Director: Frank Hennenlotter
Cast: Kevin Van Hentenryck, Terri Susan Smith, Beverly Bonner
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
Plot: Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) arrives in a grubby New York hotel carrying a giant wicker basket. It turns out the basket contains Belial, a deformed mutant who was formerly conjoined to Bradley's side. They are in town to exact bloody revenge on the doctors who forcibly separated them, but Duane's burgeoning interest in a beautiful local woman (Terri Susan Smith) begins to threaten their inseparable bond.
Analysis: Basket Case lives in a strange dichotomy that is announced by the opening title card (depending what version you're watching). This movie which cost $16,000 and comes from the coterie of grubby early 80's exploitation films set in a pre-Giuliani New York City (like C.H.U.D., Q, the Winged Serpent and Maniac) has also been restored and preserved by the Museum of Modern Art. Whether it deserves to be revered by the art community more than any of those other similarly scrappy guerrilla productions is an important question, but the fact remains that it has earned every ounce of attention it gets through sheer gonzo willingness to go ahead and push itself to be the exact thing it wants to be.
This is B-movie director Frank Hennenlotter's first feature, and it shows. The audio is shitty and muffled at its best. Two thirds of the cast perform their lines like they've just been hit on the head with a hammer. There are enough hairs in the camera gate to make a Rapunzel wig. However, there is an effervescent charm to the proceedings that redeems its ineptitude, or at least harnesses it to the greasy, weird atmosphere of the corner of New York that it's capturing and uses that to accentuate its strengths.
A microcosm of how things that shouldn't work just plain do is Belial himself. He's an ugly, stunted puppet with stiff, immobile lips that look like a BOB punching dummy got left out in the sun for too long. Plus, his motion obviously switches between shitty, herky-jerky stop motion and not-particularly-convincing puppetry. However, this film had more effective scare moments than any other film I've seen this year, perhaps because what you're looking at is so thoroughly and indefensibly wrong.
The kills meted out by Belial are rendered with considerably better effects, though they do commit the sin of lacking specificity. A lot of the things he does to his victims merely result in their faces becoming smeared with blood (at least at first), and don't quite pack the punch to the gut that something specific like, say, a gouged eye, would have. Plus, the setups for the kills get too repetitive and samey by the time the film reaches its conclusion. Same goes for the dialogue scenes, which drag out the reveal of Belial's backstory long past the time that pretty much every viewer might have figured it out on their own, and repeat a lot of the same setups over and over again.
But in spite of all this, the sheer audacity of this film to exist is still endlessly enjoyable. It doesn't hurt that Van Hentenryck is an adorable - if amateurish - screen presence, with his fresh face haloed by a cumulous cloud of hair that can't exactly be called a mullet because it's got a party in the front as well. Plus, his co-star Beverly Bonner (as his across-the-hall neighbor Casey) has a glowing natural charisma that outshines her limited acting prowess. Ditto a random featured extra who gives a rambling monologue about the drugs Duane could buy from him. Basket Case definitely hits the sweet spot where the handmade quality makes you want to coo over it and fall in love even as it's burping up blood all down the front of your shirt.
Final Girl: N/A
Best Kill: Somehow, Belial sets up the world's largest circular saw blade on some sort of ramp contraption that slides down and saws his father in half, vertically.
Sign of the Times: Duane buys a TV that could fit in the palm of my hand.
Scariest Moment: Dr. Needleman turns on the lights, only to reveal that Belial is clinging to the wall over the switch.
Weirdest Moment: I'm not sure how one would even begin to choose one, so I'm gonna go with the MoMA credit in the intro.
Champion Dialogue: "That's OK, I like you drunk. You're cute when you slobber."
Body Count: 6; not including Belial or Duane, who clearly die in the denouement but then come back for Basket Case 2 in 1990.
- Dr. Lifflander is clawed about the face.
- Dr. Needleman is ripped in half.
- Brian Mickey O'Donovan is clawed.
- Dad is bisected.
- Dr. Kutter has her face shoved into a drawer of scalpels.
- Sharon is strangled.
TL;DR: Basket Case is a mite repetitive, but it spins a maniacal good time out of almost nothing.
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