Welcome to Cult Corner where we dive through the bargain bins to determine if a movie is trash or treasure. Today’s pick… Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case.
This may be the first movie I’ve covered here on Cult Corner that you’ve actually heard of prior to reading about it here. It’s not a household name by any means, but it’s certainly more well-known than the likes of Candy Stripers or Proteus. This is the epitome of a cult classic, though. It’s garnered a helluva following over the years and even spawned a couple of sequels.
Alright… what’s in the basket? That’s the question, isn’t it? Basket Case follows Duane Bradley (played by Kevin Van Hentenryck) as he embarks on a revenge quest through New York City carrying a large wicker basket containing his deformed siamese twin brother Belial. They were born conjoined and since their mother died in childbirth it created a bitter angry father who then had them separated, a procedure meant to make Duane “normal” and kill Belial. Belial survived however. The pair must now track down and murder all of the doctors that separated them. Hilarity ensues.
The script is good for what it is. It’s not entirely complex but it’s definitely got more going on than your average film of this ilk. The best thing is that it gives the actors enough room to breathe and really make the movie their own.
Van Hentenryck carries this picture firmly on his shoulders, as we spend the bulk of the runtime with his character Duane and often times he spends full scenes having one sided conversations with a wicker basket. This is Duane’s first time in New York and Van Hentenryck really plays that up. Duane has a naiveté about him which makes things incredibly funny considering the environment he’s in. As I mentioned before this takes place in NYC, but the New York of the 80s is not the New York of today. This is a sleazy place full of sex and drugs that now only exists in movies like Taxi Driver and Maniac. Having a simple boy from upstate like Duane wander these streets is great. This isn’t the only side to Duane’s character, though. Obviously he’s on a revenge quest, so while he does have a naive side, he’s far from innocent. There are moments that really show something sinister with nothing more than a simple look.
The rest of the cast is great as well. Terri Susan Smith is very upbeat and likable as Duane’s love interest, and having her be someone a bit more talkative and seemingly street smart creates an interesting and fun dynamic to watch. The other residents of Broslin Hotel are fun as well, in particular Beverly Bonner. The cast for the most part appear as over the top caricatures and you can tell that everyone’s having a good time filming. This isn’t Oscar quality stuff at any point, but when it’s not meant to be taken seriously some minor faults are forgivable. The moments where the performers try to play it straight are where the acting begins to fall short but in some ways that adds to the charm.
As far as the special effects, they range from serviceable to laughably bad (though a lot of the laughably bad effects were intentionally awful). For the most part they keep Belial pretty hidden, especially in the first half of the film. They make his presence known through something as simple as the basket shaking and maybe a clawed hand popping out. This works pretty well and actually creates some nice tension as you wait for him to finally appear. When he does… it’s ridiculous. The puppet itself looks fine, but it’s obviously a rubber prop and it’s clearly not meant to be taken too seriously. People wrestle around with it acting like it’s trying to strangle them in some serious slapstick-inspired comedy. To top this off are some truly awful stop motion effects. They’re played up for laughs and in that respect they work wonders. On the other end of the spectrum the gore effects and bloodshed are all well-done and create a few truly grisly moments.
That being said, don’t expect wall-to-wall gore in this because it’s not really that kind of movie. It has its moments, but most of the runtime is spent less on bloodshed and more on the bizarre and outlandish qualities of the narrative.
Basket Case is a low budget shlock masterpiece, and at the risk of sounding incredibly biased, it’s one of my favorite movies. It hits that sweet spot between hilarious, violent, and bizarre and I find myself returning to it over and over again. Henenlotter has gone on to make two sequels as well as a few other cult hits like Frankenhooker. While he’s honed his craft since Basket Case and his other films may be better on a technical level nothing beats the raw gritty quality of his first outing. This isn’t a movie for everyone, but by this point in the review you should know if this is for you. If you’re a fan of low budget cult film then this is a must watch.
Here at Cult Corner we cover the weird and obscure. Given the low budget that these movies often have we feel the need to recognize that entertainment value and quality aren’t always synonymous. That’s why we have opted for the “trash or treasure” approach in lieu of a typical rating system. After all, Troll 2 is incredibly entertaining but it’s no 8 out of 10.