When the Museum of Modern Art announced they would be doing a 4k restoration of Frank Henenlotter’s 1982 Basket Case, my reaction was “it’s about fucking time.” I relayed this news to someone nearby and they rolled their eyes hard. Fine. Basket Case is that kind of movie, I guess.
Shot in New York City’s dangerous days, the same years that gave us such classics as Ms 45, Taxi Driver, Cruising, Maniac, and Driller Killer, Basket Case brought us into the seedy, neon drenched night life of 42nd Street through Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck), a kind of normal guy: innocent, not from around here, a little goofy, but nice. I found Duane to be a relatable character.
Growing up, I had a real fascination with New York City from comic books and TV shows. It was this mythical place that I dreamed about moving to after school. I was a normal guy, sort of innocent, from a small town, a little goofy, but I tried to be nice. When we see Duane walking the street looking for a place to stay, with his nerdy red backpack and big wicker basket, he might as well be wearing a sign that says NEW IN TOWN! MUG ME! When I caught Basket Case for the first time on the USA channel back in 1989 or ’90, I was quickly pulled into the story, and honestly, I took it as seriously as I later would a Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola film.
At its heart, Basket Case is a gritty revenge story. Duane wasn’t an only child; he had a Siamese twin brother, named Belial. Belial wasn’t like other kids; he was more of a sentient, misshapen tumor growing out of Duane’s side. He had a face and arms, otherwise he was just a big lump of flesh. Belial could only communicate with Duane telepathically, as he was only able to produce animalistic sounds with his mouth. Duane and Belial’s parents were devastated and mortified by their son’s hideous disfigurement and arranged a secret operation to have Belial removed from Duane’s side.
After the operation, everyone believed that Belial had not survived the operation. They literally put him in a garbage bag and threw away his body. No funeral, no mourning. Poor Belial was so unloved by his own parents that they didn’t even consider him human. This is Shakespearean-level tragedy as far as I’m concerned. It’s such a heartbreaking scene, to see Duane struggle and protest, trying to save his brother, while the adults “do what’s best.” Belial, of course, survives and years later, he and Duane arrive in NYC looking for everyone responsible for their separation.
If revenge is the cake, body horror is the icing. When we talk about body horror, we immediately think of the daddy of body horror, David Cronenberg. Basket Case is not so different from Cronenberg’s Shivers or Rabid, except that Henenlotter infuses his story with much more overt humor, which I think really helps Basket Case’s cheaper looking effects. We don’t care that we’re obviously looking at some low-budget puppeteering and stop motion animation, because Henenlotter weaves an over-the-top cartoonish air throughout the picture, without ever sacrificing the horrific and dramatic elements.
Something else that elevates Basket Case, is in the mundane times between Duane and Belial as they hole up in a seedy hotel, tracking their victims. Despite the physical differences, we get to see them as brothers. Van Hentenryck believably carries on conversations with this freaky hand puppet and sells their bond. We also get a sense of sibling rivalry: who’s really calling the shots? It’s not necessarily Duane, just because he has legs. After all, Belial is the one doing the killing. Duane starts to appear worn out by shouldering his brother’s burden, literally and figuratively. He recognizes the absurd situation he’s in, as we see when he drunkenly confides in his neighbor, Casey (Beverly Bonner).
We also see that he has a longing to be done with their mission and just be able to fall in love and have a normal life, as he falls for Sharon (Terri Susan Smith). Belial sees these things as a betrayal. He can never have a normal life or fall in love or even stroll down the street in the sunlight. Duane is his whole world and because of their telepathic link he knows Duane has some deep-rooted resentment that even he doesn’t want to admit it himself.
Even though Belial is this murderous little creature, we have sympathy for him. No one he kills is innocent. They all earned that fate, at least by his twisted logic. There’s a bizarre, almost surreal scene of stop motion animation where an enraged Belial trashes the hotel room while Duane is out. He knows Duane has been lying to him about seeing Sharon, he knows Duane betrayed their secret with Casey. Revenge is all he has outside of hiding away inside a fucking basket and being fed like a dog. His rage is as justified as Duane’s desire to have a future with Sharon. Where would that leave Belial? In another garbage bag? He decides the only thing he can do is get Sharon out of the picture.
That’s where Basket Case turns into a different movie. Our sympathies have been with Belial all along, until he murders Sharon and rapes her corpse. It is ugly and upsetting in the strongest sense. In a way, we the audience are betrayed as much as Duane is. Belial transforms from a sympathetic Hunchback of Notre Dame to a villainous Iago and we want to see him punished.
Duane is destroyed by Belial’s evil act and violently confronts his brother. Duane’s whole life has been dedicated to protecting and supporting and caring for his brother; he finally had one thing he could call his own and Belial couldn’t stand it. He had to rip it away from him. I think to some degree, many people who grew up with siblings, especially ones we couldn’t get along with, understand this.
In the end, Basket Case is a wholly human film. It may have been shot on a shoestring budget by amateurs, but it’s a work of art. I’m overjoyed by the fact that MoMA has recognized this and that we’ll be getting a special edition Blu-ray in February 2018, loaded with extras (details below) from Arrow Video. Arrow is a great home for Basket Case, as they always give their releases the red carpet treatment. (For a limited time, you can get a free enamel pin if you pre-order from Diabolik DVD.)
• Brand new audio commentary by writer/director Frank Henenlotter and star Kevin VanHentenryck
• “BASKET CASE 3-1/2: An Interview with Duane Bradley”: Frank Henenlotter revisits Duane Bradley decades after the events of the original BASKET CASE
• “Seeing Double: The BASKET CASE Twins”: a brand new interview with Florence and Maryellen Schultz, the twin nurses from BASKET CASE
• Brand 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 brand new interview with actress Beverly Bonner
• “Belial Goes to the Drive-In”: a brand 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.): brand new BASKET CASE-inspired animated short by filmmaker Robert Morgan
• Behind-the-scenes of BELIAL’S DREAM
• Trailers, TV spots and radio spots
• Extensive still galleries
• Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sara Deck
• FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Michael Gingold