Have you ever noticed how often brand new horror directors with minuscule budgets, an original idea, a dark sense of humor and pure, unadulterated movie-making passion walk away with instant classics? George Romero did it with Night of the Living Dead (1968), Tobe Hooper did it with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Sam Raimi did it with The Evil Dead (1981) and Frank Henenlotter did it with Basket Case (1982).
There has never been another movie like Basket Case. Sure, there have been films about twins – even Siamese twins – but there has never been another one about the mutated, malformed twin of a normal man who seeks revenge from the doctors who surgically separated him from his brother. That, my friends, is unique to Basket Case. Although this was Henenlotter’s first feature film and one he made for a mere $35K, this flick is now a cult classic that became a popular showing on the midnight movie circuit after its release on April 2, 1982. Sure, Basket Case is dark, dirty and grainy. Yeah, the audio has much to be desired and the acting is laughably awkward. Even the special effects look like they were created by an ambitious 5th grader with stop motion camera. So how did Basket Case pass the test and make it from obscure B-movie to cult classic?
First of all, the over the top campiness of the film itself sets it apart from so many others. Like Hershell Gordon Lewis before him, Henenlotter took the bare bones of an obscure yet darkly hilarious situation, a scant budget and a couple of talented special effects makeup artists – Friday the 13th Part II’s (1981) John Caglione, Jr. and X-Files Emmy award winner Kevin Haney – to create a movie that has to be seen to be believed. The obviously rubber mutant Belial with his globular, legless body and glowing red eyes launches himself from the floor and onto the craniums of his victims like a fleshy facehugger and uses his sharp, thick fingernails to rake them to death in grunting, blood spattered glory. I have no idea how many different versions there were of the creature, but it seemed like they had a Belial expression puppet for every emotion – excited, pissed off, murderous – plus his creeping, wandering, clawed hand. The best parts of the movie are when Belial needs to get around outside of his basket. This was 1982, before CGI, and no one could afford robotics, so Henenlotter used the next best option – stop motion. When he gets pissed, Belial makes his way around the room by jerking and sliding along the floor like one of Tim Burton’s worst anxiety dreams, throwing televisions and slamming beds with insane abandon. This movie is not called Basket Case just because one of the characters hangs out in a basket.
The acting is at the same time monotone and scene chewy, but the characters are all memorable. Duane (Kevin VanHentenryck), Belial’s normal brother, is a naïve, inexperienced, skinny kid who carries his twin in a locked wicker basket and flashes his money wad in front of his seedy New York hotel neighbors without a second thought. You can tell how excited Duane’s New York girlfriend, Sharon (Terri Susan Smith), is by how wide her blue-shadowed eyes are in each scene. Robert Vogel’s hotel manager spends the majority of the movie bitching about tenants and tromping up and downstairs to check on said tenants. Smiley face loving hooker with a heart of gold, Casey (Beverly Bonner), is the sweetest of the bunch and the only one who truly seems to care about Duane… at least until Belial molests her in her own bed as she sleeps.
Lastly, there’s Frank Henenlotter himself. The man clearly loved this project. His passion for exploitation and grindhouse cinema knows no bounds. Not only did he literally walk New York’s gritty 42nd Street while he wrote the script, absorbing the Big Apple nightlife and all that it entailed, but he also stepped in front of the camera, playing the hand of the disfigured Belial in the scenes where the monster needed to change the TV channel or stroke a random breast. Although Henenlotter was not allowed a say in any of the original post-production and had to watch helplessly as his film was stretched out of its original 16mm to 35mm print, resulting in a grainy, washed out, cropped movie, he made sure to fix the ratio – among other things – when he helped with the Blu-Ray release through both Image Entertainment and Something Weird Video in 2011. Of course, he also made two sequels – Basket Case 2 (1990) and Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1991) – that followed the original in its campy goodness, ending with Belial actually becoming a father.
Basket Case may not have caught the eyes of the Academy, but since its release in 1982, it has inspired more than one creative mind in its giggle-inducing ridiculousness, from the Robert Hitzlick’s aptly titled Sleepaway Camp (1983) to Adam Green’s schlock-fest Hatchet (2006). After viewing the movie again, I can see why. This film is B-movie magic. It captures the dirty, grungy, underbelly feel of a side of Manhattan not many of us care to see and brings us there whether we want to go or not. There’s also the originality of it all. Henenlotter took a slice of every one of his beloved subgenres and built a bloody, rubbery yet tasty horror sandwich that gave watchers a monster they would not only fear but feel sympathy for by the end of the movie. A squalid, inhuman setting for a squalid, inhuman creature that only wants to be accepted and loved – like someone cut the Elephant Man into quarters, melted him down, poured wax over him and then locked his cranky ass in a wicker basket. Yeah, I’d be a little peeved, too.