket. Arguably, Belial gets around a little too well, but it’s one of those things you don’t pause to think about too much.

* Let’s face it, folks, Henenlotter is no Harryhausen, but in his words, he “had the patience level of a gnat.”

Basket Case works well at face value, as a story about a “malignant Jack-in-the-box” (in Henenlotter’s words), or as a metaphor for sibling enmeshment, taken to an extreme.  Belial doesn’t want to share his brother with anyone else, and becomes a rage-filled id monster. Of course, being regarded as a monster is strictly in the eye of the beholder. He never had the opportunity for any semblance of normalcy when he was viewed as something less than human from birth (the only ones that treat him with any compassion are his brother and aunt). It’s not nature that made him a monster, but the experiences that shaped his behavior. For Belial, becoming a monster was merely a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Henenlotter did so much with so little, introducing the world to everyone’s favorite homicidal parasitic twin. Sure, Basket Case is rough around the edges, but the flaws only make it more endearing. Filled with humor and little quirky touches (Beverly Bonner shines as Duane’s concerned neighbor), it’s an example of low budget horror done right. In Henenlotter’s words, “It holds up because it’s a real piece of perverted nonsense.” Basket Case gained its small but dedicated fan base, thanks to a simple but unique premise, told with minimal restraint. It’s got it all: a warped story, idiosyncratic characters, greed, lust, sex, blood and gore. What more could you want?


  1. It is something, that's for sure. My brother and I watched this when we were way too young and it left a mark. We understood that it was low-budget effects and such, but it was still so... unsettling. I haven't gone back to this in decades. Not sure I want to ruin the gritty, ugly image my brain has built around it all.

    1. It sounds like you watched it at just the perfect age (I had a similar experience with Alien). The effects are rough around the edges, but they match the film.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. my favorite scene.. lol http://friendlyghost.typepad.com/photos/mindless_art/mindlessart1.html

    1. Nice! That's a terrific scene. I almost included the screen shot w/Dr. Kutter and the scalpels, but there were too many good screen shots to choose from. ;)