The VHS age of horror was a splendid thing. With expectations low and demand far outstripping supply as Hollywood patiently waited for home video to go away and send people and their wallets back into the multiplexes where they held court, pretty much anything could become a hit, and Frank Henelotter’s original 1982 schlock horror comedy Basket Case is up there with Street Trash and The Toxic Avenger as a textbook example of “pretty much anything”.
A seedy, grotesque portmanteau of nightmarish images and diseased classic horror tropes – the earnest, glassy eyed Duane Bradley (Kevin van Hentenryck) is very much cut from the same demented cloth as Psycho‘s guileless Norman Bates, driven by his severed, mutant Siamese twin instead of his mother. Separated in an off the books operation that left the mutant half – the fanged, basket-dwelling Belial (who looks eerily like a Boglin) – for dead, the two have grown up and hit the grubby Taxi Driver tenements of Eighties New York to exact vengeance on the surgeons who wronged them.
Gleefully grasping well beyond its means, Belial’s kill frenzies are achieved through unsophisticated puppetry (Scott Tracy-style POV shots of rubber-handed extras turning door handles etc) and riotous stop-motion animation as he scurries up walls and flings himself at people’s faces shrieking and bellowing like a murder elephant. Why it became such a word of mouth sensation is no secret – monstrous visuals, a grotty backdrop of slumlords and prostitutes lending it a veracity mainstream slashers lacked, endlessly quotable lines (“What’s in the basket?”) and a final scene that trumps even Sleepaway Camp in the nervous laughter-inducing stakes. It’s the stuff late night marathons were made for.
Shot on full-frame 16mm, there’s no way HD is really going to add anything to the Basket Case experience beyond keeping alive in a whole new format for a whole new generation to cackle at hysterically. It’s on the extras that the Basket Case trilogy really earns its place in the format. There’s a few trailers, outakes, behind the scenes footage and a daft 2001 short where they try and get back into the hotel building they shot in, but the real gem is the massive, no-holds-barred documentary ‘What’s In The Basket?’ featuring frank insights from Henelotter, van Hentenryck, and various other cast members and special effects folk – it’s a masterclass in budget, seat-of-the-pants filmmaking that would cause even today’s cheapo found footage filmmakers to have a massive coronary.
1990’s Basket Case 2 sacrifices the gore, the grime and the effective revenge thriller premise in favour of a more overtly comedic freakshow, with no expense spared in crafting prosthetics for this carnival of the absurd, a trend that 1991’s Basket Case 3: The Progeny follows to a messy and wholly unwatchable conclusion as the terrifyingly cheery Granny Ruth (Annie Ross) leads her sanctuary of misshapen sideshow attractions on a road trip. The whole thing reaches a nadir when the matronly Ruth breaks into a song on the cast’s converted school bus like some sort of BBFC-baiting version of Summer Holiday.
In the expansive documentary, director Frank Henenlotter admits he knew when it was time to get out of movie making when all his pitches were turned down with “No, but how about Basket Case 4?”