The Bottom Shelf: Basket Case Trilogy and Audition

Our monthly round up of horror DVDs and Blu-rays, led by the wonderful and terrifying Audition...

So, it seems to be time once again to ask that age-old question: what’s your favourite cinematic depiction of conjoined twins? Ranging from the mutoid majesty of That Guy In Total Recall With The Talking Stomach Baby through to the Farrelly brothers’ gross-out gubbins Stuck On You, Hollywood has carved a progressive path in its depiction of wretched freaks of nature, magical otherworldly beings and monstrous killers. Following in this glorious tradition of stigmatising the disabled (insert Iain Duncan Smith reference here), this month sees the Bluray release of Frank Henenlotter’s classic splatter comedy Basket Case trilogy.

The director of the equally subtle Frankenhooker cut his teeth with his 1982 cult favourite Basket Case, which told the tale of the Bradley brothers, bemulleted Duane (Kevin van Hentenryck), the ostensibly ’normal’ young man who carries his somewhat vicious semi-human tree stump of a brother, named Belial, around with him in the titular basket.

Whilst staying in New York’s seedy Hotel Broslin (there’s a 2001 short about said hotel included in this box set), nosy neighbours and the doctors who severed the physical link between the brothers soon find out why you shouldn’t really mess with someone named after the devil. Wonderfully low budget, with great cheapo puppetry and stop-motion animation to depict scenes of bloody retribution alongside gallows humour, this raw classic is probably the weakest of the three, though still a singular monster caper and bold statement of intent from Henenlotter.

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As with the likes of the Puppet Master and Ghoulies films, it’s not really until the second film that the series really finds its (undoubtedly ridiculous) voice and here it’s no different – 1990’s Basket Case 2 turns the gonzo volume up to eleven immediately as an injured Duane and Belial are taken in by their long lost aunt, Granny Ruth (Annie Ross), and taken to her countryside retreat for, as she puts it, “unique individuals”.

Of course, with a successful first film, a bigger effects budget and more of a focus on general silliness, this means opera singing mutants, a love interest for Belial giving a new meaning to the phrase ’freaky sex’ and the immortal line “Ripping the faces off of people may not be in your best interest”. With Duane’s haircut meaning he looks more and more like this writer’s ex-boss with every film as an added bonus for one person at least, Basket Case 3: The Progeny just ups the ante even further. Even more cartoon violence, plain bloody violence and well, just a lot of violence in general, alongside the odd musical number thrown in for good measure, makes for a brilliantly mad third instalment of an uproariously fun series.

Now, all we need is for the romantic comedy Tiptoes, starring Gary Oldman as a little person (seriously: seek it out, if only for the indignity of the great Peter Dinklage playing second fiddle to an average-height actor waddling around on his knees) to be re-released and we can have a ‘people with dwarfism’ themed blog. The campaign starts here.

Moving temporarily away from the gore (don’t worry – we’ll be back with the same old, same old in just a few minutes, ok?), we’ll now delve into this month’s couple of sci-fi releases, which come in the form of the low budget Aussie outing, Arrowhead, and the presumably lower budget American debacle, From Other Worlds.

From Other Worlds, the 2004 family fantasy out on DVD from the writer and director of Married To The Mob, Barry Strugatz (me neither), tells another tale of a neglected New York housewife, played here by Mad Men’s Cara Buono, though this time she has an alien encounter and spends what feels like f**king years to get to the bottom of it.

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Strugatz’s film is marred in many ways, though perhaps most annoying is an extremely muffled sound design meaning every sentence requires the ear equivalent of squinting (correct terminology on a postcard please). Not that it matters if you hear the frankly rubbish dialogue or not anyway. Isaach De Bankole plays another alien encountee/encounterer/encountero, an immigrant from the Ivory Coast who helps our housewife on her adventure.

Though you can see the casting being about two unlikely sci-fi heroes going on a mad caper together, it would kind of help if there was any discernible chemistry between the leads (there’s not) and if the caper itself had any funny jokes (it doesn’t) and the action was, well, exciting (it isn’t).

Arrowhead, Australian writer and director Jesse O’Brien’s intriguing first feature (out on DVD this month), is at the exact opposite end of that same quality spectrum, throwing all the right genre reference points together in an ideas blender, the end result being a fascinating, distinctive take on the ‘stranded on another world’ trope.

Somewhere between Pitch Black and 2001: A Space Odyssey, with cool practical robot effects, in a dystopian future, a mercenary fighting in a civil war finds himself alone on a distant moon with an insectoid adversary causing problems. At this point, and having seen many a single-location production purely filmed that way to save cash, the cynic might assume the same. The intrepid viewer who stays with O’Brien’s film, though, will be rewarded with a thoughtful, stylish sci-fi film in the classic mould as our mercenary Johnny Arrowhead (sorry- that’s made up; it’s actually Kye Cortland, played by Dan Mor) ponders his own existence and identity. Only slightly let down by lunkhead concessions to idiot action cinema, this is a striking debut.

This month’s other box set (though let’s be clear that there can be no competition for the Basket Case throne), Arrow’s American Horror Project, Vol. One on Bluray, offers a surprising selection of three of the more interesting obscurities from that genre’s seventies fare, two of which offer something more than you’d expect.

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The other one, Robert Allen Schnitzer’s 1976 psychic schlockfest The Premonition, is a dour abduction thriller with a slightly paranormal slant that seems to be the precursor of all those frankly dull Hollywood affairs that have cropped up consistently, unasked for, in the decades since.

Richard Lynch, whose face you’ll recognise, Troy McClure-style, from a million TV-movies, creaky action pics with names like Maximum Force and Scanner Cop, and of course, the obligatory couple of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, turns up as a creepy clown/general bad egg who goes around doing unkind things to people. His cracked shell, if we’re to continue this dairy theme, is beautifully (and hilariously) shown through his habit of drinking beer from a teacup, which you’d think would be enough of a warning to others to keep their distance. Decent harpsichord-themed denouement aside, just skip this one, ok?

Peddling a far greater calibre of evil clown, Christopher Speeth’s 1973 psychedelic nightmare, Maletesta’s Carnival Of Blood, is a formless meander set entirely in a freakish travelling carnival. Devoid almost entirely of plot other than a family searching for a missing boy and with bad acting, unconvincing semi-zombies and a general grottiness throughout, Speeth’s film shouldn’t really work. Shouldn’t, but does in spades: elaborately inventive directorial flourishes to a silent movie backdrop genuinely creep out the viewer as references to the likes of Dr Caligari and Nosferatu dance sleekly with bloodthirsty horror set-pieces. Presumably a big influence on the likes of Rob Zombie, Maletesta’s Carnival is a memorably bleak one.

Released the same year as The Premonition, Matt Cimber’s The Witch Who Came From The Sea, the third and last in this set, is a curious combination of I Spit On Your Grave sexual revenge tomfoolery and Polanski-esque psychodrama as we follow Molly, the survivor of childhood sexual abuse, on her trawl through various sexcapades. With the tagline “Molly really knows how to cut men down to size”, you can guess at the results, though the really interesting thing here is in the slow deterioration of our antihero and the various PTSD-style flashbacks depicting this. A strong performance from Millie Perkins in the lead complements Cimber’s restrained direction (relatively speaking, for a video nasty) for this superior slasher.

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In contrast, Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors director Freddie Francis offers no hope of restraint up next, with his also-ran portmanteau pic, Tales That Witness Madness, out on DVD and Bluray this month. Starring Donald Pleasance and Jack Hawkins as psychiatrists in an asylum, recounting the stories behind each patient’s weird behaviour, you know how this goes. Ironic fates abound as the likes of Kim Novak are out-acted by moving trees with breasts (at last, I hear you say), William Blake poetry only adds to the Calvin and Hobbes on meth feel and generally everyone involved picks up their pay check with a good, not great, job well done.

Far more interesting (though sadly lacking in the trees with breasts department) is Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s very familiar-feeling Among The Living, out on DVD this month. Essentially a Gallic Stephen King film involving three troubled kids who see something dodgy going down at a derelict film set, this glossy Stand By Me-gone mental offers a satisfying blend of icy tension, gratuitous violence and a memorably chilling Beatrice Dalle performance. Bustillo and Maury are set to direct upcoming Texas Chainsaw prequel Leatherface; on the strength of Among The Living, you can see how they managed to get that gig.

But that said, all of these horrible films pale in comparison to our last movie of the month, the downright brilliant Audition, gaining a welcome re-release this month on Blu-ray. Perhaps eternal controversialist Takashi Miike’s (Ichi The Killer, Visitor Q) greatest moment, this 1999 classic is the ultimate blend of nasty pre-Eli Roth torture porn, psychological complexity and social commentary.

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Ryo Ishibashi (Suicide Club, The Grudge) plays an eligible widower and father of a teenage son, who suggests that he start dating again. Painfully shy with women and with a very specific type, our widower has a friend who happens to be a film producer and suggests a series of auditions for a film that will never be made. The scheme goes to plan and seemingly the perfect woman comes into our hero’s life.

Of course, things never go this well in these types of films, and what starts as a well-paced and psychologically believable romantic drama soon descends into trauma, evil acupuncture and life-altering injury. A fascinating take on patriarchy in Japan and general society, the subtle misogyny at play in daily life is highlighted elegantly as our nice guy hero’s motives are questioned. Hardly the most subtle of allegories, this savage take on the dating game works superbly however closely you want to analyse it, making for a picture as densely layered as it is brutal.

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