“There’s something I’ve been dying to ask you. What’s in the basket?”
If you are not familiar with Writer/Director Frank Henenlotter’s earliest full length feature, Basket Case, you’ve missed a grindhouse style, exploitation cult classic. It was shot on a shoestring budget, features non-professional actors, cheap special effects, and a script straight out of the fever dreams of a madman. In short, it is brilliant.
Now, on a production level, this ain’t Avatar. Hell, this isn’t even anywhere near SyFy Channel original movie standards. It was shot on 16mm film, in and around 42nd Street during the height of the seventies New York City “neon sleaze” period. The special effects consist of Herschell Gordon Lewis-style gore makeup gags, clever puppeteering, and some hysterical stop-motion animations that would make Ray Harryhausen laugh until he cried. I’m not really sure any of the “actors” had ever acted before this film. Then there is Belial, the mutant that lives in his brother’s wicker basket. He’s basically just a head with fat, stubby claws and a blob for a body. Once again, brilliant.
The story is simple. Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) comes to the Big Apple with his separated, mutant, conjoined twin, Belial, seeking revenge on the sleazy doctors (veterinarians actually) their father paid under the table to separate them in a filthy backroom operation. The two share a telepathic link, a fistful of cash, and a penchant for cheap motels. Unfortunately, Belial doesn’t want to only stick to the plan of vengeance and goes on a murder and rape spree, especially after Duane ends up befriending whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, Casey (Beverly Bonner) and falling for Sharon (Terri Susan Smith), a good-natured receptionist for one of the crackpot doctors.
Basket Case is a seminal cult classic: daring, raw, original, exploitive and tasteless. I’m sure younger viewers brought up on summer blockbusters and CGI might not get it, which is probably why Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse project couldn’t find an audience. Born near the end of the renaissance period for independent B-movies, Basket Case shocked audiences with its gory, black comedy sensibility and exploitive kinkiness. So much so, the distributors pulled the theatrical release, reedited the entire film, and rereleased it as a comedy! They cut every explicit scene, including the infamous mutant head necrophilia rape during the finale. They weren’t the only ones offended by that scene; the crew itself walked out and forced Henenlotter to finish shooting it alone.
The original, uncut print of the movie was lost for nearly 30 years until Henenlotter’s brother uncovered the original 16mm reels in a box in their mother’s attic. Henenlotter was never happy with the original theatrical transfer and the subsequent VHS transfer, because the 16mm footage, heavily cropped and blown up to 35mm by a cheap distributor, ended up frustratingly murky and cramped. So Henenlotter jumped at the chance to personally oversee the high-definition transfer struck from the original prints. Now, for the first time, it can be experienced in its original aspect ratio, uncut and director approved. If you are already familiar with Basket Case, you will be amazed at the transfer. If you have never seen it, this is the only way to experience it, and it’s best enjoyed with a group of friends in the altered state of your choice.
The print is presented in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 with a 1.33:1 (4:3) aspect ratio as it was supposed to be and runs an average of 15 Mbps. The film’s source limitations are evident, but this thirty-year-old movie, shot on 16mm with a budget just north of $35,000, has never looked so good. Some of the darker scenes run a little gray, but the colors are vibrant and the blacks detailed. The full screen aspect ratio really opens up the scenes showing off the grimy New York locations and sets. It is a vast improvement over the theatrical release and videos, as well as a major step up from the DVD releases.
The PCM Master Audio 1.0 soundtrack is a bit disappointing. Again, much due to source limitations, it is rather tinny at times, and there are noticeable microphone distortions when characters scream. For the most part the dialog is clear and crisp, but I can’t help but think they could have digitally cleaned up the soundtrack a little and beefing it up with a 2.0 remix. I imagine purists would disagree.
The audio commentary with director Frank Henenlotter, producer Edgar Ievens, and actress Beverly Bonner, is worth the disc price by itself. It’s full of great anecdotes about his production adventures while shooting in New York City circa 1970s; like how Duane’s full frontal streaking scene was shot without permits on a freezing winter’s night, and the crew was so small they made up a bunch of fake names to fill out the credits. It’s just great just to listen to Henenlotter on Henenlotter. His passion for film is irresistible.
The extras are presented in 1.78.1 1080p and 1.33.1 480i video both with 1.0 monaural audio.
- Introduction (2 min.; SD): Frank Henenlotter explains journey of Basket Case and its arrival on Blu-ray.
- Outtakes (6 min.; SD): Goofs, splatstick, behind-the-scenes mayhem and bloopers set to glorious porn-movie-style funk.
- In Search of the Hotel Broslin (16 min.; SD): In this mini documentary from 2001, Frank Henenlotter and alternative rapper, R.A. the Rugged Man take you for a tour through the under belly of New York locations Basket Case was (often illegally) shot in, including the infamous S&M fetish bar, The Hellfire Club. Full of colorful and funny production stories concerning the glories of underground guerrilla filmmaking.
- Photo Gallery (5 min.; SD): From the director’s personal collection, lobby cards, conceptual and fan artwork, rare behind-the-scenes pics and plenty of shots everyone’s favorite mutant head.
- Promotional Stuff (5 min.; SD): Two trailers, one TV spot, and some very rare radio promos.
The seediness and sleaziness may draw in the curious like a sideshow barker, but there’s a real story here with a sincere emotional undercurrent to it. Somehow the key characters strike an improbable balance between camp and pathos. Ultimately this bizarre comedy/tragedy of horrors engages and never fails to entertain.
Just don’t go into this film expecting art. Expect the unaltered masterwork of an exploitation visionary. I love this movie. I first saw it during the VHS boom of the mid-eighties and rented it over and over to show to incredulous friends. Seeing it restored to its original format in HD is a wonderful treat. It may not be imminently quotable like some cult movies, but the images are so iconic and the story is so dementedly Freudian, it digs into your brain, like Belial’s filthy claws. This may not be a good movie, but it is a grindhouse cult masterpiece.
“They didn’t want him to live, but he fooled them, he just got stronger.”