DIRECTOR Frank Henenlotter WRITER Frank Henenlotter; Robert Martin STARS Kevin Van Hentenryck; Annie Ross BLU-RAY 14 March
Not only is Basket Case one of the finest examples of zero-budget exploitation filmmaking to come out of the boom horror period of the early 80s, it could almost be viewed as a document of a long-lost New York. Shot on the streets (and often illegally) around Times Square, Soho and the Lower East Side, this is a city still wallowing in hookers, disco, cheap hotels, drugs and movie theatres. Before videotape, director Frank Henenlotter’s love of exploitation came from the movie marathons he experienced in the legendary grindhouses that ran the length of 42nd Street, and his debut movie fits perfectly into the genre. Basket Case is dirty, gory and pretty damn brilliant. And on cheap 16mm, you can almost smell the sleaze.
During several scenes the question is asked of Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck), “What’s in the basket?” Soon it’s revealed to be his brother, Belial, hideously mutated and deformed. The brothers were born as Siamese twins, but Belial was cut away from the torso of Duane and left to die. Bonding, and now adults, they have arrived in New York with the intention of tracking down the surgeon who separated them and extracting revenge. And not only do the brothers have a weird form of mental connection, but Belial is psychotic, killing everyone who happens to take an interest in his odd accommodation.
Shot for an alleged $35,000 (although even that estimate seems overblown), the film immediately found a life in midnight showings, its mix of black humour and bizarre splatter a winning combination for audiences raised on the cinema of John Waters and George Kuchar. But the real success of Basket Case came with the home video boom — what young horror fiend could really resist the temptation of a poster that showed the evil eyes of Belial peering from the basket with a tagline screaming ‘The tenant in room 7 is very small, very twisted, and very mad!’ — and it became a must-see movie alongside the likes of The Evil Dead. An infamous scene near the climax, where Belial rapes Duane’s new girlfriend (achieved through a clever combination of stop-motion and puppetry), was originally cut from the British release, but the movie has now been restored to its former glory. Really, it’s difficult to find anything truly offensive in Basket Case; it’s exactly the kind of trash Henenlotter set out to make, and earns its place as one of the greatest of all cult movies.
Although never a prolific filmmaker — Henenlotter is as much interested in the preservation and restoration of obscure cinema as he is the creation of it — six years later came Brain Damage, again shot for next to nothing, but achieving some deserved financial returns, and its success allowed Frank to return to the world of the twisted brothers, this time with studio funding. Basket Case 2 and 3 were shot back-to-back and while still riotously entertaining, these sequels are nowhere near as interesting, perhaps because with larger budgets and a more professional approach, they seem more like normal movies than his grainy, guerrilla debut. Following on immediately from the original, Duane and Belial are rescued from hospital by their long-lost Aunt Ruth (the great Annie Ross) and are taken to a community of other deformed individuals. But before they can settle to a quiet life, and before Belial can find true love following one of the oddest sex scenes you’ll ever witness, a snooping reporter starts to take an interest in the commune, and the deaths start again. By the time of Part 3 Henenlotter has really switched to full-on comedy; Duane is having a breakdown, Aunt Ruth leads the freaks in a musical number, and Belial’s lover is now pregnant with his child, with the subsequent birth finally tipping Duane into madness.
This new Blu-ray release isn’t going to win over new converts, but that’s not what Second Sight are going for. The company should be congratulated for continuing to restore old classics and stuffing their discs with extras for committed fans, and like a lot of their recent releases that’s exactly the case here. The discs for Parts 2 and 3 are bare-boned — although for the first time both are in the correct aspect ratio, with clean, high-definition prints — but the original film has a wealth of supplemental material, including a brand-new making-of documentary with interviews from all major cast and crew, a great audio commentary, outtakes, trailers, radio spots and more. And while a 16mm shot-for-peanuts film is never going to look glossy, the HD ensures this is the best version you’ll have ever seen. So what’s in the basket? A sleazy slice of wonderful exploitation, and an essential release.