Basket Case (1982) (Not the Green Day Song)

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“What’s in the basket? Easter eggs?”

Once upon a time at the Cannes Film Festival, an unlikely schlocky exploitation film screened against all odds. One of the only two critics* who viewed it was Rex Reed, who’d heard negative things. Upon exiting the theater, a short man with a mustache asked him what he thought of the film. “This is the sickest movie ever made!” he replied. The mustachioed man was director Frank Henenlotter, and much to Reed’s chagrin, the quote made the poster.

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Originally conceived as the dumbest premise Henenlotter could think of as he would wander around Times Square back when that still meant something, the story is about Duane and Belial Bradley (Kevin van Hentenryck and a puppet modeled after his face), two conjoined twins with a psychic bond out for revenge against the doctors who separated them when they were twelve (Drs. Needleman and Cutter, fun medical names). They rent a $20 room in Times Square from a man who looks like Danny DeVito mixed with John Belushi and who I was shocked to learn was my age at the time of filming. I guess people lived a bit harder in the early 80s. Complicating matters is Dr. Needleman’s beautiful secretary Sharon (Terri Susan Smith, wearing an obvious wig after shaving her head for her punk band The Tattooed Vegetables.) Hijinks ensue and people get gruesomely torn apart until finally the film reaches a conclusion so disturbing that the crew walked out during filming.

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One of my favorite running gags in this movie is Duane’s naivete with money in 1981 Times Square. He pulls out a stack of money in front of the seediest people you’ve ever seen more than once (the stack of money was reportedly literally the cash that made up the entirety of the film’s budget, only $3,500). It takes nearly 45 minutes of movie before anyone bothers to call him out on this, which seems about 44 minutes longer than he’d be hanging on to it in real life. Of course, this leads to someone trying to steal the stack of money with particularly gruesome results.

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Some of the acting choices are a little bizarre, like during Duane and Sharon’s meet cute where she asks him if he’s seen the Empire State Building, and when he says no she gets unusually upset and makes fun of him for a moment, listing a bunch of tourist attractions before finally warming back up to him. They then go on a bizarre tour of the city scored to corny jazz music, a strange diversion from the creepy carnivalesque synth score throughout the rest of the film. Other strange acting choices: Duane goes drinking with a hotel sex worker and she asks him what he does for a living. “I’m a mailman, I sort mail” he says, and they both laugh for what feels like a full minute, which is confusing but considering how broad the acting is at this point it fits.

Because of the low budget, many scenes were filmed unconventionally, including a prolonged full frontal scene where Duane is running through the streets of Manhattan without permits. Technically this is a crime, which just goes to show the amount of dedication and care the director and actors put into this movie. Also, many of the names of crew members during the end credits are not real people, on account of they shot this movie with a skeleton crew and thought it’d look more professional if they padded the credits a bit with fake names.

Should I Show This Movie To My Five Year Old?

Well, it depends. This movie is sleazy and gross and violent, but if your child has a conjoined twin he or she is *ahem* attached to, it might be a good idea to show it to your kid to show the true dangers of seeking revenge on doctors, even if those doctors call you a freak. You will have to explain what a sex worker is, however, and you may have to explain that while Belial is a puppet, that doesn’t mean he’s a friend. Sometimes puppets are used for evil, and that’s an important lesson for any child to learn. If your child is curious about 42nd Street in Manhattan before they destroyed it by bringing in a Red Lobster and the M & M store, this might be a good thing to show them. If you want to be considered the “cool” parent, this couldn’t hurt your chances. Anyway, use your discretion. I’m not here to raise your kids.

Final Thoughts

This movie rules, and while I haven’t seen the sequels yet, I have seen and loved two of Frank Henenlotter’s other movies, Brain Damage and Frankenhooker. He’s a man who knows his exploitation horror and you’re in good hands with his movies. They’re gross and schlocky and, most importantly, fun as hell. I highly recommend this movie and his others.

*The other critic is a gentleman named John Irving Bloom, better known to the film world as Joe Bob Briggs, who was ultimately responsible for keeping the film out of obscurity and restoring the gore that the original distributor cut out, thinking audiences would prefer the film as a straight comedy.

Greg Orme is a comedian/writer based out of Salt Lake City, where he lives with his five plants. You should follow him on Twitter if you aren’t already.

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