The Films Of Frank Henenlotter : Basket Case

Posted: April 2, 2009 in movies
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basketcaseart03The work of cult film auteur Frank Henenlotter holds a special place in my twisted heart, as his films were staples of the late-night second-tier “premium” cable channels (Cinemax, The Movie Channel) during my misspent “formative” years, and as such I wasted far too many hours watching them repeatedly and finding my fondness for them grow with each successive viewing. While his strange blend of gross-out horror and slapstick-style comedy is admittedly an acquired taste, his sizable semi-legion of fans is testament to the fact that many people are indeed tuned into his particular warped wavelength, and as such, I thought it might be fun to pay homage to what are unquestionably his three best efforts (to date, that is—I have yet to see his long-awaited new release, “Bad Biology”), the “unholy trinity” comprised of “Basket Case,” “Brain Damage,” and “Frankenhooker.”  Let’s begin this nostalgic look back at Henenlotter’s career at its inception, his feature-film debut, the 1982 classic “Basket Case.”

The set-up is simple enough : a doctor is murdered in over-the-top gruesome fashion in his home by an unseen assailant. Cut to a 20-something young man with a big wicker basket and even bigger hair (our “hero,” Duane Bradley, played—if that’s the word we really want to use because very few of the performances in this film resemble anything traditiononally defined as acting—by Kevin Van Hentenryck) from upstate New York arriving at a fleabag 42nd street “hotel,” checking in, showing off a fat wad of cash that attracts the attention of the establishment’s unsavory residents—excuse me, “customers”—and asking where he can get something to eat. After procuring a sizable quantity of hamburgers, Duane heads for his room and there we see that the food isn’t for him,  as he feeds it to whoever or whatever is in his wicker basket. Duane then holds what appears to be a one-way conversation with his basket-dwelling friend, goes to sleep, and the next day begins to embark on a series of visits to other doctors, saying he’s an “old friend” who wants to pay a surprise visit.

Over the course of his brief “scouting mission” to say hello to his “old friends,” Duane manages to pick up (through zero effort on his own part) and start a semblance of a romance with one of the doctor’s receptionists, get acquainted with the truly varied yet deliciously stereotypical cast of characters who reside in the hotel (including getting drunk for the first time in his life with a hooker who lives across the hall played by Beverly Bonner), and withstand further telepathic assaults from his “pet” in the basket.

Along the way, we learn the film’s not-so-secret— that his wicker-dwelling companion is actually his horribly deformed twin brother, Belial, who was attached to Duane in conjoined fashion until they were teens, when some unsavory paid-in-cash doctors agreed to separate the two so Duane could lead a “normal life.” As for Belial, he was surreptitiously dumped in the trash, presumed dead, or soon to be so. Belial quickly summons Duane via telepathy to rescue him, and then the two creatively and grotesquely kill their father, who was the brains behind the operation of—errr—-the operation and are raised from that point on by the kindly aunt who had looked after them during their early years. When she passes away, they have no remaining relatives (their mother died giving birth to them), and set out to avenge themselves on those who separted them.

Duane's basket-dwelling brother

Duane's basket-dwelling brother

I won’t tell you (if there is a “you” out there reading this) how it all ends up in case you haven’t seen the flick, but I will say that there are some solid cheap gore effects, a fun, cheesy extended stop-motion animation scene of Belial trashing the hotel room, some sick chuckles thrown in for good measure, and an authentic vibe of Times Square griminess to the proceedings that makes this demented zero-budgeter an absolute joy to watch and sets the tone for all of Henenlotter’s subsequent work—outrageous premises, lovably bizarre monsters, New York sleazepit locations, and biological absurdities of the David-Cronenberg-on-crack variety are constant running themes in his films.

Something Weird's 20th Anniversay DVD Release

Something Weird's 20th Anniversay DVD Release

There are a couple of different DVD versions of “Basket Case” out there, but the best is easily the 20th Anniversary edition released in 2002 from Something Weird Video. Featuring a plethora of extras including a commentary by Henelotter, producer Edgar Ievins, and actress Beverly Bonner, a raft of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage, a documentary short featuring Henelotter and rapper R.A. “the Rugged Man” touring the movie’s  original filiming locations, an extensive selection of trailers, TV spots, radio spots, promotional posters and artwork and still photos, and radio interviews with actress Susan Smith (who played Duane’s love interest) among other delights-for-the-completist, this is definitely the version of this disc to own and can be found at bargain-basement prices most anywhere.

Followed by two sequels, the first of which is pretty damn clever and the second of which doesn’t quite reach the same level of twisted-yet-fun depravity of the first two (but which isn’t nearly as bad as many folks seem to think), “Basket Case” is definitely one of the better efforts of the low-budget horror-comedy genre and has earned its esteemed reputation in B-movie history. If you haven’t seen it, then I highly recommend checking it out ASAP, and if you have seen but it’s been a few years, it’s well worth another look, as it holds up surprisingly well given its budgetary and technical limitations, and it has an air of authenticity that most shlock filmmakers often spend their entire careers striving to find but never quite achieving.

Next up I’ll be taking a look at Henenlotter’s second feature, the remarkably twisted “Brain Damage.” Until then, thanks for reading,  and remember, when it comes to moviemaking, money is no substitute for brains and imagination!

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