Saturday, August 6, 2016

#237: Basket Case (Frank Henenlotter, 1982)

Many of my fellow members of the Generation Formerly Known As X and Currently Known As Forgotten may recall an unexpected feature of some VCRs in that ten-year stretch between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, particularly those of us with parents who couldn't afford to buy the premium channels like HBO and Cinemax. Due to technological reasons I don't quite understand, some VCRs would unscramble the signals of channels like HBO in households that weren't paying the premiums. The signal wouldn't be crystal clear, but it would be clear enough that a person could watch without being annoyed. It was a pretty exciting thing if you were a kid like me, let me tell you. My family owned two VCRs that unscrambled these signals over the course of my childhood and adolescence, and thanks to one of them, I saw a 1993 late-night HBO marathon of all three Basket Case movies. It was love at first sight, and after another viewing yesterday, I can report that my love for Basket Case remains strong.
Basket Case begins with a suburban doctor being stalked and killed by an unknown assailant for reasons we don't yet know. The following scene moves to pre-Giuliani Times Square, still in the height of its sleazy, dangerous charm. Naive young Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) from upstate Glens Falls is in the big city for the first time. He stops at the first hotel he sees, a rundown $20-a-night flophouse full of bizarre characters called the Hotel Broslin, and he pays for several days in advance with a huge wad of cash, attracting the attention of old boozer O'Donovan (Joe Clarke). He's also carrying a huge wicker basket. When asked what's in it, he says "clothes," changes the subject, or ignores the question entirely. After settling in to his bare bones little room, he buys two bags full of hamburgers. He eats only one, and dumps the rest in the basket.
I'm not spoiling anything for horror fans by revealing that the basket contains Duane's telepathic mutant twin brother Belial. Duane and Belial were conjoined twins, and their mother died in childbirth. Their father is disgusted by Belial, and after he's rebuffed by reputable doctors, he pays an unsavory doctor and a couple of unscrupulous veterinarians under the table to separate the brothers. Belial is thrown in the trash and left to die, but Duane finds him, and the siblings get some revenge on Dad. After their kindly aunt passes away, Duane and Belial decide to go on a revenge spree against the people who separated them, which brings them to the seedier parts of New York City.
Basket Case is full of low-budget charm, with handmade special effects that fall lovably short of professional standards, buckets of fake blood, and a cast of amateurish oddballs who make up in personality and B-movie presence what they lack in professional acting talent. I'm a huge fan of nonprofessional actors, and I find something movingly human about them that I don't see in the big-time movie stars.
Besides the previously mentioned actors, I also enjoyed Robert Vogel as the put-upon hotel manager, underground New York scenester and public access TV star Beverly Bonner as a fellow resident of the Hotel Broslin, and Terri Susan Smith as a receptionist who tries to date Duane. I love a movie where even the characters who have no reason to be weirdos are weirdos. The cast is pretty evenly split between people who never acted before or since, and people who only act in the weird stuff.
In addition to all the low-budget fun, Basket Case is a great time capsule of a piece of New York City that no longer exists. Now a Disneyfied big-box-chain-store-corporate-franchise-infested tourist trap, Times Square in the 1970s and early 1980s was home to prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, porn theaters, all-night kung fu movie houses, drunks, dive bars, flophouses, and indescribable weirdos, and Henenlotter's film is a twisted love letter to the waning days of seedy New York. It's like the Taxi Driver of mutant telepathic conjoined twin movies. I will always be a little bummed that I never saw the old Times Square in person, but I would have been a small child from the small-town Midwest during its heyday, and any time spent there would have been fairly inappropriate as well as terrifying.
Basket Case was Frank Henenlotter's first feature-length film. He went on to make several of my favorite '80s and '90s B-movies, including the stone cold classic Brain Damage, Frankenhooker, and, of course, Basket Case 2 and 3. He has an oddball sense of humor that celebrates the absurd and finds kindred spirits as actors, and I really enjoy his contributions to the world of psychotronic weirdo cinema. Here's where his strange trip started.

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