First published by EyeforFilm
In the 1980s, mainstream horror was all repetitive slash and dash, with the likes of Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Freddie Krueger cornering (and strangling) the market as they sliced their way through leafy middle-class neighbourhoods – but as always, there was a counterculture available for those who could look past the rising multiplexes.
Indie auteur Frank Henenlotter, for one, was taking horror for a cheap and sleazy walk on the wild side of New York City’s mean streets, where monsters, freaks and weirdos, far from being nightmarish outsiders, seemed to fit right in with the hustlers, whores and hoodlums. His Brain Damage (1988) and Frankenhooker (1990) would each become cult hits, but before both of these there was Basket Case, the sort of film that any aspiring director of schlocky shock should be proud of having as their debut – and that would spawn two sequels.
It is 1982, and as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is drawing in record crowds all round the country, another, more modestly budgeted film about a boy and his strange-looking friend is slowly building itself a following on the Midnight Movie circuit. For in Hennenlotter’s Basket Case, a wide-eyed, naïve, but not entirely innocent young man named Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) has come for the first time from his hometown in upstate New York to the Big Apple, with a padlocked wicker basket in his arms, a wad of cash in his pocket, and vengeance in his heart – and by the time he has checked out some two days later, he will have left a trail of bloody corpses in his wake.
“What’s in the basket?” Is the question Duane is asked by the manager (Robert Vogel) of the dive where he stays, by kooky doctor’s receptionist and love interest Sharon (Terri Susan Smith), by a detective (Kerry Buff) investigating a savage murder across the hall from Duane’s room, by whore-with-a-heart-of-gold Casey (Beverly Bonner) who lives next door, and by cradle-snatching veterinarian Dr Judith Kutter (Diana Browne). It seems a reasonable question, given that the young man takes the basket pretty much everywhere with him, feeds snacks through its lid, and even talks to it. But by the time, some half an hour into the film, we have seen its horrific occupant Belial for ourselves, we will be left wondering whether it is, as Duane claims, his deformed telepathic Siamese twin brother, joined to Duane’s hip before his father and three doctors cruelly carved it off and left it for dead – or whether it is really just a grotesque incarnation of the voices in Duane’s head, the ugly chip on his shoulder, and the rampaging id in his ‘closet’.
Either way, this creature “like a squashed octopus” with an alarmingly human face is one of horror’s more memorably bizarre monsters, rendered in a combination of physical puppetry and stop motion to be both terrifyingly bestial and yet strangely sympathetic. At first Belial single-mindedly (or is it double-mindedly?) pursues the doctors who years ago had surgically separated him from his twin, but when virginal Duane experiences something of a sexual awakening with Sharon, the creature is driven into a violent frenzy of lust and jealousy, with tragic consequences for both brothers.
The performances are of dubious quality, many of the scenes have been stretched way too long to no obvious purpose, and the low budget really shows – but like David Lynch’s 1977 oddball classic Eraserhead (a clear influence) updated for the slasher generation, Basket Case is a deranged psychodrama, full of gleefully gory set-pieces, quirky humour, and some impossibly moving pathos. So if you are looking for a true original to stand out from the Eighties crowd, they do not come crazier than this. As Sharon puts it, “I know an awful lot of guys, Duane, but you’re different.”
© Anton Bitel