Growing up in the 1990’s I read a publication called Scary Monsters Magazine that was principally devoted to old pre-1980’s horror and sci-fi movies, particularly those that, of course, featured monsters. Most of the contributors seemed to be men who were then solidly middle aged, and they always had recollections about watching the old Universal monster films on TV or 50’s and 60’s monster films in the theater or at the drive-in. The means by which they viewed these films became a truly important part of their recollection.
Nowadays on this and many other websites we have younger writers (including myself) whose viewing recollections are of newer technology but are no less poignant, and I can’t even begin to count the number of reviews I have read where the writer gets nostalgic and starts talking about first seeing such and such a given film on VHS/Beta/USA Network/etc back in the 80’s and 90’s. Surely a day will come when the very young among us now will reminisce about the first time they saw such and such film on DVD.
Our review today is one such film that will forever be remembered by me as having been first seen on DVD. When I was sixteen I missed the opportunity to watch it on its old Media VHS release. I happened to be out of town with my family the weekend that my friends rented it. Their description of it later did not make the film sound promising, but ultimately when I caught up with the movie years later I would regret very much not having seen it sooner.
Young and energetic Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) has just arrived in the Big Apple from upstate New York, bringing with him just a backpack and a strange wicker basket with a lock on it, which he carries almost everywhere he goes. Arriving at a slummy, run-down establishment called the Hotel Broslin, Duane checks into a room on the third floor, wowing the front desk clerk and everyone else in the lobby with the enormous wad of cash he carries. Duane briefly leaves the hotel, returning with a bag full of hamburgers. Back in his room he unlocks the basket and starts feeding *something* inside with the food. Sitting on the bed, he idly talks with whatever it is. That night he is also awakened from his sleep and begins talking to the basket. We don't hear anything ourselves, but evidently Duane can hear something talking to him.
It seems that this is much more than a tourist visit for Duane, who, as we learn, is carrying a nasty scar down the right side of his body. He was born in the town of Glens Falls, New York, and he was not born an only child. In fact, he was a Siamese twin and his brother, who was named Belial, was a hideous, miniature deformity attached to his right side. Their mother died in childbirth, and their father (Richard Pierce) could not hide his horror at his deformed progeny. Only their aunt (Ruth Neuman) loved Belial unconditionally, and when she was out of town one day when the boys were twelve their father had a local physician named Dr. Lifflander (Bill Freeman) and two doctors from New York City surgically separate the two, hoping the Belial would die. But the little deformity survived, and together he and Duane killed their father with an ingenious trap that literally cut the man in two. Their aunt chose not to ask questions about the matter and continued to look after the two of them until she died.
Duane and Belial have already killed Dr. Lifflander, and soon they kill Dr. Needleman (Lloyd Pace), the first of the two New York doctors. But then things start to go awry when Needleman’s beautiful secretary (Terri Susan Smith) begins to fall in love with Duane, and he for her. Worried that he is going to lose the only person in his life to this interloper, Belial takes drastic action and the consequences will lead him and Duane to a true confrontation of brother against brother.
It is one of the great clichés of film and television shows set in New York City that there will almost always be characters who dream of escaping from the hell of the big city life and going and starting a family “somewhere upstate”. Or, alternately, there will be characters who are not native to the city who are struggling to survive and wondering why they ever left their home with mom and dad upstate. Either way, upstate New York is typically made out to be some sort of a paradise on Earth, despite the blistering cold and mammoth snow storms that plague the region in the winter months. Occasionally the paradise will be interrupted by big city evil leaving for a holiday, such as in Last House on the Left. But Basket Case is the only film I know of to portray that scenario and then reverse the order, as two New York doctors travel upstate to perform an unethical operation on Duane and Belial. The Bradleys then travel to the city, bringing evil with them to New York. And for once New York City truly gets beaten, because Duane and Belial are one set of local yokels that it cannot best (of course, in the end the Bradleys discover that they are their own worst enemies, but that’s another story).
Basket Case works amazingly well in many respects, despite some prominent technical failings of one shape or another caused by the lack of budget and lack of crew. It often fails as a horror film, but Frank Henenlotter’s uniquely warped vision takes the film beyond the conventions of the horror genre and turns it into something much more, elevating it from a simple grindhouse flick to a true midnight movie. But in one respect Basket Case is still cut from the same cloth as many of the great modern horror films because it successfully allows an audience member to empathize with the protagonists, to let said audience member imagine being in the shoes of the characters and wonder what they would do if faced with a similar situation.
While watching Night of the Living Dead, few viewers are able to stay completely neutral in the debate over whether to fight it out on the first floor or go straight away to the basement and barricade themselves in down there. If we found ourselves faced with that situation, would we be Harry or Ben? Ben is the better leader, but, as it turns out, Harry has a much better understanding of fixed defenses. He’s a jerk, but he’s also faced with protecting the life of his family. But would we be Ben or Harry at all? Would we perhaps not be Barbara, too petrified with fright to do anything? Even in horror films where the questions of what to do are less pronounced the successful ones still enable us to empathize with plights such as Laurie’s need to protect the children under her care in Halloween.
With the plot of Basket Case, we as audience members can put ourselves in the shoes, not of the victims this time, but of Duane and Belial’s father, and Duane and Belial themselves. I am not a parent, but I probably will be someday and I could imagine myself being in the same situation as their father. What if I had sons who came out like them, hideously conjoined with one another, seemingly impossible to separate without killing the small one? Would I still love both of them? Or would I treat Duane as my only true son, not caring about Belial? Would I really act on my desire to separate the two? Or what if I was Duane, normal but attached to a hideous little creature whom I still loved as my brother? Would my desire for a normal life overshadow my fraternal feelings? Or what if I was Belial, almost completely alone in the world, hated by almost everyone and learning to hate everyone in return?
In short, Basket Case succeeds by becoming something more than a just a gory horror film. It meets all the physical expectations one would have of a grindhouse movie but rises above them by going deeper and delivering a story about more than revenge killings. Like all great movies it is very much a story of the human condition, and it is greatly recommended.
The good news is that Basket Case has never looked better. The bad news is that this is an older disc, and as such, it lacks progressive encoding. Presented in 1.33:1 (Henenlotter admits on the commentary that he wasn’t aware that theaters would crop it to 1.85:1 and therefore didn’t frame for it), this remastered release features eye-popping colors and a generally pleasing level of sharpness and detail. However, as the film was shot on 16mm, the extra resolution of DVD really brings out the grain level, and it looks like some sloppy attempts at noise reduction were made in some shots. The film elements are in okay shape, but do show some damage, including blue emulsion scratches.
All things considered, Basket Case sounds way better than it should. In the commentary Henenlotter tells of how he had different boom operators depending on who showed up that particular day, often giving the microphone to inexperienced people and telling them that if they could hear the dialogue through their headphones they were doing their job correctly. The film’s 2.0 Mono tracks suffers from some real problems with dialogue being mixed too quietly and music and sound effects being mixed too loudly, but they are manageable if the viewer doesn’t mind working the remote to adjust volume periodically. The audio track itself seems to have been well preserved. There is some minor hissing and popping in the background, but it is rarely audible except in quiet scenes.
Something Weird really pulled out all the stops for this disc, starting with a running commentary featuring Frank Henenlotter, producer Edgar Ievins, actress Beverly Bonner (who plays one of the Hotel Broslin tenants) and filmmaker Scooter McCrae, who worked on Basket Case 2. Overall Henenlotter and Ievins talk the most, with Bonner chiming in from time to time and McCrae hardly talking at all. The director and producer not only manage to cover the film’s entire production (including performers, locations and the special effects behind the Belial puppet), but they also give a comprehensive history of the film’s distribution, as it was released first in a cut form theatrically, then in an uncut form, and then changed companies when the original distributor went bankrupt.
This is followed up by In Search of the Hotel Broslin, a fifteen minute documentary where Frank Henenlotter and white rapper R.A. the Rugged Man take us on a tour of the New York City locations as they looked twenty years later. Contrary to popular belief (and what the end credits say), there was no Hotel Broslin. The lobby was actually the lobby of an apartment building (which they visit but are unable to get inside of), the Hotel Broslin sign was hung from the outside of Kevin Van Hentenryck’s apartment building (which they visit and film from the street), and many of the interiors were sets. The two men visit The Hellfire Club, an infamous New York S&M establishment where a scene was shot in the days when it was just a regular bar. There they meet up with actor Joe Clarke (who plays one of the hotel’s tenants in the film) and do an impromptu interview. On the way back they pay a quick visit to one of the locations used in Fulci’s New York Ripper and then end up on the roof of Henenlotter’s apartment building, where the actual Belial puppet is shown, and the two men show off some of the various Basket Case merchandise that exists.
Six minutes of rough-looking outtakes and behind the scenes footage are included, as is an excerpt from a cable access show called Beverly Bonner’s Laugh Track starring, of course, Beverly Bonner. This is a painfully bad example of cable access programming, with shoddy production values. It’s not even that funny, either.
The release is rounded out by two vintage interviews from Texas radio stations, featuring actress Terri Susan Smith promoting the film during its original theatrical run. The interviews in total run about eight and a half minutes, and Smith sounds stoned in both (in the latter it’s mentioned that the host woke her out of bed with his call) and she is sometimes hard to understand because of a poor quality phone connection. Finally we close out with two theatrical trailers, a television spot, two outlandishly overdone radio spots and a gallery of behind the scenes photos and promotional artwork.
Basket Case is an amazingly well done creature feature, especially considering its humble, low budget origins. But it is much more than that and it deserves a place in the collection of every fan. While this DVD may not be up to the technical standards of more recent releases, it’s undeniable that the film still looks very good, interlacing and all. With a great selection of extras and a low MSRP any fan who hasn’t picked this release up yet should grab a copy.
This was a staple movie in the "USA Up All Night" era. Fun times.
I was lucky enough to see this in the theaters. My local theater even gave out the promo surgical masks to "keep the blood off of your face". I wish I still had that as I most likely threw it away not thinking at the time.
I love this film.
I watched this again the other night. Great movie, and great dvd ! The audio commentary is brilliant !
And very good, very fair review, Jeremy.
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