I’ve always had time for writer-director Frank Henenlotter. Anyone who mentions ‘Jess Franco’s House of Pain’ in the end title acknowledgements to one of his films (in that case Brain Damage) is all right by me. His most recent cinematic offering, Bad Biology (2008) was a glorious riot of sexual and genitalia-orientated bad taste that made us all realise what a perverse talent we had been missing all these years. It’s hard to believe that until that film’s release, Frank’s last motion picture offering was Basket Case 3 (of which more in just a little while) made way back in 1992. In fact it’s the Basket Case films that I want to talk about today, not least because, courtesy of those lovely people at Second Sight, I have just spent the last couple of days working my way through the Basket Case Trilogy that is now out on DVD and blu-ray. Apparently the blu-ray comes in a very attractive steelbook, and both formats have a cover painting by the marvellous Graham Humphreys, of whom more in a moment also.
But first: Basket Case. I remember watching Henenlotter’s 1982 original when it was first released by Palace Pictures on VHS, in a version that, while still missing a few scenes of splat, was refreshingly far more intact than the one seen stateside if the complaint letters from horror film geekdom in the letter pages of Fangoria were to be believed. Perhaps the censor realised for once that, quite sensibly, Henenlotter’s film really is a load of daft old nonsense. Good nonsense mind you, and splendidly creative, outrageously over the top nonsense, but totally daft all the same.
Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) moves into a sleazy New York hotel room with few possessions other than a roll of hundred dollar bills and a basket he’s reluctant to allow people to view the contents of. This is with good reason, as the basket contains Duane’s Siamese twin Belial, a creature consisting of little more than a head and two arms, but still strong enough to tear people to shreds and shove a lady’s head into a drawer full of scalpels if he has a mind to. Duane and Belial are out for revenge on the doctors (plus one vet) who were responsible for separating them at the behest of their father, and therein lies our plot. By the end of the film Duane has loved and lost, Belial has murdered a number of people in astonishingly gory (and very effective) ways, and the two of them are lying seemingly dead on a New York street as the credits roll.
Many people coming to Second Sight’s BluRay release will have seen Basket Case in some form, and none of them will be surprised at Henenlotter’s introduction where he explains that it would be impossible to get the film looking like the kind of visual quality one expects from modern movies. What he has instead tried to do is make the film look the same as it did on its very first 16mm showings to distributors. Fans can therefore relax, safe in the knowledge that the print of Basket Case looks as grimy and grungy as ever, and is presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio.
If you’ve never seen Basket Case before then what I’ve described above still won’t prepare you for what has to be one of the silliest yet most honest pieces using the New York grindhouse backdrop of the old Times Square I think I have ever seen. Directors like Abel Ferrara (Driller Killer) and even Lucio Fulci (New York Ripper) have used the sleazy side of 1980s New York to emphasise the squalidness of their characters’ lives and surroundings, but there are few, if any, directors who have used it quite like this. Like Ferrara, there’s an integrity to Henenlotter’s film that means that, despite the ropey stop-motion effects and the quite astounding variety of wigs on display (most notably the massive blonde hairpiece worn by leading lady Terri Susan Smith who was apparently normally bald) you get the feeling that most of the cast and crew probably lived in apartments not that dissimilar to what’s on display here. There’s hardly a single interior location that doesn’t have cracked walls and peeling paint. The office of Dr Needleman has to be the grimmest, sleaziest doctor’s office I have ever seen in a movie, and the dead plant on his desk and display of crumbly rubber stamps next to it are either the work of subtle art direction or pure luck, and after watching all the extras I’m still split between the two.
What struck me most about watching Basket Case this time, thirty years after putting it into the VHS player, is that it hasn’t dated that much, and certainly nowhere near as badly as a lot of early-1980s produced fare. In fact it was a pleasure to discover how much of it still works, and for any fan of low budget weird grindhouse horror Second Sight’s new presentation is an essential purchase. Disk one of the set is also packed with extras, including the aforementioned introduction, plus outtakes, trailers (sadly not the original Palace Pictures us 1980s horror fanatics can probably still recite), photo galleries, a commentary by Henenlotter with producer Edgar Ievins and actress Beverly Bonner (Casey in the movie), a lengthy featurette detailing the making of the trilogy, an easily-found Easter egg where special effects man Gabe Bartalos takes you on a tour of some of his weirder makeup effects (well worth a look) and last but by no means least a fantastic short interview with poster artist Graham Humphreys. Like many people my age, Graham’s artwork was a major part of my life during the 1980s and his iconic quad posters for The Evil Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street were on my bedroom wall. The interview is fascinating as Graham guides us through his career, including his work on the Elm Street series (and the banned posters for Parts 2 and 4 that I remember seeing in London for about a week before they were taken down) and Return of the Living Dead, before coming right up to date with the glorious cover he’s put together for this trilogy set. His next project is new poster art for Reanimator, its sequel, Society and From Beyond and I can’t wait.
Basket Case 2 is a funny little sequel, as is Basket Case 3. In many ways they are about as far away from the feel of the original as it’s possible to get. Whereas Basket Case feels like it could have been made by any number of purveyors of contemporary New York sleaze, like William Lustig or Abel Ferrara (admittedly after they’d been liberally dosed up with something that made them both manic and crazy), the two Basket Case sequels feel more like the efforts of someone who has been trapped in children’s television for too long and has finally gone off the deep end. With their bright colours, knockabout humour and often ludicrous monsters I sometimes felt I was watching an updated version of H R Pufnstuf. (Note to UK readers – H R Pufnstuf was an American children’s TV show from the same blokes who did the live action bits of The Banana Splits. It featured some incredibly weird costumes and was essentially a life-sized puppet show about a dragon. I’ve only seen the film version which was directed by Hollingsworth Morse. His only other movie of note was the Phillipino horror Daughters of Satan in which Tom Selleck battled nude ladies, but now I really am digressing.)
Basket Case 2 deals with Belial and Duane escaping the hospital they’ve been taken to after suffering a fall at the end of the first film and finding refuge at the house of Granny Ruth, who also looks after a number of other ‘special people’. Belial falls in love and Duane gets more and more frustrated with his own love life, resulting in a climax where Duane tries to literally reunite himself with his brother. It’s not a bad film and Gabe Bartalos’s monstrous creations are a sight to behold. Basket Case 3 involves the birth of Belial’s children and an awful lot more knockabout stuff that gets rather wearing, even for someone who quite likes silly horror a lot of the time. I understand that it was his experiences making Basket Case 3 that caused Henenlotter to retire from filmmaking for a while, which is a shame as the world of horror can always benefit from the work of a lunatic outsider. Thankfully Bad Biology has helped redress the balance somewhat, and hopefully there will be more bizarre works of celluloid from this quite individual of directors in the future.
JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
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