BY ROCCO THOMPSON
Tod Browning. Herschell Gordon Lewis. John Waters. In attempting to define the peculiar feel of Frank Henenlotter’s cinema, it’s necessary to cite its influences, yet this doesn’t even begin to describe it with any clarity. Born in 1950, the Long Island native spent his youth basking in the sleaze of 42nd Street and screening I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF for his cousins in the family basement. Though a lifelong lover of B-grade exploitation fare, Henenlotter never intended to be a filmmaker, himself. Nevertheless, his tinkering resulted in a 16mm spoof of the “sex hygiene” films of the 1940s, SLASH OF THE KNIFE (1972). This tongue-in-cheek short about the supposed dangers of not being circumcised had only one showing (as an opener for Waters’ immortal symphony of filth, PINK FLAMINGOS) before it was yanked for being too offensive by theater management, but it was Henenlotter’s first bold step towards midnight movie immortality.
Made as a lark, Henenlotter began filming BASKET CASE based on an idea he had for the dumbest setup he could imagine: a young man wanders around New York, basket in tow containing his deformed twin brother. Henenlotter expected that his first feature-length bit of huckster exploitation terror would meet the same fate as all of his favorite flicks growing up: it would play for a week, make some chump change off of truant teenage boys, then go the way of the Dodo. In the director’s own words: “I was having fun, I wanted to make a movie, and I knew nobody would ever see this!”
How wrong he was. Not only did BASKET CASE find its way to Cannes, but it caught the attention of John Irving Bloom, better known as genre film critic and drive-in aficionado Joe Bob Briggs, who rescued the film from obscurity, restored the gore which had been cut by distributors, and turned it into a midnight movie staple from Greenwich Village to Irving, Texas and beyond. Henenlotter would go on to produce some of the most dizzyingly entertaining comedy-horror fare for of the 80s and 90s, but BASKET CASE is where it all began. Arrow Video’s just released Special Edition Blu-ray is the definitive edition of this cult classic. With a pristine new restoration and Special Features out the wazoo, this is the perfect time to re-visit Henenlotter’s “very twisted”, “very mad” little opus.
We first meet Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) as he arrives in New York city, carrying a padlocked wicker basket. As he wanders among the grimy glitz of 42nd street, he comes upon the seedy Hotel Broslin, where he rents a room and befriends good time gal, Casey (Beverly Bonner). It’s soon revealed that the basket contains Duane’s grotesquely deformed, once conjoined twin Belial, and that the duo has come to the city seeking revenge against the group of doctors—and one veterinarian—that separated them from each other against their will. This vengeful rampage threatens Duane’s friendship with Casey, his budding relationship with a pretty physician’s assistant (Terri Susan Smith), and the very lives of both he and his monstrous brother.
Henenlotter’s first feature may not have the cartoonish, stylistic pop of his later works (ie the intoxicating blues of BRAIN DAMAGE or the electric purples of FRANKENHOOKER) but it certainly proves the auteur theory correct; BASKET CASE is as much an extension of Henenlotter himself as Belial is of Duane.
Shot over the course of a year on Saturdays whenever funds happened to be available, Henenlotter’s tribute to the type of movies he “lived and ate” came in at $3500 dollars, a large portion of which can be glimpsed as a prop wad of cash on camera during an early scene. Using friends, children of friends, relatives, students from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and off-Broadway stars as cast and crew, Henenlotter shot entirely without permits on Manhattan and Liberty Island (“We figured that by the time we’d confronted by anybody, we’d already run out of film. So, if they chased us off, no problem!” one crew members jokes on the disc’s Special Features) lending the film a distinctively grubby early 80s New York verisimilitude to ground its weirdness. Leading man Van Hentenryck fondly recalls riding around with Henenlotter, scouring dumpsters for usable props, and how his own loft apartment served as the façade of the hotel Broslin. The cast/crew’s mushed up leftover lunchtime pizza makes an appearance as a gore effect in one scene. Though Belial, himself is clearly the most expensive object on screen, Henenlotter himself manipulated the sentient lump of flesh’s groping hands and “crafted” the winningly wonky stop-motion that animates him in a couple of scenes. Even “guerilla” seems too cushy a term for the type of labor that went into BASKET CASE.
Though the filming process was drudgery, BASKET CASE is simply bursting with the humor that would become Henenlotter’s trademark. For him, comedy and gore go hand in hand, and actually feed each other to create a perfect storm of lunatic hilarity, which is why when the violence was cut during BASKET CASE’s original release, the jokes deflated like a bad souflee. Aside from Duane (he of the poodle hair and plaid shirt) every secondary character is somehow…off. Seeing a Henenlotter feature is to experience a cockeyed version of the world—the amateur nature of the performances pushed into some other realm of human expression where pretty secretaries casually drop impressions of rats caught in typewriters into everyday speech and veterinarians join shadowy, conspiratorial cabals.
What really makes BASKET CASE stick in one’s craw, however is its subtly disturbing examination of identity, individual liberty, and sexuality. Duane and Belial (a name which came to mean “devil” in some Hebrew texts) are bound by telepathy, and a hatred for the physicians that separated them where they were once bound by flesh. When Duane’s romantic feelings threaten to sever them psychically in addition to physically, Belial’s retaliates in unsurprisingly ghastly fashion. This rich thematic undertow reaches its crest in a naked moonlight run that (though done in such a manner due to production limitations) gives the film a bracing, metaphorical edge. BASKET CASE isn’t quite DEAD RINGERS, but it certainly rivals De Palma’s SISTERS in its unsettling depiction of identities merging and dissolving through a B-movie lens.
As BASKET CASE is such a piece of New York history, the film has been given a 4K restoration from the original 16mm negative by The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which is presented on this disc. It almost goes without saying, but this is the best the film has ever looked. The disc is housed in Arrow’s standard blu-ray case with a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sara Deck. The first pressing includes a collector’s booklet featuring a must-read essay by Rue Morgue’s own Michael Gingold, all of which is housed in an attractive slipcover featuring Belial’s hands groping a wicker background. This release looks right at home on a shelf next to Arrow’s similarly lavish 2017 release of BRAIN DAMAGE. Fingers crossed for a new edition of FRANKENHOOKER to round out this trilogy of Henenlotter masterworks!
Special features are exhaustive, from interviews, to shorts (new and old), to outtakes and still galleries. SEEING DOUBLE: THE BASKET CASE TWINS is an unexpected delight, featuring Henenlotter’s own gregarious twin cousins who had cameos in the film. BASKET CASE champion Joe Bob Briggs reminisces on the film in BELIAL GOES TO THE DRIVE-IN, and BASKET CASE 3 ½ revisits the character of Duane (poodle hair still going strong) decades after the events of the original film. Henenlotter’s controversial SLASH OF THE KNIFE is included in full, and a brand-new audio commentary featuring the director and star Van Hentenryck is a dream come true. Lastly, THE FRISSON OF FISSON, a video-essay by Travis Crawford, traces conjoined twins in popular culture (from 4th Century Peruvian ceramics to AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW) and examines BASKET CASE’s thematic connection to the cinema of Tod Browning and David Cronenberg. There are even more treasures to be found on this disc, and Michael Gingold must be commended for producing and directing many of these features,
BASKET CASE burst onto the midnight movie circuit in 1982 with a fully-formed sense of humor and style that could only be described as…Henenlotterian. Though the sum total of the film was shaped through limited finances, lack of production acuity, or mere happenstance, it set the mold for the constant interplay of seemingly disparate elements in Henenlotter’s oeuvre: the gritty realism of 42nd Street vs. his cartoonish view of the world. The intermingling of gore and humor. Highbrow mediations on identity in the lowbrow trappings of the exploitation film. Belial and Duane, bad and good, hotdogs and hamburgers…Henenlotter joys in the mixing of antipodal elements. Though largely an unconscious feat, he created in BASKET CASE his very own genre of multiple aesthetic/thematic personalities in a singular cinematic identity; where a smooth-talking parasitic slug can serve as a metaphor for drug addiction, a street-walking female Frankenstein’s monster can avenge misogyny, and the interior war between good and evil can be externalized by a boy and the dirty secret he lugs around in his basket. Arrow Video’s release of BASKET CASE is the definitive edition of the drive-in classic, and shows Henenlotter for the under-appreciated gutter auteur that he truly is.