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Part of the reason Savant's been reviewing more obscure or cult-oriented movies of late is simply because his most generous providers, Image Entertainment and Anchor Bay, are releasing so many excellent editions of films we never expected to surface at all. Mario Bava leads to Dario Argento, and pretty soon you're in there screening incredibly beautiful (or horribly beautiful?) copies of Fulci films, and looking in the reference books to see what else is missing. Savant was into Science Fiction and not horror back in the 80s. After a few lukewarm experiences, reading about the horror offerings in Cinefantastique sufficed to cool the curiosity for most titles. Then cable TV came and Savant caught a lot of weird stuff on the tube that he'd never have been able to talk his wife into seeing.
But with the bounty of key horror on DVD, going back to see films that couldn't be seen (The Awful Dr. Orlof), or were chopped up (Let Sleeping Corpses Lie) is easy. And after reading about the wild and weird Frank Henenlotter for twenty years, the opportunity to see his first feature, Basket Case, was too much to resist.
Duane Bradley (Lance VanHentenryck) checks into a Times Square flophouse hotel (into room #7, Val Lewton fans) carrying a mysterious basket. A likeable, everyday kind of young man who would not seem to be looking for trouble, Duane nevertheless spends his days tracking down the doctors who performed an operation on him as a young boy. Duane was born with a vestigially deformed growth on his side that was actually his brother, Belial, a pulpy white monstrosity with whom he shares a telepathic bond. Several years ago, two doctors and a veteranarian cut away Belial and tried to dispose of him, against Duane's wishes. After murdering his own father in retribution, Duane rescued Belial from the trash heap, and a benign aunt (Ruth Neuman) sheltered the two of them with loving kindness. Now Duane is aiding Belial in a campaign of murderous revenge. This is complicated by the fact that Duane is trying to keep himself open to new relationships, as with the receptionist Sharon (Terri Susan Smith) he's met while casing a potential victim. Physically separated, the jealous Belial still retains his half of the telepathic relationship, and knows everything that Duane is doing.
Basket Case was called sleazy, reprehensible, indefensible and disgusting, even by genre critics who regularly championed its contemporary zombie and slasher pix on 'political' grounds. Director Henenlotter, at least in interviews, has does nothing to suggest higher motives than making a gross-out film. He's the first to call Basket Case total trash, and proudly so.
That's how he came off in an interview in the book Incredibly Strange Films, back in 1986 when Basket Case was his only released movie. Although he rhapsodized on the subject of skid-row sleaze theaters, Henenlotter's basic intelligence shone through the article. It was illustrated mainly with pictures of his apartment - nudist films on the wall, rubber monsters for doorstops, and (probably tricked out for the photo) a real-looking baby's head on a plate in the fridge. That was '86. Today he'd be asking to get arrested for such a stunt.
Savant was at a loss when he was briefly introduced to Mike Vraney at a Cult Movie convention recently. The enthusiastic Vraney expounded on the value of these marginal movies, and during his account of how he started Something Weird Video, brought up a great Henenlotter story. 1 Feeling bad about his amused (but not insulting) review of Nude on the Moon, Savant thought it was time to see Basket Case.
The Big Surprise
Basket Case is in all basics, a good movie. The camerawork and direction are quite good. Henenlotter has the knack for knowing where to put the camera, unlike practically all sleaze directors, including his credited mentor, Herschel Gordon Lewis. Henenlotter can express a lot more than cheap gorefest thrills, and clearly cares about the artistic result. Savant guesses he would be a good director of almost any kind of film that interested him.
There are drawbacks, but no serious ones. The acting is of course uneven, but not only is the lead VanHentenryk good, but other actors are even better. The hotel superintendent (Robert Vogel), and Duane's prostitute neighbor (Beverly Bonner) actually come off as rounded characters that we care about. Only the girlfriend Sharon tends toward amateurishness - maybe. Savant's no sage judge of acting, and I've frankly met more than one woman who behaves exactly as does Sharon.
Belial as a monster is competently handled in most scenes. He is disgusting in a convincingly gross way in some shots, and a pitifully inert lump of latex in others, pulled by wire or stuck on a broom handle. In some shots he's manipulated via crude stop-motion pixillation, which is amusing simply because there's not even an attempt to be convincingly real. At this level of filming, he's still far more credible than the usual zombies and such, mainly because he's interesting. Every ten minutes the requisite scene comes along with blood splashing on the walls, and faces ripped up like a cat's scratching post, but unlike Friday the 13th, these aren't the highlights of Basket Case.
In the 1986 interview, Frank Henenlotter expressed his disenchantment with contemporary mainstream horror and the currently popular Spielberg films. After the success of Basket Case the only offers he received were for slasher films, for which he had no use whatsoever. Gotta like this guy.
Basket Case remains interesting not only because of its likeable cast, but because it actually seems to be about something. Although the surface is pure 42nd Street grindhouse rubbish, Basket Case has the spine of sterner stuff. At first, the Belial story comes off as an opportunistic melding of Sisters and Eraserhead. Savant reads it as another Jekyll and Hyde / Psycho transference story. The tale of Duane aiding and abetting his brother's murders, while trying to start a healthy relationship and stay sane, is a split-personality story. There's never any doubt that Belial does exist and is a separate creature, but he still evokes half of a serial-killer type of psychopathic personality. Belial is an object-correlative of Duane's 'dark side', the ugly, nasty, destructive and socially taboo part of Duane Bradley. It needs to be shamefully hidden from the world, but it can't be denied. Duane loves his brother and is loyal to him (almost to the end). The horror comes from Duane's inability to (sigh) reconcile all this killing and gore with his desire for a normal life. The relationships and psychology work, elevating this sleazy-looking picture far above 42nd street.
Then again, Savant won't be showing the kids the yucchy scene where Belial rapes and murders one of his brother's girlfriends...
Image's DVD has been out quite awhile, before they were enhancing their horror fare with lots of extras. The picture is clear and colorful, and the sound quite good. It always impresses how supposedly homemade movies, when given good transfers, can look just fine. Its ownership is traced to 'The Basket Case Company', so I hope Mr. Henenlotter is still in control of this cult crowdpleaser.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Basket Case rates:
1. Apparently, when New York's Movielab closed in the early '80s, it was left with a vault full of unclaimed, abandoned, and unredeemed movie elements - original negative and optical tracks, for hundreds and hundreds of movies. Vraney was invited to buy anything he saw, no rights included, for something minimal, like $5 a can or something. The average trash feature might therefore cost $100. Vraney visited the vault and saw dozens and dozens of semi-famous titles, all those Something Weird movies he sells on VHS (and now DVD, sometimes through Image Entertainment). Scraping together all the financing he could beg from associates, Vraney enlisted pal Henenlotter to help identify the weirdest of the weird from what he saw on the racks - sleazy nudie films, trashy Italian import Mondo movies, home-grown freakshows. Savant reviewed one, Nude on the Moon, affectionately but probably in a way that Vraney wouldn't care for. NOBODY worships those movies as does he, thus he makes an ideal caretaker for them.