Friday, October 21, 2016

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Basket Case

"What's in the basket?"

How have I never seen Basket Case? I mean, there are a ton of horror films I haven't seen. I've got a list as long as my arm of 'classics' and seminal films and just your bog-standard mainstream releases - but Basket Case? It feels like I should turn in my horror fan card or something.

Part of the problem is that for years I mixed Basket Case up with Larry Cohen's It's Alive. They're very different films, but the Davis child was somehow associated with Belial in my head. Another issue was that none of my friends ever mentioned it - it was never a "have you seen" or "you gotta see!" kinda film in our circle. Whatever the reason, my adolescence passed by without Basket Case and it eventually became that film that I sorta thought I had seen, but couldn't remember much about.

A few years ago I was digging through a list of recommended 80's horror films and came across a picture of Belial. "Hey,"  I thought, "this doesn't look at all like the baby from It's Alive."  The synopsis didn't sound familiar either, so I put it on the mental list of things to catch up with eventually. Chris, Waffle King recommended it last year and when I saw it was on Shudder I decided this was the year to watch it.

Not Belial.

The Medium
Shudder via Amazon streaming. The picture quality is as good as one could expect from streaming a film originally shot on 16 millimeter. In fact, it was almost too good. This is a movie that feels like it should be watched on VHS with rolling static lines constantly warring with the tracking buttons on your remote. Which makes it really weird that there's a fully restored blu-ray edition available.

The Movie
So let's get this out of the way: Basket Case is not a good movie. It  looks and feels like an extremely cheap 70's exploitation film, and I mean really cheap. The entire budget actually makes an appearance on-screen as a wad of cash flashed by the main character. It's not an exceptionally big wad, either.

Maybe not as cheap as that guy's shirt.

And yet... there's something about it. Something endearing and likeable. That's a pretty weird thing to say about a movie in which a separated mutant twin goes on a killing rampage.

After an opening scene in which a doctor is stalked and killed by a horrible monster puppet hand we're introduced to the main character, Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck). A tall and curly-mopped kid from upstate New York, he arrives in Times Square with a wicker basket and a wad of cash. He checks into a seedy, rundown hotel - the Broslin. Some people are interested in his cash, but pretty much everyone asks the same question as Brad Pitt's character in Se7en, "what's in the box?"

Relax, Frances.

This is early 80's Time Square, the dirty, porno theater and prostitutes, junkies and muggers Times Square. You can almost feel the slime creeping off the screen. This is the most realistic part of the movie as well, you feel like you are there in this squalid little hotel with the peeling paint, narrow hallways and thin walls. Nothing else is particularly realistic, including the contents of the basket. Which happens to be Duane's brother, his malformed, formerly-conjoined twin, Belial.


Now, Belial is a pretty crappy special effect muppet, a latex monster with very little in the way of mobility, expression or realism in any way. And yet this stupid thing, this lump of not-flesh, is also weirdly effective. He can be terrifying, all teeth, black eyes and horrific screech, and he can be tender or pathetic. I dunno - he shouldn't work at all, you should laugh every time you see him (and some of the stop motion bits ARE laughable), but again there's a certain, ephemeral something about the design that just works.

Duane and Belial aren't just hitting the Big Apple for a night out, they're on a mission. Seems a number of doctors performed an illegal and extensive operation to separate them when they were children (seen in flashback and gruesomely done on a dining room table). Belial ended up being tossed in the trash, but he's got a psychic connection with Duane, who found him and hid him away. Now they're out for revenge - well, Belial is, anyway. Duane just wants his brother to be happy. Of course he wouldn't say no to a little happiness for himself as well.

Duane, meet happiness. Don't get attached.

The central action of the movie - beyond the straightforward revenge storyline - involves Belial's fear of abandonment. Duane is his only connection to the outside world, the only way - beyond violence - that he interacts with it. When Duane meets a girl he likes, this threatens to bring Belial's world crashing down, and he'll do anything to prevent it from happening.

Just two bros having a heart-to-heart in the john.

The director, Frank Henenlotter has gone on to make a couple of Basket Case sequels, but you may know him better for Frankenhooker or the crazy-ass Brain Damage. I've only seen Brain Damage, but I'll have to check out the others. I'm sure they're low-budget, skeevy and weird and I won't know why, but I'll end up liking them.

The Bottom Line
It's impossible to praise this movie on any traditional level. It's poorly lit and shot, the acting is - at best - amateurish, the story is threadbare, the dialogue hokey, the effects sub-par, the editing... I think you get the drift. It's even just reprehensible as only a low-budget exploitation film can be. If you don't care to see a lumpy puppet grinding on a bloody corpse, then you'll want to pass this one by. However...

Basket Case somehow rounds that horn of terrible and becomes something worthy of watching. It's funny, horrifying and even occasionally moving. I ended up really liking it - in the same sort of way I like CHUD or Redneck Zombies. It's terrible. I know it is. And I don't care.

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