So this week’s installment of The Series Project will be yet another departure for me, as I intend to violate yet another one of my arbitrarily selected rules. I have a pretty hard rule that any series I cover needs to be at least five chapters long; it has always seemed to me that a film series can be considered officially “long” once it extends into five chapters or beyond. But since there’s only one more week before Halloween, I wanted to squeeze in one more proper horror series in time for the big day. And since my busy schedule prevents me from watching and writing about five or more horror movies in a single week, I figured I’d remit, swallow my pride, and cover a series that is less than five films.
As such, I went to a three-film series that you may not have heard of, but you very much need to see. This week’s one-shot Halloween bonus episode of The Series Project will be devoted to Frank Henenlotter’s cult classic series Basket Case.
First of all, who is Frank Henenlotter? Henenlotter is a New York-based filmmaker whose interest in grindhouse exploitation flicks surpasses the scholarly, and teeters into a madman’s obsession. He is a gore-soaked archivist of many lost or underrated exploitation movies of yore. He has worked closely with the people at Something Weird Video, the inimitable home video outlet that is devoted to lost 42nd street schlock, and who has kept the works of people like Herschell Gordon Lewis alive for many years. If you’re into sexploitation, low-budget gore, goofy “scare” films, lady wrestlers, women in prison, Mondo docs, or deteriorating stag film reels, Something Weird likely has you covered, and Frank Henenlotter likely saw it already. He is the director behind such cult classics as Brain Damage and the awesome 2008 film Bad Biology (which you owe it to yourself to seek out). You may have at least heard of his 1990 classic Frankenhooker. These are all films that any lover of cult cinema should seek out. He’s one of those wonderfully cracked auteurs that have a genuine affection for the bizarre, trashy, dirty films of his youth, and whose own films directly reflect that. He’s like a joyous cross between John Waters and David Cronenberg.
Something Weird recently released a Blu-Ray of Henenlotter’s first movie, 1981’s bonkers horror film Basket Case. What is Basket Case? Let me give you a quick rundown, just in case you’re not familiar. Basket Case is a three-chapter series of films about the Bradley twins, Duane and Belial, who were born conjoined, but were forcibly separated at age 10. Duane is currently a regular-looking fellow who only wants to do right by his brother. Duane has a big scar running down his right side where Belial used to be attached to him. Belial is a malformed mutant lump of flesh possessed of only a head, a gangly arm, a stumpy arm, some wicked claws, and a set of sharp teeth. Belial doesn’t speak, but can communicate with Duane telepathically. Duane isn’t exactly the most stable guy, and Belial seems to be a violent-minded psychopath. The films’ titles come from the basket that Belial lives in, and that Duane is seen constantly carrying around.
Fleshy, bodily horror, paired with bizarre special effects, and a truly warped sense of humor. That’s Frank Henenlotter for you.
So let’s get wrist-deep in this trough of gore. Let’s start in 1982 with…
Basket Case (dir. Frank Henenlotter, 1982)
The story of the first Basket Case is a pretty straightforward revenge plot. Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) arrives on the filthy streets of 1980s New York City, carrying a basket full of Belial. Duane looks like a fresh-faced American version of Tim Curry. He checks into a sleazy New York hotel (complete with nosy neighbors and a hooker with a heart of gold, played by Beverly Bonner), where he searches through stolen papers, looking for the names of some local doctors. The papers, as we saw in truly brilliant intro, were taken from a hapless panicky victim, who was killed in the shadows by some mysterious creature. Indeed, we don’t see Belial up close until about halfway through this movie, after he has already killed a few people.
We eventually learn the plight of the Bradley twins, and how they are seeking revenge on the doctors who separated them. We are eventually shown a flashback of the operation, and how Belial was callously thrown in the trash by a fearful uncle and some uncaring doctors who wanted Duane to appear more “normal.” The notion of “freaks vs. normals,” by the way, is going to be a recurring theme of the Basket Case movies. Duane and Belial were only ever cared for by a benevolent auntie, who was one of the only ones to treat Belial like a real person. Both twins are bitter at having been separated, and, after a stint in a mental hospital, are now back in the city to wreak revenge.
Belial, as I said, can communicate with Duane telepathically, although we never actually hear his voice. Belial only makes grunting and screaming noises, and Duane carries on one-sided conversations. There is a definite and uncanny pleasure to watching Van Hentenryck screaming at a basket in a sleazy hotel room. I should perhaps point out that the tone of the Basket Case movies is less that of a spooky horror flick, and more like a surreal slapstick farce with blood in it. There is plenty of bloody mayhem (more than once, Belial rakes his claws across someone’s face), but there’s a goofy sweetness to Duane that offsets any of the hard edge the film may have had. It’s been said that combining horror and comedy is difficult to do, but Basket Case is a perfect example of what kind of tone you want. Dark, weird, twisted, rubbery, and broadly funny. And while there are plenty of successful horror/ comedies that can be cited (Dead Alive, Bride of Chucky, and Shaun of the Dead leap to mind), few have the same delirious and cartoonish tone of Basket Case. Only Alex Winter’s 1993 film Freaked (a film I perhaps bring up too often) can match it. Or anything with special effects by Screaming Mad George.
Henenlotter is also kind of fond of bad acting. The lead actors are all fine, and Van Hentenryck actually sells to role of Duane better than any average actor possibly could, but many of the supporting actors give stilted and awkward line readings that sound amateurish and stagey. I’ve said in the past, though, that a bad performance can actually be more genuine and enjoyable than a regular one. There’s an honesty to amateur acting; a purity that’s amazing to behold. So when we see that one guy at the film’s beginning, shouting flatly into the dark “What do you want?!,” you will do nothing but smile. I’m also fond of the pervy older woman who, in a mere aside, seems hellbent on seducing a younger man.
There is also a love interest in Basket Case, in the form of the lovely Sharon, played by Terri Susan Smith in her only film role. Duane goes out on dates with Sharon, much to the chagrin of Belial, who is left behind in the hotel room to eat raw meat and trash the furniture. The stop-motion segment of Belial tearing drawers from a dresser is one of the film’s highlights. Belial and Duane begin having arguments. They are on their mad revenge quest because they were unduly separated, so what happens when Duane wants to actually move on and live with someone new? Needless to say, Belial is upset.
Eventually, there’s a climactic fight, and the twins find themselves dangling from a balcony. It looks as if they fall to their death, dying together. This is a tragic and kind of dirty ending to a silly and kind of dirty movie. At least we had a scene where a nurse got stabbed in the face with a bunch of scalpels.
Henenlotter wouldn’t return to the franchise for nearly a decade. I suppose he wanted to move on. In between the first and second Basket Case movies, he made Brain Damage and Frankenhooker, which also take place in the same cartoonishly violent New York that Basket Case takes place in. In a way, you might be able to postulate that all of Henenlotter’s films take place in the same continuity.
The chronology begins to get weird with the sequel, and events get even weirder. Let’s go to one of the single best horror films of the 1990s. Let’s go to…
Basket Case 2 (dir. Frank Henenlotter, 1990)
Oh Basket Case 2. How do I love thee. Let me count the ways. Imagine moving into the universe of the Garbage Pail Kids. Or a world where Basil Woolverton drawings come to life. I mentioned that Henenlotter is like a cross of John Waters and David Cronenberg, but with Basket Case 2, he also channeling the more acid-inspired cartoon shorts of Bob Clampett and Ub Iwerks. There is a madcap carnival quality to this film to strikes me right in my candycorn-coated brain. The first Basket Case is pretty awesome, but Basket Case 2 was so good, it filled me with a definite twinge of regret. I regret that I did not see this film when I was 16 or 17, and that I didn’t have it with me all through my youth. I wish I had seen it earlier. I got the same twinge when I saw Alex Cox’s Repo Man for the first time at age 30. I could have had it earlier.
Basket Case 2 takes place immediately following the events of the first Basket Case, as the Bradley twins (Duane is still Kevin Van Hentenryck, Belial is still a rubbery puppet) are being loaded into an ambulance. Beverly Bonner even returns briefly to appear on a TV news program to talk about how Duane was such a nice boy. And while they are destined for prosecution by the cops and persecution from the public, the siblings are secretly kidnapped from the hospital by Granny Ruth (Annie Ross) and her lovely daughter Susan (Heather Rattray). Ruth, you see, runs a remote upstate home for wayward freaks, and offers them a home away from home, where normal is redefined, and ugly is the new awesome.
The freaks in Granny Ruth’s home, by the way, are not run-of-the-mill circus freaks that you would see in a real-life sideshow. Belial and Duane may have been conjoined twins, whom you may actually see in an old P.T. Barnum ad, but the freaks on display here are bizarre cartoon freaks with wet, leathery skin, and wild fleshy tendrils sticking out every which way. There’s a guy with a crescent moon-shaped head. There’s a guy with a couple dozen noses. There’s a guy who looks like Sloth from The Goonies, but not as handsome. There’s a woman whose head is a tree. I was particularly fond of the man who had two-foot-long teeth. Looking at these guys, a regular Dog-Faced Boy seems like small potatoes. And while the musical Tod Browning exploitation chord could have been loudly played here by the casting of real freaks, Henenlotter achieved something far more wonderfully bizarre with his oddly conceived rubber freak masks. Not necessarily beautiful, but mutated. Have you ever been experienced? Well, I have.
Anyway, Duane and Belial are offered a home with Granny Ruth, where they’ll not only be accepted, but praised for their unusual birthright. Duane begins having a kind of romance with Susan, and Belial is given a love interest in the form of Eve, a female version of himself, who is also essentially a blob of human flesh with a face and spindly limbs. The idyll is threatened by a muckraking reporter (Kathryn Meisle) who is not only seeking Duane for his criminal past from the first movie, but who would destroy Granny Ruth’s enclave.
Duane’s own story arc resembles that of the first film. He wants to have a loving relationship with a woman, which means he may have to move away from the bitter Belial. There is an intense conversation in a garage, and Belial cackles at Duane. Again, there is a pleasure watching Van Hentenryck shouting at a small rubbery puppet. Eventually, Duane learns about the reporter, and chooses to join forces with the freaks to kill the interlopers. Which they do. In public. In a bar. Look around. Who thinks that the reporter is normal?
The film’s final seven minutes are a whirlwind of bonkers awesomeness. We see the freaks having a banquet with Granny Ruth to celebrate their own oddities, we see Belial and Eve having sex (an odd sight to say the least), and we learn that Susan has been pregnant with a little toothy monster for the past six years. The monster occasionally comes up for air, but lives in Susan’s belly. Seeing the monster causes Duane to snap and, in a bloody scene, charge into Belial’s room, grab him, and sew him back into place with knitting needles and yarn. Also, he accidentally kills Susan. Oops.
Seriously, I’ve had nightmares kind of like this. But fun nightmares.
The chronology of Basket Case 2 is a little weird. It takes place immediately after the events of the 1982 original, but it also clearly takes place in the present. Van Hentenryck is a little older, and the clothing is updated. I suppose, though, this happens with a lot of sequels. And certainly with a lot of TV programs. Bart Simpson, for instance, has been 10 years old for nearly 25 years.
Henenlotter has a strange ear for dialogue. I’m willing to bet that his screenplays have a lot of exclamation points in them.
Basket Case 2 is the best one in the series, and should be counted as a top-tier cult classic. It’s weird in a way that would make Devo proud. It ratchets things into a wonderful world of playful insanity. What a fine film.
You may recall that Belial and Eve got it on. Well, let’s meet the kids in…
Basket Case 3: The Progeny (dir. Frank Henenlotter, 1992)
While this film was made immediately after Basket Case 2, it was clearly made with a much smaller budget. The weirdo-looking freak monsters are still around, but the makeup effects look a little cheaper now. It looks a little bit more like actors in masks. This is fine by me, but there’s an element of slickness that’s now missing. Which may be just fine, as Henenlotter is not exactly a lover of high-end slick production values. If he aspires to be Herschell Gordon Lewis (a filmmaker he has actually made a documentary about), then cheaper may be better.
Luckily, Henenlotter’s earnestness is still here, and the celebration of the weird is only brought to a new high with Basket Case 3. So, yeah, since Eve and Belial had sex during the epilogue of Basket Case 2, Eve is now pregnant. With what? Well, you’ll see. I’ll be brief on this one, as I recently reviewed the film in the pages of CraveOnline just a few weeks ago. Part 3 opens with the weird finale from part 2, and goes on to show that Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) is now being kept bodily away from Belial by Granny Ruth (Annie Ross), and is being held in a straightjacket. Since the idyll of the freak enclave had been interrupted, Granny and her freaks, with Belial and Duane in tow, must flee to New Jersey in order to avoid persecution, but also to find a midwife who can deliver Belial’s mutant spawn. They do find a doctor, and we get the sense that there is a secret underground of freak sympathizers in this world who are fighting to keep the unusual happy. A secret group of freaks and weirdos, by the way, is one of the central ideas behind The Church of the SubGenius. If you’re familiar with the Church, you’ll have a good handle, I think, on Henenlotter.
When compared to the other film, Basket Case 3: The Progeny is actually rather shabby. I still love it, don’t get me wrong, and the birth scene makes me lose my brain with laughter, but it’s not quite as deliciously delirious as its predecessor. Only through certain passages does part 3 really transcend.
Of course, those moments are sublime. There are three awesome ones. I already mentioned the birth scene, wherein Eve is spitting out little tiny mutant Belials, pretty much by the dozen, coated in gore, all being cooed over by Granny Ruth, and by an enthused cameraman who is losing his sh*t over the event. Mutants filming mutants giving birth to mutants. What a grand thing. There’s also the finale sequence wherein Belial goes nuts in a police station and murders many people looking for his missing children. He strangles people, and their eyes bulge out. It looks pretty cool. There’s also a strange dream sequence-slash-sexual fantasy that Belial has wherein a pair of bikini-clad twin sisters (Carla and Carmen Morell) rub on his stumpy head and whisper come-ons into his mutant ears.
The story is pretty straightforward after the birth scene. A group of locals are freaked out by the freaks they accidentally glance, they kidnap the newly born Belial children, and the freaks kill to get them back. Indeed, this film is so much about Eve, Belial, and the little potato-shaped spawn that Duane almost takes a back seat. He has an almost-romance with a kinky sheriff’s daughter (Tina Louise Hilbert who makes a habit of spanking her father’s prisoners), but it’s clearly not as interesting as Granny Ruth and her cadre of weirdoes. The big drama all springs from the fact that Belial is no longer “speaking” to Duane after the yarn incident, and the two brothers no longer trust each other. How their relationship draws to a close I will leave for you to discover.
I will restate my complaint that modern films aren’t as weird as they once were. In the 1980s and 1990s, we had people like Frank Henenlotter and Tim Burton and Alex Cox keeping the dream alive. These were outsider minds operating within the insider system. These days, the outsider films all seem to resemble Hollywood fare a little more closely, and Hollywood films are increasingly safe strings of remakes and adaptations that don’t have a single whiff of actual creativity about them. In short, there are fewer weird movies then there used to be. Do you think something like, say, Killer Klowns from Outer Space would be made today? Could Freaked get financing? Sure we have the occasional film with the word “vs.” in the title, but the spirit of the New Wave outsider is long past. Tim Burton is still making his films in his style, of course, and I wouldn’t want to impugn the talents of any of the creative auteurs working today (my apologies to Jim Jarmusch, Lars Von Trier, Werner Herzog, Wes Anderson, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, John Waters, David Cronenberg) but it seems that, percentage-wise, there are just fewer outsider talents working.
But when I watch the Basket Case movies, I can celebrate the weirdness again. Frank Henenlotter is a proper brain with actual interest in exploitation filmmaking. Basket Case 3: The Progeny would prove to be his last film for 16 years. 2008 saw Bad Biology, which was actually insane and insanely impressive.
The spirit of Mondo-bizarro exploitation is alive in 2012, but it’s not very well. Like hard rock, proper angry rap music, and true geek culture (yes, there are interests that are still too geeky even for Avengers geeks; ask me about college a cappella, filking, D&D, or furry culture sometime), impassioned exploitation movies are underground.
As weirdos, it’s our job to find them. The new ones and the forgotten ones. The new ones are a quest you’ll have to take on your own. As a critic, I will guide you as best I can, dear readers, but you can find stuff the same way I can. As for the older cult movies, well, we have people like Frank Henenlotter, and companies like Something Weird to keep us alive. Even in the age of online subculture worship, there are still outsiders. We should get to know each other, and celebrate the blood we so love.
Happy Halloween, foolish mortals. The freaks come out at night.