A doctor is preparing to leave his house and go on a visit when he hears something outside and thinks better of it, as he starts to feel scared. He calls the police, but it’s to no avail when the line goes down – is someone messing with him? He soon finds out when the lights cut out and he is attacked in the darkness by something very strong that overpowers him and mangles him to death. What connection could there possibly be between this incident and the young man, Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck), who is walking through New York City's Times Square district carrying a wicker basket? He is seeking a place to stay the night as he ignores the drug dealers and prostitutes, settling on a hotel boarding house where he takes up their offer of a bed, paying the deposit from a large wad of cash...
Director Frank Henenlotter's Basket Case became legendary very quickly, thanks to midnight showings that generated a cult of audiences looking for something original and out of the ordinary, no matter that it was obvious this had been created on a super-low budget. Indeed, the lack of funds and sleazy milieu that marked out its distinctive atmosphere only worked in its favour, though Henenlotter and his tiny crew might not have agreed, the whole thing being really difficult to make and generating a bunch of war stories from the frontlines of exploitation movies. But the final effect was appreciation as much as by dint of the fact they had succeeded in finishing and releasing it as it had been for its quality.
Watching it now, it could go either way for you. Bearing in mind it was dedicated to Herschell Gordon Lewis might give you an idea of what to expect, but it was true enough this was barely one step up from a home movie, and if you were not sympathetic to its patently impoverished appearance then that was going to be a stumbling block in your appreciation. Another may well have been the deliberate bad taste on display, lending proceedings a certain John Waters tone should he have ever made an out and out horror movie; the humour was present, though could easily be mistaken for ineptitude by a viewer less well-versed in the culture and material the filmmakers had been.
On the other hand, if that sounded right up your street you were going to have a ball with Basket Case, and undoubtedly if you were sympathetic it was up there with the best of the tiny budget shockers and better than a whole lot of them. What it had in its favour was Henenlotter's particular sensibility, born of watching countless grindhouse efforts, often in the context of visiting New York’s actual grindhouses which we see in many scenes here, by way of tribute to his preferred cinematic haunts. That killer idea was your basic Jekyll and Hyde premise, yet offered an ingenious twist when the two sides of the split personality actually did consist of two separate, though psychically linked, people. Duane is one, the rational side who is forced ever onwards to satisfy the other, his insane, violent conjoined twin's thirst for revenge for their separation against their will.
What gives him a little depth is that we can see if the twin had died in the operation as it was supposed to, Duane would have enjoyed something like a normal life from then on. That establishing of an essentially tragic relationship offset with absurd horror and humour offered a very identifiable sense of melodramatic craziness to Henenlotter’s movies, and you could argue it informed every film he ever directed, but also that he had perfected it with his first feature, not bad on the initial attempt. That everyone around Duane, not simply the blob of solid muscle he keeps in the basket, was a little touched was another element that gave this its character, from the exasperated hotel manager (Robert Vogel, perhaps the best performance among a largely inexperienced cast) to Duane’s new receptionist girlfriend (Terri Susan Smith) – an indication of how he craves the quiet life – yet they all react with the same yelling when they see the twin. Horror and disgust can be a great leveller, and it was here in a small gem of schlock.
[Second Sight has released the Basket Case Trilogy on Blu-ray for the UK, uncut and with a whole load of extras including commentary, featurettes, trailers and galleries. Even Easter eggs!]
American director of trashy horror comedies. Made his debut in 1982 with the cult splatter favourite Basket Case, which he followed in 1988 with the similarly themed, equally gruesome drug addiction-analogy Brain Damage. Frankenhooker was a taste-free updating of Frankenstein, while Basket Cases 2 and 3 followed in the early 90s. After a long gap overseeing the preservation and distribution of vintage grindhouse movies, he returned to directing with Bad Biology in 2008.