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Basket Case (1982)
Director: Frank Henenlotter

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Frank Henenlotter's Basket Case is a film that, at first glance, has very little to recommend it. One of hundreds of horror movies released in the transition period between the death of the grind-house cinema and the birth of the video rental club, it was made for no money, and has terrible acting, terrible dialogue, and some of the worst visual effects this side of a primary school nativity play. However, as with many great cult films, all of those bad decisions and budgetary limitations somehow coheres into something more… something interesting.

The film begins as a curly-topped adolescent named Duane (Kevin van Hentenryck) pushes his way along a crowded New York street. In his arms is a large wicker basket that he hugs tighter every time a drug-dealer attempts to lure him into something sordid, and, seeking refuge from the night, the boy ducks into a flea-pit hotel. This is an ugly time in an ugly town and yet the boy seems strangely above it, as though too innocent for the depravity to even register. As the film progresses, we learn more about the boy and the contents of his wicker basket; we learn that the basket contains his deformed twin brother, we learn that the monster does not like to be alone and we learn that the monster will not be content until it has murdered all the people involved in severing him from his normal-looking twin.

As might be expected given this type of set-up, Basket Case progresses from one grisly murder to the next until the boy is eventually forced to choose between a monstrous rubber sibling and a wig-clad girlfriend. None of these murders is particularly well realised and the script is so terrible that the relationship between the boy and his twin is neither clear enough nor compelling enough to carry the film at a dramatic level. In short, this is not a particularly horrifying horror film and anyone approaching it in search of thrills and chills is doomed to disappointment. And yet this is still quite an interesting film...

Basket Case was produced at a time when producers and directors were willing to experiment wildly in an effort to find an audience. While most period horror films experimented with visual effects and cinematic techniques, some films used unusual tones and themes as a means of distinguishing themselves from the pack. Chief among these weirdly artistic horror films is Matt Cimber's frankly demented The Witch Who Came from the Sea. Although not as effective as Cimber's strangely hallucinatory tale of child abuse and post-traumatic stress, Basket Case shows a similar willingness to create a cinematic world whose power to unsettle owes very little to the events that dominate the plot.

Basket Case presents 1980s New York as a sleazy warren of peep shows, flea-pit cinemas, and slum hotels. Every corridor is filled with trash, every wall is plastered with incomprehensible signs, every man is a psychotic drunk and every woman is plastered with sufficient make-up and hair-pieces to make them look like drag performers. However, as filthy and seedy as Henenlotter's New York appears, it is also a fundamentally decent place where warm-hearted people look out for one another with genuine interest and understanding. This cognitive dissonance is then further exaggerated by Henenlotter's decision to portray the small town world of up-state New York as a sort of hypocritical dystopia where elegant colonial mansions hide a gleeful willingness to persecute and destroy anything that is in any way different.

Equally interesting is Basket Case's somewhat uneven attempt to make Duane's deformed twin into a sort of quasi-Freudian fetish object representing both Duane's sexual desire and his refusal to let go of past injustices and traumas. When Duane hooks up with a doctor's secretary, he attempts to placate his twin with consumerist fodder and yet this only annoys the monster that begins screaming and smashing up the place when Duane kisses his new girlfriend. The connection between the boy and the monster is also made clear at the film's climax when the boy is forced to literally wrestle with his desire and hatred in order to save the woman he loves. Though somewhat unevenly handled, the suggestion that the monster represents the boy's hidden desires transforms Basket Case from a poorly made monster movie to a poorly made psychodrama, which is far more interesting and worthy of a contemporary audience's time.

Basket Case DVD

Basket Case trilogy

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