Looking back at 1980’s grindhouse favourite Basket case and the belated sequels.
When I first heard about Basket Case, through the pages of Fangoria, I’ll admit that I was a little cynical. The hype seemed a bit too much, and the film sounded like it could be the sort of cynical attempt to cash-in on the cult movie market that Troma would specialise in a few years later. But as I read more, I became more interested, and it quickly became clear that director Frank Henenlotter was a genuine fan of exploitation movies. Better yet, when it finally emerged on video in the UK – minus a few pivotal moments – the film was every bit as good as you might have hoped.
Very much part of the last gasp of 1970s exploitation that ran through to about 1983, Basket Case is a witty, touching and outrageously offensive horror film, with Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) and his mutant Siamese Twin brother Belial travelling to New York to take revenge on the doctors who separated them. That’s pretty much it for the plot – the pair track down the doctors and the deformed, psychotic Belial rips them apart. Meanwhile, Duane falls for doctor’s receptionist Sharon (Terri Susan Smith, sporting the most unconvincing wig in cinema history), sparking fits of jealous rage from his brother and leading to a final showdown between the pair.
Shot on 16mm, Basket Case is delightfully scuzzy. From the vintage footage of a pre-clean up 42nd Street (just look at the theatre marquees and weep for what we’ve lost) to the cheap and convincingly run down sets of Hotel Broslin (the main location for the film), this is a determinedly grubby movie. The supporting cast of eccentrics seem both authentic and oddly appealing, the special effects are charmingly crude (the film has possibly the worst stop motion sequences ever to appear in a movie) and it manages to combine scenes of spectacular bad taste with genuinely touching moments. It’s a pretty remarkable film, and oddly enough, it doesn’t seem to have aged all that much – less than the sequels, in fact (of which more in a moment). Van Hentenryck is no great actor, but is perfectly cast as the slightly naïve, slightly innocent but very dangerous Duane, and Smith makes for an appealing and funny heroine – she’s not your typical Hollywood beauty by any means (and that wig – to cover her real life shaven head – adds a sense of oddness to her character), and that makes her seem all the more real.
Henenlotter’s more recent HD transfer thankfully doesn’t clean the film up too much. It certainly looks better than any previous version, but it’s still a 4:3, grainy, cheap looking movie – and thank God for that.
The success of Basket Case – it ran for over a year playing midnight screenings in New York alone – meant that a sequel was inevitable, no matter how much Henenlotter resisted. And so Basket Case 2 appeared in 1990. Shot back-to-back with Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker, the film picks up directly from the end of the first film, but is a very different movie.
In the sequel, Duane and Belial are rescued from hospital by Granny Ruth (Annie Ross) and Susan (Heather Rattray) and taken to their home, which is a haven for freaks. These characters don’t resemble real human oddities, thanks goodness – that might have been a tasteless step too far into genuine exploitation. Instead, they are wildly bizarre monsters, very much in the prosthetic style of the time (in many ways, they are the mutants that Nightbreed should have had). While Belial soon settles into this close-knit community – even finding a girlfriend who looks just like him – Duane feels out of place, and tries to convince Susan to leave with him. But when a pushy tabloid reporter (Kathryn Meisle) tracks them down, the brothers have to bond together with the rest of the freaks to save their community.
Basket Case 2 is a lot slicker than the first film – it looks very much like most of the horror films of the time, right down to the colour palate – and a lot less sleazy. Belial has been rejigged slightly, the gore quota is reduced considerably and the comedy increased. But the mix of humour, horror and pathos remains, and the film is still very entertaining, even if the monster prosthetics look rather old fashioned – it’s this, more than anything else, that dates the film. There are still extraordinary moments of audacious tastelessness, most notably Belial and Eve getting it on, and as a stand-alone film, it’s pretty good. It just suffers, inevitably, from comparison to the grimy original.
Basket Case 3, made in 1992, is a direct sequel to Pt. 2, and with this film, the connection to the original is all but severed. In fact, you could argue that this is hardly a horror film at all, more an absurdist fantasy comedy. In this film, Eve is about to give birth to Belial’s babies, and so the household travel to the Deep South to meet up with Uncle Hal (Dan Biggers), the one man capable of delivering them. But Duane, recovering from a breakdown at the end of Pt 2, runs away and is arrested by the local police, who then go to Hal’s house, see the freaks and kill Eve, taking the baby Belials into custody. The estranged brothers finally have to join forces to save them.
Henenlotter is on record as being unhappy with this film, and it’s easy to see why. The effects are poor and there is no real horror in the story. Its all very slapstick and oddly uninvolving (moments like the death of Eve, that you imagine would’ve had an emotional punch in either of the previous films, fail to have any impact here). That’s not to say it isn’t fun in a throwaway sense – I can imagine this is very enjoyable with a few friends and a few drinks. But it’s definitely the lesser of the series, and it’s easy to see why Henenlotter walked away from filmmaking for sixteen years after this.