For many Frank Henenlotter's exceptionally sleazy Basket Case was the last word in legitimate 42nd Street exploitation. A solid student of the filmmakers from the past and their grindhouse efforts, the former graphic designer and commercial artist was a fledgling auteur from a young age. By the time he hit his thirties, he'd made a name for himself with the aforementioned splatter epic. Centering on a young man seeking vengeance from the doctors who removed his conjoined twin (a murderous, mutated thing he keeps in a worn out wicker container), the demented, blood-drenched delight played like a cover version of other horror film faves. As much a homage as a heartfelt appreciation for days misspent in dank Manhattan theaters, the film put a nice, nasty exclamation point on the whole terror and tits genre. And he never thought of doing a sequel until, one fateful day, a producer friend asked if he had any projects he'd like to sell. In his typical off the cuff manner, he suggested revisiting Duane and his blob brother Belial. Oddly enough, Henenlotter ended up doing the same thing to the '80s as his original film did for the four decades previous.
It's directly after the events that ended the initial Basket Case film. Duane and Belial have been found out, and they ALMOST die when the police confront them. While in intensive care, the duo is rescued by Granny Ruth, a notorious protector of human oddities. Along with her favorite patient Susan, she whisks the boys away to her private retreat, where dozens of additional freaks live outside the scrutiny of the media. Hoping to track them down, however, is a nosy reporter who wants an exclusive. She even hires a private detective to find Duane and Belial's whereabouts. In the meantime, Ruth tries to teach the pair about living on the fringes of society. Belial is happy to do so. When he's not killing people, he's wooing a fellow malformed shape named Eve. Duane, on the other hand, is having a hard time coming to grips with his situation, and as he soon discovers, there is danger and distress around every corner. He can't even trust those closest to him. Apparently, everyone under Granny Ruth's care has a secret to share.
Basket Case 2 is so endemic of the entire '80s direct to video dynamic that it should come in a crappy cardboard case with cover art having very little or nothing to do with the actual film inside. The fashions are straight out of a Paula Abdul nightmare, the F/X the furthest extension of make-up and animatronics physical potential. While actor Kevin Van Hentenryck looks more or less the same, Belial has undergone a decisive transformation. Gone is the clay ball blandness and static movement. In its place are full blown armatures and attempted facial expressions. There are still moments when the actors must pantomime being murdered by this motionless mass, but 10 years of movie magic really aids in Belial's believability. And when you add in the collection of creative weirdoes that make up Granny Ruth's "children", biological mistakes with too many noses, oversized teeth, and elongated facial features, it's like stumbling into one of Rob Bottin's daydreams. The one thing that Basket Case 2 has over its predecessor is the ability to flesh out Henenlotter's already unhinged imagination. It works to the film's benefit - and ultimately, its detriment.
Let's deal with the less than successful elements first. One of the mistakes any director with vision can make is failing to flesh out his creative conceits. All throughout Basket Case 2, we are introduced to one intriguing freak after another. A few get significant screen time, but most end up as unexplored background characters. The problem is that we want them to be more than mere window dressing. We want to find out what makes the Mouse Man tick, how the man with the face tendrils got that we. We long to discover the story of our stump headed gal, the half moon man, or why our smashed faced fellow is so shy. There's an entire potential plotline stumbling around the corners of this film, and since we already understand Duane and Belial's lot in life, there is no need to focus so much of the story on their exploits. But Henenlotter obviously believes that slasher sells, and so we get scene after scene of our brothers going Voorhees on intrusive individuals. Sometimes, it's done to protect Granny Ruth and the gang. Other times, it's personal vendettas and outright insanity driving the deaths. Far less gory than the first film, Basket Case 2 even uses the elaborate prosthetics to rob us of the mandatory arterial spray. Why murder people, especially with a misshapen monster, and leave the scenes relatively bloodless? Must have been a money issue.
What does work here is the director's devious sense of black humor. Henenlotter understands the inherent bizarreness of what he's creating, and he gives Van Hentenryck some stellar speeches filled with deranged rationalizations and goofy cruelty. Annie Ross also gets some good grandstanding during her intriguing turn as Granny Ruth (bet Robert Altman didn't see that in her Short Cuts resume reel). And can you name another director who uses sex as satirically as our man Frank? Anyone who lets a clumpy creature have a love scene with another lump of bumpy flesh isn't functioning at a full 24 frames a second. Toss in Duane's disconcerting discovery about his possible paramour and you've got some of the most surreal carnality in any movie macabre. The narrative does tend to wander off track toward the end, the numerous killings and investigative journalism angle adding up to very little overall. But as a sideshow spectacle, as a film that collects everything terror learned at the hands of home video and readily available VHS, Basket Case 2 is terrific. But if you're looking for a flawless example of what Henenlotter meant to exploitation, stick with the first film. This is nothing more than carnival barking for the sake of spectacle. Fear factors aren't as important as latex and stipple this time around.
Previously available on DVD from Anchor Bay, Synapse Films has liberated the title from its previous version and struck a brand new, high definition transfer from the original 35 mm negative. The resulting image is amazing, colorful and crisp with discernible details and perfectly balanced pigments. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen picture is just spectacular. This is the best Basket Case 2 has ever looked - even when it hit screens way back in 1990.
Sadly, there is no significant improvement over the previous Dolby Digital Stereo mix. The aural elements here are fine, but they could have used a technical boost. There is a flatness and obvious lack of atmosphere in the sonic realm.
Another letdown is the limited added content. The behind the scenes featurette is a lot of fun. It offers the reminiscences of F/X artist Gabriel Bartolos as well as some onset video shot at the time of production. The amount of make-up tricks that went into this film is indeed impressive, and when Henenlotter shows up at the end to add his present day two cents worth, the journey back 17 years is complete. Still, a commentary track would have been a nice, almost necessary, bonus element. Instead, we get actor David Emge (Flyboy from the original Dawn of the Dead) discussing his role as Half Moon (a character whose head is shaped like a lunar crescent). It's fun, but hardly fulfilling. We want more background and insight into the moviemaking. Synapse only gives us the barest of contextual bones.
For those who remember the fascinating physical effects of the 1980s, who cringe whenever a modern monster movie relies on CGI and spit to create its featured creatures, Basket Case 2 will be a mesmerizing meander down a long lost memory lane. It is easily a Highly Recommended experience. However, some will take such advice, order up a copy, and immediately suffer some minor buyer's remorse when the lack of grue and humor over horror dynamic dominates the inventive creepshowing. For them, it's rental city all the way. While a Recommended rating would therefore be appropriate (averaging the two scores together), this critic is going to give Henenlotter and his group the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, Basket Case 2 remains a Highly Recommended affair. Few artists have been able to successfully summarize the eras that effected their aesthetic and approach. Frank Henenlotter did it. Twice. If for no other reason, he deserves a place in the upper echelons of dread. Even if it's not terrifying, Basket Case 2 is important - and sometimes, significance trumps the shivers.