Classic Midnite Cult movies were a mini-phenomenon chosen by the public, created by word of mouth approval. Frank Henenlotter’s wild ‘n’ weird ‘separated at birth’ story is a thematic mashup of horror ideas plunked down in the middle of America’s sleaze capital, 42nd street in the early 1980s. The audience-pleasing telepathic siblings Duane and Belial look fantastic in a new MoMa restoration, and the extras let the flamboyant director recount a great making-of story. His first distributor decided to ‘fix’ the movie by removing most of the gore!
Arrow Video USA
1982 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame / 91 min. / Street Date February 27, 2018 / Available from Arrow Video
Starring: Lance VanHentenryck, Terri Susan Smith, Beverly Bonner, Robert Vogel, Diana Brown, Lloyd Pace, Ruth Neuman.
Cinematography: Bruce Torbet
Original Music: Gus Russo
Produced by Arnold H. Bruck and Edgar Levins
Written, Edited and Directed by Frank Henenlotter
A few commercial horror films initially reviled as trash cinema are now considered great works by great filmmakers. Some ’70s pictures by George Romero have been canonized. The earliest shows by Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven are just short of mainstream acceptance, even if they’re difficult to watch.
Frank Henenlotter isn’t quite in that pantheon even if his first movie Basket Case has everything needed for a socko midnight gore-fest. Many of his fans first learned about him from an interview in the RESearch volume Incredibly Strange Films, written when Basket Case was his only released movie. It was illustrated mainly with pictures of his apartment — a nudist film poster on the wall, rubber monsters for doorstops, and (hopefully tricked out for the photo) a real-looking baby’s head on a plate in the fridge. That was ’86. If somebody tried that stunt today, even as a joke, they’d end up on multiple watch lists.
The great thing about this new edition of BC is spending time with the garrulous, friendly, heavily New York accented Henenlotter. The official story is that he was slaving away in advertising graphics when he decided to make his own horror movie. Perhaps inspired by the success of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, he filmed in scattered sessions over the course of a year, as money became available. Basket Case benefits from good cinematography and Henenlotter’s smart, spirited direction. With the help of loyal, talented friends, Henenlotter captured a convincing snapshot of the sleazier parts of Manhattan circa 1981 or so. His outrageous story idea guarantees interest from the gross-out crowd yet he also delivers fun characters and a sympathetic hero.
The show is about brothers but don’t expect The Brothers Karamazov. Carrying a mysterious basket, young Duane Bradley (Lance VanHentenryck) checks into the Hotel Broslin, a Times Square flophouse (into room #7, Val Lewton fans). A likable, everyday kind of guy who would not seem to be looking for trouble, Duane nevertheless spends his days tracking down the doctors who performed an operation on him when he was a young boy. Duane was born with a vestigially deformed growth on his side that was actually his brother, Belial. Nobody realized that the brothers were telepathically linked. Several years ago, two doctors and a veterinarian separated Duane from the pulpy white monstrosity Belial. Duane responded by murdering his own father. He rescued Belial from the trash heap. A benign aunt (Ruth Neuman) sheltered the two of them with loving kindness.
Now Duane is aiding Belial in a campaign of murderous revenge. The mission is complicated by the fact that the telepathic relationship still functions, so Belial knows everything that Duane is doing. Duane is trying to keep himself open to new relationships, as with the receptionist Sharon (Terri Susan Smith) he’s met while casing a potential victim. Belial is dependent on Duane, but also jealous of his love interests . . . murderously jealous.
Basket Case has nothing to apologize for. In all basics it’s a well-made movie with good camerawork and direction. Henenlotter clearly cares about quality. He may not have decent production resources but he knows where to put the camera and he cares enough to do the best work he can. That puts him far ahead of most directors at this level of filming including his credited mentor Herschel Gordon Lewis. His picture is a lot more than bait for the gore fans. Not too much in the picture is egregiously offensive, certainly not the ‘bad taste’ central concept. Expect some obligatory nudity, but there’s not even that much swearing. The gore mostly involves tossing blood and muck about. For a dream scene VanHentenryk was induced to run naked down a dark Manhattan street in the middle of the night, which is no mean stunt in itself. Although disturbingly twisted, the Belial puppet is just a hunk of rubber. Although Belial makes a couple of jolting surprise entrances most of the slaughter scenes invite knowing laughter. We’re in on the joke.
The acting is of course uneven. VanHentenryk is good and some of the other actors even better. The hotel superintendent (Robert Vogel) and Duane’s prostitute neighbor (Beverly Bonner) come off as rounded characters that we care about. Only the girlfriend Sharon tends toward amateurishness in some scenes. How is one supposed to perform when attacked by the creepy Belial?
Instead of a mentally challenged killer brother in a closet, Duane has a deformed toadstool brother that he carries around in a basket. Every ten minutes comes a requisite scene with blood splashing on the walls. Faces are ripped up like a cat’s scratching post, but we aren’t expected to take anything seriously.
The Belial monster is competently handled in most scenes. He’s mostly pitiful, an inert lump of latex pulled by wire or stuck on a broom handle. For some shots he’s manipulated via stop-motion animation, which is amusing simply because the result is so crude. Belial remains interesting because we know he has a personality and a purpose.
Henenlotter’s film was released at a time when a no-budget film might find real theatrical exhibition rather than be relegated to the ghettos of direct-to-video. The show gathered the right kind of reviews when new: it was called sleazy, reprehensible, indefensible and disgusting, even by genre critics that regularly championed transgressive pix on political grounds. Those were great days for cocky independent pictures; BC started as a Midnite Movie and eventually earned a real release. Henenlotter is on record claiming no higher goal than making a good gross-out horror show. He’s the first to call Basket Case total trash, and proudly so — he’s a connoisseur of gutter exploitation.
Henenlotter would soon seek out sleaze filmmakers from the previous generation, David Friedman and Herschel Gordon Lewis. He later teamed up with the late Mike Vraney of the Something Weird Video label, on projects to preserve historical grind house pictures. He’s returned to make a number of sequels, and to try his hand at other outrageous film projects. For fans of marginal films, he’s become a sort of blue-movie Robert Osborne.
Frank Henenlotter didn’t seek a mainstream career from his success. After the success of Basket Case the only offers he received were for slasher films, for which he had no use whatsoever. In the 1986 interview he expresses his disenchantment with contemporary mainstream horror and his disinterest in popular Spielberg movies, so the mainstream probably wasn’t what he wanted anyway.
Basket Case offers plenty of fodder for critics that like to dissect pop genre pix. The Belial story initially comes off as an opportunistic melding of Sisters and Eraserhead. Henenlotter also leans on the Jekyll and Hyde / Psycho transference theme. It could very well be an ordinary split-personality story, if Duane were simply deranged and only imagining that he has a monster in a basket. There’s never any doubt that Belial does exist as a separate creature, but he still represents half of a serial-killer type of psychopathic personality.
The definition of ‘belie’ is to betray, so perhaps Belial is the nasty, destructive and socially taboo part of Duane Bradley. He can be kept hidden from the world but he can’t be denied. Duane loves his brother and is loyal to him to the bitter end. The horror comes from Duane’s inability to (sigh) reconcile all this killing and gore with his desire for a normal life. The sketchy relationship engages us and elevates this agreeably sleazy picture far above 42nd street.
Arrow Video USA’s Blu-ray of Basket Case is a great way to see Frank Henenlotter’s splatter classic. The MoMA fully restored it in 2017 from the director’s original negative. We’re told that original release prints were horrendously poor. Modern digital tools have done wonders in giving the show a much better look than one would expect from 16mm. The aspect ratio is 1.33, which looks right.
Arrow has collected enough extras for a Basket Case film festival. They range from interviews archived and new to featurettes, unused scenes and ad material. Everything that Frank Henenlotter participates in is gold. He comes off as a nice, smart guy who had a hell of a good time making a movie with his friends. Most still are his friends. Kevin Van Hentenryck returns for various pieces as does the personable Beverly Bonner. Perhaps in line with the director’s attitude toward sexploitation is a joke interview in which a naked man claiming to be Henenlotter gives forth with a phony film introduction ending with a full-frontal exit. It probably cracked up the audiences at one of the show’s re-premieres, but it’s too rough for this context.
A well-made new short subject called Belial’s Dream darkens the spirit of Basket Case with a lot of disturbing stop-motion imagery suspended between Lynchian weirdness and profane obviousness. Much more fun is Henenlotter’s pre- BC short subject Slash of the Knife, a wickedly accurate parody of old barnstorming “Mom and Dad” type movies. Instead of childbirth the subject is circumcision, and Henenlotter elicits some squirmy reactions.
The most fun is Frank Henenlotter’s full commentary, assisted by Kevin Van Hentenryck. The director joyfully relates the story of making the picture, praising his many generous helpers by name and explaining how he cobbled his sets together from junkyard raids. Personal connections led him to an acting school with aspiring performers; smaller roles were covered by friends and relatives. He recounts how he had to shoot some days’ scenes more than once because of camera troubles. In his struggle to keep the movie going he often didn’t have enough money to get his dailies out of the lab. When shown partial edits of what had been shot, potential investors ponied up more money to allow filming to continue.
That last detail speaks for the quality of what Henenlotter was shooting. I admire filmmakers from this period, that went the distance and actually put a decent movie together. Not everybody could. I once edited a low-budget ‘family adventure’ movie with Robert S. Birchard. When the producer’s cash ran out he arranged a last-minute work print screening, with the aim of tapping his investors for more funds. They instead asked to be given back the money they had already paid.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: New audio commentary with writer/director Frank Henenlotter and star Kevin Van Hentenryck; Basket Case 3-1/2 – Frank Henenlotter revisits Duane Bradley for an interview; Seeing Double: The Basket Case Twins – a brand new interview with Florence and Maryellen Schultz, the film’s twin nurses; New making-of featurette containing new interviews with producer Edgar Ievins, casting person/actress Ilze Balodis, associate producer/effects artist Ugis Nigals and Belial performer Kika Nigals; Blood, BASKET and Beyond – a new interview with actress Beverly Bonner; Belial Goes to the Drive-In – a new interview with film critic Joe Bob Briggs; Outtakes featurette; In Search of the Hotel Broslin – archive location featurette; Slash of the Knife (1972) – short film by Frank Henenlotter; Belial’s Dream (2017, 5 mins) – animated short by filmmaker Robert Morgan; Behind-the-scenes of Belial’s Dream; Trailers, TV Spots and Radio Spots; Still Galleries. First Pressing Only: Illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Michael Gingold.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: March 20, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson