October Horrorshow: Basket Case

This is one of the more bizarre movies I’ve ever seen. From writer/director Frank Henenlotter, Basket Case is an ultra low budget black comedy horror flick about a young man and his brother. By all accounts, Duane Bradley is a normal person. Raised in upstate New York, he’s on his first trip to the big city. He’s naïve — green as all hell, in fact — but he has his charms, and it’s easy to tell that the city can’t come close to extinguishing all his innocence.

Duane finds himself a room in a seedy hotel near Times Square (Basket Case was released in 1982, a whole universe away from today’s Times Square). He carries all his worldly possessions on his person. A big wad of cash, a backpack full of clothes, and a wicker basket in which he carries his brother. Wait...what?

I’m not going to pretend it’s any surprise what’s in the basket. It could have been anything, but it’s pretty clear early on this is a creature feature, so of course there’s a monster in the basket. It’s revealed that the monster is Duane’s onetime conjoined twin, forcibly removed by a gaggle of less than ethical doctors when Duane and his brother were just boys. Left for dead, the twin, named Belial, reunites with Duane, and after the two grow into adulthood, they set in motion a plan to take revenge on the doctors who wronged them.

As it happens, two of the doctors live in New York City, which dovetails nicely with the setting. Henenlotter is a New Yorker. Born in 1950, he came of age when the city was at its grittiest, and this experience not only informs his work in Basket Case, it drives it. Basket Case may be the story of two wayward brothers who have murder on their minds, but in a strange way, it’s also a love letter to New York, via its seedy dark side. A viewer can tell that Henenlotter is in his element in the fly-by-night hotels and dive bars of the time, and is kin to the people that inhabited those spaces.

Duane and Belial spend the film tracking down their victims, and there’s a good amount of blood and guts when Belial gets to work. But being in the big city, Duane begins to grow up, and his needs stray from the steady path he had been following with Belial all his life. In other words, Duane finds himself a girl, and Belial becomes insanely jealous. This leads to one of the wackiest scenes in the movie, when a stop-motion Belial trashes their hotel room. Keith Moon never did a number like this, folks. Duane and Belial’s behavior at the hotel continues to get more disruptive over the course of the film, leading to a deadly climax. For such a weird and cheap movie, the ending, and the events which lead up to it, are surprisingly well written.

But what really makes Basket Case special is the monster Belial. It looks like a foam rubber pile of mashed potatoes with a crude face and arms attached. If it were a living thing, it would be horrifying. As it is, it’s hilarious. When Belial popped out of his basket the first time, I was fighting off fits of both shock and laughter. It’s a perfect monster for this movie — an absolute balance between horror and absurdity. Kevin Van Hentenryck, who portrayed Duane, also lent his face and voice to Belial, and of the two performances, his wailing Belial is better.

Basket Case is a much better film than its presentation would suggest. Henenlotter worked magic with his tiny budget. The performances were uniformly bad, the sets were cheap, and the monster is tongue-in-cheek, to say the least, but despite its faults, Basket Case is a bloody fun horror film. Alien: Resurrection has nothing on Basket Case.