He may have had only seven feature film director credits but Frank Henenlotter has certainly left his mark on genre cinema over the last thirty years, mainly down to the very strange nature of his exploitation films. Although films like Brain Damage and Frankenhooker proved popular amongst fans of cult cinema it is his Basket Case films that have given Henelotter his reputation as a film maker with a unique style, and a style that isn’t always easy to get to grips with. However, once you put logic and good taste to one side there is a real charm to all of his films and thirty years after the release of the original Basket Case, Second Sight Films have put together a wonderful Blu-ray package containing all three films in the series and some dazzling extras.
Basket Case (1982)
Having gained a reputation as a grisly low-budget shocker, Frank Henenlotter’s debut feature film finally makes it to Blu-ray, and if ever a film was made that didn’t have HD formats on its mind when it was made then this is surely it.
Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) was born with a twin brother. Unfortunately his twin brother Belial was a grotesquely deformed Siamese twin and was surgically removed from Duane when they were teenagers. Left for dead in a bin bag, Belial was rescued by Duane and after the death of their kindly aunt, who was the only person who ever cared for them both the same, the brothers go to New York to seek out the doctors who performed the surgery to seperate them and have their revenge.
Keeping Belial in a wicker basket, Duane holes up in a grotty hotel and before long begins a romance with a pretty receptionist, but Duane has a bizarre psychic connection with Belial, who is able to communicate with his brother without speaking and is none-too-pleased about Duane’s new love, and before long Belial goes berserk and begins a rampage of terror that threatens to spoil everything between him and Duane.
Maybe not as mean-spirited or nasty as it may have seemed thirty years ago, Basket Case still stands up as a demented example of early-80s exploitation, ready-made for the then-new home video market. Much like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, there is a streak of blacker-than-black humour running through the middle of the film that doesn’t always show through the gritty, stop-motion bloodbaths that the film relishes in, but it is there. Belial is nothing more than a fleshy blob – “He looks like a squashed octopus” as Duane puts it at one point – and the sight of him gliding jerkily around his hotel room in glorious stop-motion is both hilarious and slightly unsettling but still has a certain charm about it, whilst the supporting characters that hang around the hotel are wonderfully amusing and most probably not actors but just people that Frank Henenlotter encountered in his everyday life. Surprisingly, Kevin Van Hentenryck’s performance isn’t quite as bad as you would think – especially when compared to later on in the series – and he gives enough to demand our sympathies for his tortured journey.
Originally shot in 16mm, this Blu-ray transfer makes the film look as good as it is ever likely to look and, despite the charmingly primitive stop-motion and lurid gore, it does look pretty good. Even Frank Henenlotter himself says in the accompanying What’s in the Basket? documentary that this is as close to what he was originally seeing through the camera as it’s possible to get. The documentary also has exclusive interviews with Kevin Van Hentenryck, actresses Beverly Bonner and Annie Ross, writer Bob Martin and several other notable crew members who fill out the whole story of the film’s genesis and the series’ development. The disc also has an interview with poster artist Graham Humphreys, an introduction to the film from Frank Henenlotter, audio commentaries, outtakes, a trip around the film’s locations and promotional stills, so plenty for the die-hard fans to get their teeth into.
Basket Case 2 (1990)
Without trying to spoil the first Basket Case too much, it should be noted that due to the ending of that film Basket Case 2 is a sequel that shouldn’t really exist. But exist it does and straight away it’s clear that this is a very different film to its predecessor in both looks and execution.
Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) and his deformed Siamese twin Belial are alive following the incident in New York and are taken to a hospital where it turns out they have become minor celebrities. Shortly after they are visited by the kindly Granny Ruth (Annie Ross) and her granddaughter Susan (Heather Rattray) who take them to Ruth’s secluded mansion where she cares for all manner of deformed freaks in peace and away from ‘normal’ society. However, an unscrupulous reporter soon discovers where the infamous twins are living and Duane, Belial, Granny Ruth and the whole gang have to go on the defensive to stop their quiet existence being exposed.
Looking pretty damn good for a low-budget exploitation film that’s over twenty years old, Basket Case 2 really benefits from the Blu-ray treatment. Having a bigger budget to play with, Frank Henenlotter and his crew really went to town with the practical effects, creating an imaginative and colourful array of freakish mutants and they’ve never looked better than they do here. In total contrast to the grimy look of the first film, Basket Case 2 positively comes alive with colours and textures that never really came out on the VHS or even the DVD.
The other major difference to the first film is the lighter tone, which fits in with the richer and less-grimy look of the movie. Whereas the first film was as gritty and mean-spirited as anything that came out of 42nd Street during the 70s and early 80s, part two leans a lot more towards comedy and has the look of a film that wants to have fun rather than shock you.
Much like The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2, the differences between parts one and two means that some people prefer the first film and some prefer the second. Whether Basket Case 2 can be described as a ‘better’ film than part one is debateable as it depends on your definition of better, but it is definitely a more watchable film – something you can throw on and just enjoy – and one that won’t offend those who aren’t quite as up on their exploitation/horror film history as much. And continuing the Henenlotter tradition, the film’s final shot is fantastic.
Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1991)
And so Frank Henenlotter returned to the basket once again to continue the story of Duane and Belial in a similar vein to the previous film, although now moving forward into the 90s horror comedies weren’t quite as in vogue as they were a few short years previous.
Having been kept in solitary confinement since his emotional breakdown at the end of part two, Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) is let out of his room by Granny Ruth (Annie Ross) and given the news that his mutant twin Belial is to become a father. Not knowing how to handle a pregnant blob of nondescript flesh, Ruth gathers up Duane and the gang of freaks to go on a road trip to visit Uncle Hal (Dan Biggers) and Little Hal (Jim O’Doherty) in the hope of delivering Belial’s offspring safely and discreetly. But naturally things don’t go to plan and the deformed commune soon fall foul of the local law enforcement who kidnap Belial’s babies, forcing Belial and Duane to patch up their differences and hit back in the only way they know how.
Much like Basket Case 2, part three looks fantastic and is full of vibrant colours, depth and detail that do the film credit on the Blu-ray format. Unfortunately, though, Basket Case 3 isn’t quite as good as the previous films and is not only the weakest film in the series but is probably Frank Henenlotter’s weakest film overall.
As well as lacking the invention or creativity of the previous films the acting here is the shoddiest it’s been in the series, especially Kevin Van Hentenryck who seems to be getting worse with each film, if that’s possible, and consequently it’s Annie Ross who pretty much carries the whole thing.
Smacking of contractual obligation rather than the need to tell a good story, Basket Case 3 is brainless fun, looks great and, in the big scheme of things, is relatively harmless but like an album with two great singles and several filler tracks it’s very unlikely that this instalment will get the same amount of repeat plays as the other two films.
It goes without saying that pretty much everything that Frank Henenlotter has put his name to could be called tasteless or unique, depending on your own personal tastes, but one can’t deny the man’s integrity and dedication to his craft. Basket Case is where it all began and this package is about as definitive a collection as you could get, short of a box-set containing these, Frankenhooker, Brain Damage and Bad Biology, although those last three titles may be a little too out there for some.
Second Sight Films have done justice to this often overlooked 80s gem that just about escaped being labelled as a video nasty and gained a notorious reputation on the midnight movie circuit. Coming in a gloriously grotesque limited edition 3-disc steelbook or special edition DVD set, this is a wet dream come true for hardcore horror fans and although the more comedic direction of the sequels may not stand up as well with some die-hards, it is worth owning them to see how demented one man’s vision can truly be. And by buying this you’ll own almost half of the great man’s directorial back catalogue. Nice.