Saturday, October 25, 2014

Basket Case (1982) review


Kevin Van Hentenryck (Duane Bradley), Terri Susan Smith (Sharon), Beverly Bonner (Casey), Robert Vogel (Hotel Manager), Diana Brown (Dr. Kutter), Lloyd Pace (Dr. Needleman), Bill Freeman (Dr. Lifflander), Joe Clark (O'Donovan)

Directed by Frank Henenlotter

The Short Version: Possibly the ultimate 42nd Street exploitation movie experience, Henenlotter's BASKET CASE, a film made for the cost of a car, captures all that scuzzy NYC ambiance that's as extinct as the dinosaurs these days. Two Siamese twin brothers -- one human and the other looking like a mound of pizza dough with teeth -- look up the doctors that literally separated them for some messy surgery of their own. The pinnacle of this bygone era, the filmmakers use New York's once vibrant city sleaze to create a modern Gothic in the sickest sense of the word.

Siamese Twins, Duane Bradley and his malformed brother Belial seek revenge on the three doctors that separated them as children. Tracing them all to their practices in NYC, Duane carries his disturbed, deformed, and telekinetic half around in a wicker basket wherever he goes. Meanwhile, the troubled young man attempts to lead a normal life on the side, but his psychotic sibling becomes increasingly jealous.

What's in the basket? That is the question asked with frequency in this cult favorite from director Frank Henenlotter -- a filmmaker with a distinct sense of the macabre. The theater of the grotesque lives in his movies -- and at the top of the heap rests the bizarre BASKET CASE (1982). Shot for an incredibly paltry $35,000 (seen via the wad of cash Duane flashes upon renting a room at the Hotel Broslin) on weekends over the course of a year, it's a testament to this lovably sick group of people pooling together to make an hysterical piece of morbid magic for the Silver Screen and midnight movie scene. 

The original script was much more ambitious (such as the further adventures of Belial on the streets of New York), but had to be stripped down due to budgetary constraints. Nonetheless the barren financing works in its favor, accentuating that seedy atmosphere Henenlotter uses to his advantage. For anyone that had never been to NYC at that time, you were either repulsed, or entranced by this unsavory wonderland offered on this particular strip of the city.

That's director Henenlotter in the back watching THE BODYGUARD (1973) with Duane and Belial.

Those trash-encrusted streets of New York with their peepshows, porn shops, and light-bulb filled marquees transform BASKET CASE into a modern era Gothic horror that's the flip side of the atmospheric, period set Hammer Films of old. Whereas those British classics used fog, oldeworld iconography, and matte paintings to create a unique milieu, BASKET CASE uses the all too real grimy settings of New York's infamous, and lamented 42nd Street to create a similar, if opposing mood; and as much as the streets and their rows of trash-laden, fleapit movie houses exude a particular tone (watch for a clip of Sonny Chiba's THE BODYGUARD!), there are other details that greatly contribute to this vibe.

Henenlotter's movie is rife with abnormalities that aren't limited to the Bradley brothers. His script is populated with wonderfully quirky characters that, despite their eccentricities, could have easily been picked right off the street. The residents of the Hotel Broslin are so diverse in their off-kilter personalities, you could make a spin-off film built around the glut of nosy neighbors, sentimental hookers, drunken Irish occupants, and peculiar-acting gossip-mongers. Robert Vogel as the Hotel Manager is the most amusing as he's driven nuts from rushing up the stairs to repeated ruckus taking place in the Bradley room. 

The idiosyncrasies of the people Duane meets outside of the Broslin are just as special. Everyone has this off-beat quality to them that comes off in the acting -- good and bad. Through behavior and mannerisms, there's this feeling that everybody is a freak of some sort; not just the basket dwelling Belial. 

Kevin Van Hentenryck is the most believable as the intermittently sane half of this dysfunctional family unit. His progressive lunacy is noticeable in virtually every line of dialog he speaks; yet slivers of his humanity shine through in what is an exceptional performance. He has genuine affection for Belial, as well as frustration for sacrificing his chance at normality. This negativity comes to the surface in a big way towards the end once Belial has managed to messily ruin his brothers burgeoning romance with a bubbly secretary. Duane catches brother Belial engaged in a round of necrophilic nookie. This last straw climaxes in a tragic example of sibling rivalry.

The title of the movie has a double meaning in relation to the two brothers. Duane's crumbling sanity and outcast status is the very definition of a 'basket case'; Belial, the pile of mashed potatoes with claws and teeth, is itself an outcast, whose only solace is inside a wicker basket. The name of this monster -- Belial -- has biblical connotations, too. In Hebrew it means 'worthless', and that's the way Duane's twin is treated -- severed from his side and tossed into the garbage. It's a memorable creation with its twisted, clawed appendages attached to a lump of flesh with eyeballs -- orbs that occasionally glow red. 

Ever the hands-on artist, Henenlotter not only wrote and directed, but he did the stop-motion animation; seen most prominently during one of the films funnier moments where Belial, sensing his brother enjoying a kiss with a woman, does his best impression of The Three Tenors while remodeling their hotel room. These animated shots of the monster are extremely crude, but effective.

The bulk of his screen time (and we see lots of him past the 30 minute mark), Belial is a puppet, resembling a pissed-off castaway from Jim Henson's Workshop. Much like Argento and his black gloved killers, Henenlotter's hands are inside the clawed rubber gloves that reap Belial's vengeance for close-ups.

Meanwhile, John Caglione, Jr's makeup effects are likewise unrefined, but are adequately gross in execution, and uniformly splat-tastic. For example, the literal separation of Duane and Belial is discomforting, if not wholly realistic; yet the loud sound effects of tendons and tissue tearing and ripping apart make a big difference. 

Gus Russo's music is as skid row as the production values, but it, too, is as intrinsic to the movie as the two twin brothers.

Frank Henenlotter made an intentionally ludicrous movie with very little money at his disposal. BASKET CASE, which gave birth to two sequels in 1990 and 1991, has maintained a healthy cult following; and deservedly so among exploitation and midnight movie fans. Henenlotter's 16mm wonder does everything right even when so much is wrong. The raw, DIY effects work; an undeniably queasy tone; the darkly comical touches; the squalid surroundings of the city; all these ingredients ensure exploitation fans one helluva tasty burger that may give you heartburn afterward, but that bloated, burpy feeling will be worth it.  BASKET CASE is freakishly good fun.

This review is representative of the Image/Something Weird Blu-ray.
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