Five Things to Love About “Basket Case”

There was a time when I worked at a video store. It was a weird Frankenstein’s monster of an operation. Like The Blob, it subsumed large chunks of inventory from other defunct rental outlets so as to sloppily assemble a reasonable approximation of a back catalogue. We only had three installments of the Friday the 13th series (The Final Chapter, Jason Lives, and Jason Goes to Hell as I recall) and only one Halloween, and naturally it wasn’t the first. This made things challenging for me, both as a fledgling horror fan and as an employee. (“You don’t want really to rent the uber-classic John Carpenter original, do you sir? Who needs that? Could I interest you in Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers instead? No? Why are you running away?”) But thankfully (for me) there was one particular title we did have. That one that always piqued my curiosity as a tyke but which I was never brave enough to rent: Frank Henenlotter’s 1982 micro-budget miracle Basket Case.

Ubiquitous in just about every mom-and-pop shop, Basket Case had a cover that demanded attention. Depicting a creature with hypnotic eyes peering out from the opening crack of a basket like some sort of demonic E.T., the cover looked eerie and intriguing, yet just harmless enough to entice a timid eight year old to pick the box up and turn it over, eager to see just what that thing in the basket was. But those three little images on the back of the box, especially the one depicting that guy in white carved up and drenched with blood, were frightening enough to warrant a quick placement back on the shelf and a hasty retreat to the safe sanctuary of the store’s children’s section.

But those eyes always stayed with me. I always wanted to discover just what that thing was that wreaked such carnage on that poor unfortunate gent lying on the floor in a pool of his plasma. When I took home our store’s copy of Basket Case, the first thing I noticed was that the cassette had been rented many times. It was bruised and battered and slightly disfigured – apropos for the contents recorded on the magnetic tape. I had a hard time getting the darn thing into my machine, but once I did and pressed “Play”, I was instantly transfixed. Basket Case was a film unlike any I had ever seen, and to this day remains one of my all-time favorite horror flicks. Dirty, grubby, gory yet wholly original and entertaining from the very first frame to the last, they just don’t make ‘em like Basket Case anymore, although they damn well should! Hence, five things to love about Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case.

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The Setting:

New York in the 70s and early 80s was a far different beast than the Gaulianified-theme park it has become today. Grungy, seedy and sleazy, the Big Apple then was rotten to its core. Times Square was a particular den of iniquity. Filled with all-night grindhouse and porno cinemas, sex shops and flophouses, Times Square was a place where you’d be more likely accosted by a junkie or a transsexual hustler than some freak in a moth-ridden Elmo suit looking for a hug. It was a place where you could score the accoutrements for your most illicit vices; now it’s a place where you can score a plate of Bubba Gump shrimp. The days of dirty, seedy Times Square are long gone, but along with Taxi Driver, Basket Case remains as accurate a cinematic depiction of that bygone era as you’ll ever see.

The film begins as many an 80s hair-metal video does: with a wide-eyed country bumpkin moving to the big bad city. However, this country bumpkin has an Adam’s apple. And he’s not really from the country either, just upstate. His name is Duane Bradley, and he’s played by Kevin Van Hentenryk. He may be male, but for sheer volume and size, Duane’s awe-inspiring white man’s ‘fro rivals any big-haired 80s video vixen any day of the week. His only piece of luggage is a large basket which could feasibly hold all his hair products, but instead houses Belial, Duane’s malformed, surgically-removed Siamese twin. We’ll get to Duane and Belial a little later, but for now, I want to discuss 42nd street further, which in the film is a character unto itself. Clutching the basket tightly to his chest, Duane wanders 42nd, ignoring the pimps, prostitutes and dealers who proffer their wares while inquiring just what it is that’s in the basket. The poor boy simply wants a place to crash.

Luckily, he stumbles upon the Hotel Broslin, the type of place where you can rent a room for “a couple hours, a couple years…what!” The hotel is a squalid little joint that would not pass muster on Trip Advisor. Dirty, oppressive and filled with colorful characters from the other side of the other side of the tracks, the $20-a night hotel is a unique little den of iniquity that helps lend the film its sordid charm.

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The Wonderful Residents of the Hotel Broslin:

Hotel Broslin is filled with a wide array of miscreants and ne’er do-wells who, in their own ways, are just as memorable as the film’s protagonists. To begin, there’s the brusque heavy-set, white t-shirt and suspender clad hotel manager who is about as put upon as any landlord could be. Played perfectly by Robert Vogel, who sadly left the world way-too-soon at age 39, the poor manager has to run up and down the stairs of the walk-up at the slightest hint of any provocation (and with Belial in the house, there’s a ton of provocation!) And the hotel is evidently filled with the lightest of sleepers, since all it takes is the slightest noise, and every resident is immediately out of their rooms hoping to get a glimpse of what’s causing the commotion. No wonder the manager bellows that “This isn’t a hotel, it’s a nuthouse!”

Sitting next to the manager outside the reception desk is an elderly gent who, with a single line, endeared his way into the hearts of Basket Case fans the world over. Joe Clarke plays the pilfering Brian “Mickey” O’Donovan, and when the hotel manager asks Duane if he’s all by himself, Duane falsely answers in the affirmative. The camera then focuses on O’ Donovan who forlornly and brilliantly opines “All alone in this cold, cruel world!”

Last but certainly not least, there’s the requisite hooker with a heart of gold, Casey, played by Beverley Bonner. Bonner was and still is a stage actress, singer and comedian and she’s an absolute charmer with a million dollar smile. Casey sees a down-on-his-luck kindred spirit in Duane and they go out and get right pissed, resulting in a drunken Duane actually revealing what’s in the basket. Bonner and Van Hentenryk have crackling chemistry, and their fledgling friendship gives this creature feature a nice bit of heart.

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The Mission:

Duane and Belial are two brothers with a score to settle. When Duane was younger, a trio of doctors – Dr. Kutter, Dr. Needleman, and Dr. Lifflander – surgically removed poor Belial from Duane’s side in a clandestine medical procedure conducted in the boys’ living room. They then callously left little Belial in a trash bag to die. However, Belial did not succumb and managed to escape. Now all grown up, Duane and his brother are in the big city looking to find the doctors and enact a little vengeance Sonny Chiba style. This results in some incredible gore set pieces which we’ll get to a little later.

Unfortunately for Duane, the two brothers also share a telepathic bond, so Duane feels what Belial feels. Thus, when Duane decides to leaves Belial alone in the room to tour the city with the pretty receptionist he just met, poor Belial can’t help but feel deserted. Big mistake! Belial violently trashes the hotel room in a way that would make Keith Moon proud, and Duane has to leave his paramour and go running back to soothe his livid sibling. When O’ Donovan enters Duane’s room to steal a large wad of cash which Duane naively pulled out at reception earlier, another big mistake! Belial ferociously mauls the gent to death.

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The Gore and Creature Effects:

Basket Case was made for a mere $35,000, yet its budgetary limitations enhance rather than hamper the film (although I’m sure Henenlotter would disagree as it must have been a bitch to make this thing on such a limited scale.) To begin, the decidedly grimy and murky look of the film gives it its grindhouse charm. And Belial himself is little more than a rubber puppet with glowing red eyes and razor sharp teeth. Yet, when Belial attacks, it’s very convincing and very ferocious. Attack scenes were pulled off by a “Belial” glove worn and operated by Henenlotter himself, plus extremely committed performances from actors who violently flounced and flailed while holding a lifeless piece of rubber to their face. In the few scenes where Belial is shown animate, it’s rendered in charming stop-motion.

And Basket Case is gory. The film pulls no punches with the grue and viscera, and the copious amount of free-flowing red stuff makes Belial’s attacks all the more effective. At the time of the film’s release, famed critic Rex Reed was asked for his opinion on upon exiting the cinema. He said of Basket Case “This is the sickest movie ever made!” (Obviously Mr. Reed had never seen Cannibal Holocaust.) Unbeknownst to Reed, the man asking the question was Henenlotter, and the quote was used in promotional materials for the film.

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Duane and Belial:

For all that Basket Case has in the credit column, it would have failed if not for the utterly believable relationship between Duane and his “squashed octopus” of a brother.

Kevin Van Hetenryck is wonderful as the guileless Duane. Despite the fact that he is aiding Belial in tracking down the doctors to kill, we can’t help but sympathize with him as he’s just so gosh darn likeable. Plus, it’s obvious that he loves his brother, but at the same time, is conflicted and stonewalled by Belial’s voice in his head controlling him. And the poor guy can’t catch a break. It’s bad enough that his childhood was spent with the bloodthirsty Belial literally at his side, but as an adult who desires the company of the fairer sex…well…let’s just say Belial will not stand for it and leave it at that.

And Belial (a named derived from the Old Testament and has been translated variously as “worthless” and “wicked”) is a wonder. Yes, he’s malformed and twisted and more vicious than a starved Saltwater Crocodile. Yet there’s something sympathetic about him too. I mean the little guy was rejected by his parents and thrown in a Hefty bag along with the kitchen table scraps to perish – you can’t blame him for being just a little bit peeved.

The creature design of Belial is wonderful – both hideous and also somewhat adorable. I suspect that the creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon were big fans of Basket Case, as the character Krang is a dead ringer for Belial. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but without mincing words, Krang totally rips off Belial. Krang is set to appear in the sequel to Michael Bay’s live action TMNT, and will likely be rendered as a CG monstrosity, but for my money, nothing will ever beat good old rubbery, stop-motion Belial.

What’s in the basket you ask? An incredibly entertaining film.

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Jeff is the co-host of the podcast Really Awful Movies. Click on the link to to check it out! You can also follow his web site Really Awful Movies

 

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