If you manage to live long enough, what once disturbed and terrified you will eventually baffle and amuse you. Horror films encountered in youth can have a dramatic impact that just can’t possibly resonate as deeply when reconsidered in adulthood. Unless you’re raised as a veal, hermetically sealed away from any experience of the horrors of the real world, scary movies eventually become mainly a source of enjoyment, of release and of diversion, rather than any enduring kind of terror. As a kid, I saw SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT, and I was traumatized for days. As an adult, I stay up worrying about relationships and bills, and I don’t imagine a cheaply-made film about a deranged Santa Claus would have the same disruptive effect on me. Thanks to YouTube, I now know for a fact that the notorious sleeping bag scene in THE PROPHECY is exactly as funny as it used to be upsetting to me. Large Marge, the wall gnome from CAT’S EYE, and the Killer Klowns are no longer any issue. And it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when I was scared to look at BASKET CASE.
BASKET CASE is the story of twin brothers, Siamese twins, who arrive in New York City during the seediest days of the Times Square scene. One was born tremendously deformed, and the doctors separated him from his “normal” brother. It’s hard to feel too bad for Belial because he’s nasty, perverted, and very evil. His brother Duane carries him around everywhere in a wicker basket (alternative title to BASKET CASE: THE WICKER MAN?) and together they seek revenge on the doctors who treated them so callously. When Duane gets a girlfriend, Belial gets jealous.
I was first introduced to BASKET CASE via the legendary Joe Bob Briggs, whose gregarious talk-ups of the film were like an oasis from a sea of terror when the film ran on TV. Growing up just outside Manhattan, BASKET CASE to me looked like all the reasons I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere near 42nd Street alone. Nowadays, Times Square is a gaudy orgy of Disney-fied commercialism but there was a time when it felt genuinely dangerous. It was enough to tell a kid that there were guys like Travis Bickle running around that ‘hood — now you’re telling me there’s something like Belial out there?
In the clip I linked to in the previous paragraph, you’ll see Joe Bob talking to the filmmaker behind BASKET CASE, Frank Henenlotter, a true New Yorker who made the movie, his first, on a shoestring budget. Henenlotter made two more BASKET CASE movies — BASKET CASE 2 and BASKET CASE 3: THE PROGENY — along with BRAIN DAMAGE and the unforgettable BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN update, FRANKENHOOKER. Most recently he worked on a documentary about fellow filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis. Henenlotter grew up in the grindhouse theaters of 42nd Street, and BASKET CASE was a labor of deranged, genuine love. Looking back on his movies now, all you see is the enthusiasm.
Belial is a puppet — a spectacularly vile-looking puppet, but only a puppet — who turns into stop-motion animation during pivotal scenes. Pretty much all the dialogue he gets consists of demented braying, like a donkey in heat. When an unsuspecting victim opens the lid of the basket and Belial jumps out for murderous mayhem, sometimes he seems as surprised as they do. His beserker rages are seven times funnier than any of Adam Sandler’s or Hugh Jackman’s. Just try to watch this scene without laughing hysterically. I watched it four times before writing this piece and my eyes are still wet with tears. It’s amazing to me now that I ever experienced anything close to fright while watching this movie. It’s true that the gore is pretty baroque and extremely abundant, and the sexuality is aggressive and enthusiastically wrong, but in 2013 you’ll see plenty worse than this at 8pm on CBS any night of the week.
Henenlotter’s New York is populated by hookers, low-lifes, and scumbags, but his vision is more cartoonish, more underground comix, than almost any movie you’ll see anywhere else. His unique style conveys the hectic nightmare of nighttime in New York in a way that feels as genuine as Scorsese’s early films did. BASKET CASE is a sustained cacophony of heightened and exaggerated caricatures colliding in dim hallways and garbage-covered streets, presided over by a bellowing sharp-toothed imp who resembles an eighty-year-old ballsack. It must be seen, but maybe not by anyone under 21.
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