Basket Case (1982) Blu-ray Review: Enthusiastically Silly and Sleazy

Frank Henenlotter's feature debut comes on a ridiculously stuffed Blu-ray, a must for any fan.
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My conscience tells me I have to recommend this release, because it is a superb home video version of Basket Case, with an absolutely comprehensive set of bonus features, impeccable video and soundtrack (mono and thankfully not upconverted into fake surround) and something that should thrill any fan of the movie or series. But the entire aesthetic of Basket Case rebels against the archival perfection of a Blu-ray release. This is the sort of movie that should be seen in a seedy little theater where you'd never use your credit card. It has '70s (or, more accurately, early '80s) New York grime caked in to every frame, and seeing it pristine is kind of beside the point.

That said, Basket Case is, as Joe Bob Briggs has said it, at once a parody of grindhouse and the ultimate grindhouse movie. The story, written by director Frank Henenlotter, was intended as the stupidest idea he could come up with - a man wandering around New York carrying his removed conjoined twin in a basket, which would occasionally leap out and rip people to pieces. There’s violence, nudity, perversity and gore: everything one wants in an exploitation movie.

It opens as a fairly conventional horror film - a remote house, spooky trees, a man hearing something and running into the house where, eventually, his face is ripped off by a deformed hand. But this rural, out in the woods location is a fleeting fancy, as most of the action of the story takes place in the grungiest parts of Manhattan. The old Times Square of porno shops and street crime is where Duane Bradley, the normal sized one of the deranged twins, finds his homebase. Played by Kevin VanHentenryck in a role he’s reprised for two sequels and for a cameo appearance in another Henenlotter horror movie, Brain Damage, Duane seems like a nice, naive kid who’s a little out of his league in the big city. He’s staying in a nasty hotel with weekly and hourly rates, and his next door neighbor is a friendly prostitute.

Most of the action of the film involves Duane looking up the names and addresses of the doctors who separated Duane from his monstrous brother, called Belial, severing their two-way psychic connection. Duane fines the people, then lets Belial out of the basket, where the little terror worms his way into their offices or homes, then does terrible things to them.

The real star of the picture is Belial, a nasty looking creation of latex and plasticine that looks like a tumor with stumpy arms and an ugly slit of a mouth. Looked at on its own, the puppet is a little more comical than horrifying, but nearly every time we see the nasty bugger he’s accompanied by a truly unnerving (and loud) scream, and then mayhem ensues. Despite having no legs he seems to have no trouble propelling himself around room and into tight spaces. There’s a couple times we see him outside the basket, moving around in some truly terrible stop-motion animation sequences, animated by Frank Henenlotter himself.

Everything’s going well for Duane and Belial’s revenge schemes until the secretary of one of their victim’s catches Duane’s eye. Belial already has a deep sense of separation anxiety from his brother (with whom he can communicate psychically) but Duane wants more for his life than to just carry around his murdering stump of a brother. That conflict leads to a series of bizarre set pieces and the film's bloody, gross, funny and weirdly tragic climax.

What elevates Basket Case above similar exploitation nonsense is the go for broke spirit of fun. The movie was made for nearly no money, worked on only on weekends and without any real intent of commercial success, or, if you believe director Henenlotter, without the expectation that it would ever even be screened. And the technical specs aren’t as slapdash as a lot of other similar movies: shots are in focus, the story has a pace and rhythm to it, the dialogue soundtrack isn’t horribly recorded. Weirdness of this nature is often directly proportional to technical incompetence, but Basket Case looks and feels like a movie. On Blu-ray with a loving 4k restoration, it almost certainly looks better than is good for it. All the flaws and cheapness stand out, but so do some qualities that might have been hidden by poor projection of an overshown print. Basket Case is a rare cult movie that really deserves its status.

Released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video, Basket Case has a ridiculously full set of supplementary material. Nearly five hours of extras, not including the two commentary tracks make this one of the most feature-filled and documented silly little exploitation movies ever. This includes several video interviews, an archival documentary from 2011 that covers all three Basket Case films, a featurette from 2001 with Henenlotter revisiting filming locations, and a length Q+A from the MOMA premiere of this restoration. There’s also a couple of short films by Henenlotter, one new for this release, and another his predecessor to Basket Case, Slash of the Knife, a parody of '40s hygiene and moral panic shorts about the horrors of being uncircumcised. There’s also a video essay by Travis Crawford about the history of conjoined twins in entertainment. The booklet contains an essay by Michael Gingold about the film, and a fun, creepy six-page comic book with more Belial madness by Martin Trafford.

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