CAPSULE: BASKET CASE (1982)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Frank Henenlotter

FEATURING: Kevin van Hentenryck, Terri Susan Smith, Beverly Bonner

PLOT: Duane checks into a derelict Times Square hotel carrying a wicker basket under his arm; inside is something about 1/4 the size of a person, that eats about 4 times the hamburgers a person would.

Still from Basket Case (1982)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Most people will go through their entire lives and never see anything as weird as the micro-budgeted cult shocker Basket Case.  A fine little offbeat exploitation shocker, the flick makes a late-in-the-game play for true weirdness with a strange dream sequence that sees Duane running naked through the streets of New York as a prelude to the film’s most shocking development.  To us, however, Basket Case shakes out as nothing more (or less) than a fine example of a unique, campy monster flick with only marginally weird elements.  That’s just how selective we are with our weirdness.

COMMENTS:  One of the secrets to Basket Case‘s success is that it positively oozes indecency and vice, but isn’t mean-spirited or sadistic.  Director Frank Henenlotter nails the aesthetic of sleaze, and for the most part keeps on the right side of the fine line between trash and crass, only crossing over briefly once or twice so that we know where the border is.  You emerge from a screening titillated and pleasantly shocked, but not feeling like you have to take a bath or go to confession.  The setting—the 42nd street red light district as it existed in Times Square in the early 1980s—creates an immediate atmosphere of moral and social decay.  Since renovated and Disneyfied, back then the neon-lit 42nd street was an avenue where you could walk past peep shows and marquees advertising “3 Kung Fu hits!” while being propositioned for weed, heroin and/or whores by strangers.  The scenes Henenlotter shot in the vanished district rank as documentary footage today.  With his mysterious, omnipresent wicker basket tucked under his arm, fresh-faced Duane checks into the Hotel Broslin, a fictional but believably decrepit pay-by-the-night hotel inhabited by a collection of oily-looking alcoholics and hookers.  (It’s particularly refreshing and effective that Basket Case‘s prostitutes look unglamorous, like women forced to sell their bodies because they have no other alternative, not like fashion models dolled up as eye candy for horny male viewers).  Despite his poodle-perm, Van Hentenryck’s Duane is the Broslin’s most attractive resident, if only because he’s the only one who looks like he’s had a shower in the last week.  The script plays heavily on the irony of the hostel’s most normal and least streetwise resident actually being the most twisted and dangerous in the menagerie of wretches.  Acting is generally poor all around, even from the leads, but it hardly matters, and even adds to the movie’s downbeat charm.  Violence is plentiful and ridiculously satisfying enough for gorehounds, but the displays of spurting blood only accentuate the story, rather than representing it’s sole reason for existence.  There is black humor, and some unintentional laughs develop thanks to the poor performances and the absurd, tongue-in-cheek premise, but this is no comedy; it’s a solid shocker that draws you in and sells its horrific scenario, rather than begging you to laugh at its campiness.  The monster, Belial, is a fantastic and original conception, both in his origins and motives and in his general design.  Looking eerily half-human but with deformed hands, razor-sharp teeth and highly questionable physiology, he evokes both disgust and pity.  Normally, Belial appears as a puppet, but there are times when he creeps across the floor courtesy of laughably bad stop-motion animation, a sight that only adds to the mild weirdness of the film.  Besides the memorable setting, the other secret to Basket Case‘s success is that Henenlotter instinctively understands that monsters work best when they are sympathetic outcasts, a la Frankenstein or King Kong.  We understand why they must be destroyed, but we find a part of ourselves rooting for them to stick it to a society that has rejected them; that tension keeps the viewer emotionally involved in how things turn out.  Within it’s seedy subgenre, Basket Case is a bloody classic.

The distribution history of Basket Case is curious.  Henenlotter explicitly intended the shocker to play 42nd street fleapit theaters, where he was sure the flick would earn back its meager $35,000 budget and even make a small profit.  The film never ended up in grindhouses; instead, it made its way to Cannes where a distributor purchased it, intending to market it as a midnight movie.  The distributor cut out the gore scenes and marketed the film as a comedy, to lukewarm reception.  Drive-in film critic Joe Bob Briggs championed the film and wrote columns protesting the hack job and insisting that the film not play Dallas unless it was the uncut version.  The distributor eventually saw the wisdom of this move and re-released the film in the “full, uncut version!,” including gimmick surgical masks given away to ticket purchasers.  The film became an underground hit.  Later, when Basket Case was released on VHS, Henenlotter insisted it be sold for a price that the average collector could afford, which went against the prevailing wisdom at that time that new releases should be priced as high as possible and aimed at rental outlets rather than collectors.  Of course, the cheap Basket Case release outsold and ended up being far more profitable than all the horror offerings available at that time, and Hennenlotter’s strategy helped to change the pricing model in the home video industry for good.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this creature ‘like a squashed octopus’ with an alarmingly human face is one of horror’s more memorably bizarre monsters… 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.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film (DVD)

This movie was suggested for review by reader “Tom”. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.

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