It’s funny how often a would-be director armed only with a deep and abiding love of low-budget pictures, a twisted sense of humor and a morbid imagination can, with no budget, almost no crew, a handful of non-professional actors and no great expectations, go on to create a dark, grainy, sick little horror comedy that almost immediately becomes legendary. It’s also funny how someone clearly inspired by everything from Hitchcock, to Italian splatter films, to Shakespeare, can combine all those elements into something completely new and something that would, in its own right, go on to be so hugely influential in the years to come, like Basket Case.
The late ‘70s and early ‘80s were a transitional period for American horror films. Instead of merely copying whatever the last big hit may have been, a number of young maverick directors were taking advantage of a certain Indie freedom to create wildly imaginative pictures unlike anything anyone had seen before and, much to everyone’s surprise, the films were drawing crowds. Audiences were coming to recognize David Cronenberg. Don Coscarelli had a hit with his deeply odd Phantasm. After the mind-numbing success of the simple and straightforward Halloween, John Carpenter went off in some completely new and different directions with the likes of Escape From New York. In and amongst this lot of horror genre groundbreakers was writer/director Frank Henenlotter.
Unlike, say, Cronenberg, Henenlotter wasn’t driven by any deeply held artistic or philosophical notions. No, Henenlotter loved the grindhouses and set out to make a little grindhouse picture, but one with a little something extra, something people would remember and talk about. The result was 1982’s BASKET CASE.
Revenge films have always been a dime a dozen; from Westerns and gangster films to ROLLING THUNDER and DEATH WISH and a thousand others. But I can think of very few that involved a mutant Siamese twin. (I don’t think I’m really giving anything away by saying that, it’s pretty clear what’s going on ten minutes into BASKET CASE.)
Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) is a friendly, naive kid from a small town in upstate New York who arrives in Times Square carrying a basket. After taking in a bit of the local street life (the drug dealers, the hookers, the drunks – this was 80’s Times Square, before the “Disneyfication”), he promptly checks into a sleazy hotel (“It was the first one I passed,” he tells another guest). You get the distinct impression Duane’s not carrying his laundry or toiletries in the basket when he runs across the street, buys some dinner and drops it in the basket where it’s apparently devoured, amid a rush of inhuman snarling and slobbering (sounds provided by Van Hentenryck himself). In that same scene we also learn that Duane has a psychic connection with whatever or whoever it is he’s keeping in there.
The next day Duane and his basket begin tracking down a few local doctors, all of whom seem to die mysteriously and brutally shortly after his visits. Of course what’s happening is no secret to BASKET CASE’S audience and a frantic phone call from one frightened doctor to another reveals why it’s happening. We’re just waiting to learn the details.
Those arrive soon enough in the form of a long flashback, in which we discover that as a child Duane had a deformed twin named Belial growing out of his side (which may or may not explain why their parents chose to name Duane’s brother after a demon). Well, against the twins’ will (they had a lot in common after all, and Belial didn’t want to lose the connection with his normal brother), the twins were forcibly separated by a trio of surgeons. Surgically separated or not, the twins vowed to stay together and exact vengeance against the doctors who had ripped them apart.
But the plot of BASKET CASE, memorable and unique as it is, is almost secondary. BASKET CASE is a film filled with a number of very smart little touches and scenes of unforgettable over-the-topness that helped it work as very dark comedy as well as a gory horror film. How could a film about a vengeful, monstrous Siamese twin not be a comedy, right? Brian DePalma knew as much! That seemed to be the thinking at the original distributor, who trimmed out all the gore in BASKET CASE and attempted to market the film as a straight (well, “straight”) comedy. BASKET CASE did much better on the midnight movie circuit once the gore was restored to its proper place(s).
BASKET CASE did extremely well for a year or more at midnight screenings, but exploded after it was released on home video. In the years that followed, hints of the story (if not the whole damn thing) could be found in everything from PARASITE (Demi Moore’s 3rd post-apocalyptic flop) to THE X-FILES to THE SIMPSONS. The infamous sequence near the end in which a jealous Belial (through the magic of stop-motion animation and some clever puppetry) rapes Duane’s new girlfriend shocked and dismayed audiences at the time, but has since been copied in dozens of films.
With a little clout and a slightly bigger budget following the film’s success, Henenlotter went on to push the envelope a bit further still with the sort-of, kind of sequel, BRAIN DAMAGE. Then in the early ‘90s returned with two legitimate sequels, but audiences always seem to return to the rougher, no-budget, DIY aesthetic and sensibility of the original BASKET CASE. BASKET CASE’S gore may seem silly and tame to contemporary audiences, the acting a little…yes, well. But the heart is definitely there, in all its demented glory.
For some of us, the biggest attraction to BASKET CASE is getting another chance to see the New York of the early ‘80s. The film was shot on the cheap (and sometimes on the sly) around Tribeca, Times Square, Soho and the Lower East Side back when NYC was still filthy, dangerous and interesting. The harsh lighting and BASKET CASE’S grain only helps to emphasize the sleaziness of it all. It’s a New York that’s sadly long gone, and a New York where, as the original script had it, Belial could amble calmly down the sidewalk and no one would bat an eye.