Basket Case Review
As Mike Sutton said in his review of Death Proof, "Using the word ‘Grindhouse’ suggests sleaze but Death Proof is surprisingly light on scuzziness...the lack of nudity is surprising and one of the ways in which it doesn't entirely stick to the principles of its roots - you may recall that however tough the girls were in the 1970s, they still had to get ‘em out for the camera." Basket Case is most certainly a grindhouse movie, cheaply made, acted in such a way as to suggest that no one had appeared before a camera before, shot on location in Times Square and Terri Susan Smith (and Kevin Van Hentenryck) does indeed get 'em out.
Quentin Tarantino has made something of a habit of talking up his genre films but not actually delivering on the promise. Frank Henenlotter, on the other hand, has described his film as a sleazy horror flick but takes pride in Basket Case as he does so. Setting itself in the grimy streets around Times Square, Basket Case opens with Duane Bradley (Van Hentenryck) walking down the sidewalk carrying a basket. There's almost a documentary feel to the film as he's approached by a guy who offers him cocaine, weed, angel dust and even girls. That this pusher/pimp delivers his couple of lines better than anyone else in the film suggests that he's for real and that the Basket Case production is, at this early point, limited to Henenlotter, Van Hentenryck and a basket, with the worried look on Van Hentenryck's face implying he's as much a small town kid in the city as his character. Thereafter it's into the Hotel Broslin (actually a mid-Manhattan welfare hotel with a lobby filmed in a propped-open service elevator) and into the filth of a hotel room that, with its selection of stains on the mattress, you would be best staying awake to avoid. All notions of real life quickly come to an end as Duane lifts the lid on the basket and drops burgers inside. It's clear that something's eating them and whatever's in there is small, noisy and very hungry.
What is in the basket isn't shown, at least not until later. First, Duane must settle a few old scores. He and whatever is in the basket are killers even before the opening titles with the torn and bloodstained of Dr Lifflander (Bill Freeman) being the first on their list. Their arrival in New York has them calling at the office of Dr Needleman (Lloyd Pace) but while he's there, Duane meets Needleman's receptionist, a pretty young woman called Sharon (Terri Susan Smith). Duane whispers to Sharon that he would like to meet her on a date. "Why are we whispering?" "So he can't hear us!" As Duane tears at his hair on his date with Sharon, it becomes clear what's in the basket. It's his brother! And Belial is jealous!
Henenlotter keeps his audience in suspense as regards how exactly Duane's brother can live in a basket but once he shows his hand, he's not afraid to make the most of the horror. In a marvellous and gruesome flashback, Henenlotter explains how Siamese twins Duane and Belial were separated, with the director clearly both amused and fascinated by the story of their separation during adolescence. The only limits that he faces are as regards his budget as there's clearly no shortfall of imagination. Belial is as interesting a monster as grindhouse cinema has ever thrown up, looking like a 'squashed octopus', with a mouthful of terrifyingly sharp teeth and an unhealthy taste for revenge. Henelotter brings him to life through various means, including stop-motion, puppetry and models, with each one finding a place in the movie. If Sam Raimi was pushing horror forward from his temporary home in Morristown, Henenlotter was doing the same in Times Square with the two of them sharing a common bond in the gallons of fake blood they used to splash across their sets.
The Evil Dead, in spite of the bizarre notion that there's comedy in it, requires a strong stomach and a taste for gruelling terror. Basket Case, though also demanding strong nerves, has a warmer heart. At least in the first half of the film, Duane and Belial actually seem to like one another. There's a smile on Duane's face as he feeds Belial his burgers. He rescues him from his hiding place in the toilet and he doesn't appear upset, though this might be due more to the limits of Kevin Van Hentenryck's acting, to be carrying him around the streets of New York in a basket. Indeed, Duane seems rather pleased when Belial carries out his bloody vengeance. However, come the arrival of Sharon, these filial bonds are severed. Sharon, like many a woman before her, comes firmly between Duane and Belial. Even then, it's impossible not to feel sorry for Belial, who has to sit quietly in a wicker basket while she lies on the hotel bed and gasps, "Take me, Duane!" Belial goes the kind of nuts that has the management of a hotel well-used to the freaks screaming at Duane to keep it down. The blood flows thereafter.
"Take me, Duane!" There has to be a sense of comedy in a film that can have a line like that. And there's, "But Duane, you're...different." Basket Case is a funny film, sometimes hilarious and though the acting can make this seem unintentional, Henenlotter clearly intends to keep his audience laughing with lines like, "You're cute when you slobber!", Belial lifting Duane a foot or so into the air by the groin and the visual gag of the separated halves of the body of Duane and Belial's father collapsing apart after being ambushed by a circular saw. The best joke comes with Duane finding out what it is that Dr Kutter actually does, something that he can't believe, not least sitting in the waiting room, which is when the audience will most clearly realise that Henenlotter's tongue is as firmly in his cheek as Lifflander's is being ripped out of his.
Basket Case is not a film for everyone, clearly not. Just as there are many people who, more used to the glossy horror of more recent films, dismiss The Evil Dead as poorly-made schlock, so there will be those who won't look past the dreadful acting, cheap effects and filthy setting to see something that's both charming and very bloody.However, if you're like me and you are the kind of person who gets excited at seeing the old Palace Video logo then you'll well remember Basket Case and will have, I think, fond memories of it. It doesn't have to be simply about nostalgia but it certainly helps, if only to look past at all that's so very cheap about Basket Case but to revel in its sleaziness nonetheless.
Anchor Bay proved time and again that a film shot for tuppence could still look excellent if care was taken over its presentation. Although nowhere near the standard of Anchor Bay's Evil Dead releases (and there have been very many of them), Tartan haven't done a bad job with this release of Basket Case. Of course, a reasonable Basket Case still doesn't look any better than the average home movie these days but this was twenty-five years ago, a crew of three and a budget of less than $200k so while it does look like Henenlotter filmed it in backrooms, nightclubs and stairwells, that's probably the case. He does know how to frame a shot, meaning that it's easy to look past some of the cheaper moments to see a director capable of building a sense of sleazy horror. Though it's only been cleaned-up a little, the key word there is little. There's been no great remastering of the source material and while it looks better than I've ever seen it before, I'm comparing it to VHS and a couple of midnight movie showings where the prints looked as though they'd been around the world a few times, possibly even unspooled to do so. The colours are a mix of reds, pinks and dirty greys - the colour scheme of the sleazier end of Times Square - but appear washed-out and though the picture is certainly on the softer side of DVD releases, it is watchable. Unfortunately, I don't have the R1 special edition to hand to compare with the other but given that it received generally positive reviews and this is merely alright, I would suspect it looks better.
The soundtrack is really good, though, and while it is on the side of being overly bright and crisp, it's lovely to listen to all those icky fingers-through-entrails sound effects that Henenlotter uses. The highlight is the operation that sees Duane and Belial separated, which features effects so sharp that it sounds as though Duane and Belial were gently roasted first. Great sound effect, though, when Belial is torn away from Duane and dumped. The DD2.0 audio track is certainly a fine listen but, again, it's only fair to put this in context. The dialogue sounds as though it was recorded on location - no ADR here! - and so it does get lost in the bluster of street noise and wind. Duane and Casey clearly have to shout over the background noise to be heard in the bar. But away from there, it sounds fine
There isn't a great deal here, certainly falling well short of the Region 1 release. Instead, Tartan have only provided a DVD that creeps slightly above bare-bones with three filmographies for Frank Henenlotter, Kevin Van Hentenryck and Beverly Bonner (Frankenhooker, Brain Damage and Basket Case and its sequels feature heavily in all three) as well as a Trailer (58s) and a fourteen-page Film Review by Alan Jones. In an effort to stretch out the content on the disc, Tartan have included a Tartan Terror promotional reel, which includes trailers for Pumpkinhead, Trauma, The Ring, Ring 2 and Audition. That's a fairly shoddy line up of special features when you compare it to the R1 Special Edition, which includes a commentary, outtakes, behind-the-scenes footage, a gallery, a video short in search of the Hotel Broslin, radio interviews and comedy clips with Beverly Bonner.
I wanted to see Basket Case from the first sight of its trailer before The Evil Dead on the old 1983 VHS with its, "What's in the basket?" If for no other reason, yeah, I wanted to know what was in the basket. Nothing prepares the viewer for what actually was in the basket or for the out-there story written by Henenlotter but it's a hugely enjoyable film and all the better that, unlike more recent efforts that go under the name of grindhouse, Basket Case, with its gore, sleaze and nudity, really does deliver.