If you have no idea who Frank Henenlotter is then I say shame on you. Shame, shame, shame. He is the man who gave me one of my favourite trashy horror comedies of all time – the gloriously demented Frankehnhooker (a film so brilliantly titled that every time I mention it my wife simply rolls her eyes and says “never, never, I am never watching THAT film. That’s not his only achievement though, oh no, no, noooo. Henenlotter gave fans the brilliantly demented Brain Damage too. A few years ago he also released the enjoyably demented Bad Biology. And, of course, he created the outrageously demented Basket Case trilogy. Can you spot the pattern yet? Frank Henenlotter likes to make films that are ever so slightly demented. The fact that he ends up making such enjoyable films has given him a safe place in the hearts of many horror fans like myself. All of those fans should now be very happy as the Basket Case trilogy gets released here in the UK on Bluray. Here are my reviews and ratings for all three movies with some discussion of the extra features and credit listings tucked away at the bottom. Without further ado, let’s try to peek in the basket.
Basket Case (1982)
Shot on a teeny tiny budget, Frank Henenlotter somehow managed to make a minor classic with his very first feature movie, a film that pretty much epitomises the phrase “cult favourite” and will always be a favourite choice for anyone planning a late-night double bill for horror fans. It’s a movie that remains best viewed after midnight and one that also gets the audience feeling every bit of dirt and gore onscreen, as I’m sure Henenlotter will be happy to hear. One of those films that feels as if there’s a layer of grime over each frame. I remember seeing the trailer for Basket Case when I was young and wondering just how terrifying it would be. It was the home video boom of the mid-80s in the UK and that trailer showed almost nothing but implied that the film would be wilder and more terrifying than anything that you’d ever seen before. When I first saw the film, still as a young lad, that proved to be the case. I don’t think I was terrified but I was certainly tense during a lot of scenes.
Of course, when I watch it nowadays I just can’t take it seriously. It IS a twisted and black comedy and I just couldn’t see that the first time round, when I was too young. The same thing happened with Evil Dead II (a film that absolutely terrified me the first time I saw it yet makes me laugh hard from start to finish all the way through now).
The plot of Basket Case is simple. Young Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) is going around New York with a basket case and a serious stash of cash. He gets himself a squalid motel room to stay in and it’s not long until we see him talking, apparently, to himself. But what’s in the basket? That’s the big question that everyone wants to know. The answer isn’t pretty. Meanwhile, some medical people are being murdered and Duane also finds himself enjoying some quality time with the lovely Sharon (Terri Susan Smith). But the basket is always there in his room, just waiting to be opened.
I know that it sounds silly but I really don’t want to spoil Basket Case for anyone yet to see it so I’ll err on the side of caution and keep my review pretty vague.
The script and direction by Henenlotter are both okay, I suppose, but that’s more to do with a rugged charm than any actual polished skill on display. This is guerrilla film-making (especially during a sequence in which Van Hentenryck was asked to streak through New York) and it makes the whole movie feel more edgy and dangerous than it actually is – remember, it’s just a goofy comedy at heart.
None of the acting is that great but this is a movie in which everyone immediately becomes elevated due to their part in it. Van Hentenryck has quite a wooden, nervous style but it actually works for the character, a wide-eyed young man forced to lie a lot of the time even though he’s not very good at it. Beverly Bonner is a fun presence onscreen and Terri Susan Smith isn’t great but deserves bonus goodwill for going along with Henenlotter’s vision.
The special effects are sometimes very good and sometimes awful, there’s a wonderful bit of stop motion work that retains a charm despite not being the best you’ll ever see by a long shot, unease and strangeness permeate every scene and the blood-spattered third act contains at least one memorably disturbing moment so I wholeheartedly recommend this film to all horror fans, even if 50% end up hating it.
Basket Case 2 (1990)
I may be wrong but I don’t think a sequel to Basket Case was something that came about due to popular demand. There may have been fans asking writer-director Frank Henenlotter to continue the story but I get the impression that Henenlotter does what Henenlotter feels like. Of course, I thought Basket Case was a great film but I never thought that it needed a sequel.
Watching Basket Case 2 gives me the feeling that I’m correct. The first movie never needed a sequel and this inferior movie emphasises that fact. However, it also allows for even more craziness and paves the way towards the fantastic third film so the good outweighs the bad. Not that the bad stuff is THAT bad.
Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) has recovered from his “moment of madness” that made up the end of the first movie and is now recuperating, with his basket, at the home of Granny Ruth (Annie Ross). Granny Ruth keeps a house full of wayward freaks and is happy to look after Duane and his basket. She also has a lovely granddaughter in her household named Susan (Heather Rattray) and Duane starts to wonder if he and Susan can’t just leave the house, the basket, the freaks and allow themselves happiness elsewhere. Unfortunately, a snooping reporter (Kathryn Meisle) won’t allow them to have the quiet, peaceful life that they wish for.
It’s more professionally executed and presented than the first film but Henenlotter seems to be, at least most of the time, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink as he mixes even more comedy in with the horror. The acting from Van Hentenryck hasn’t improved all that much but Annie Ross and Heather Rattray are both quite good. Kathryn Meisle is the enjoyable villain of the piece, the woman disturbing the potential domestic bliss.
To be fair, the movie isn’t as bad as some try to make it. The fact is that it’s just such a tonal shift after the darkness of the first movie that fans didn’t know what to make of it. The first movie had that streak of black humour running all the way through it but this film puts the comedy right up front and that makes it feel VERY different.
The practical effects are much better than they were in the first movie, the look of the thing is brighter and cleaner (which is a plus in a technical sense but a minus when compared to how the original made people feel) and there are certainly one or two moments of inspired lunacy in the over the top finale, as is so often the case with any Henenlotter movie, but this is the weakest of the three films and I can see why some hate it.
Basket Case 3 (1992)
The third movie in the trilogy is nothing but a barnstorming freakshow, in the best possible way, from start to finish. Because it follows on from that strange second film it actually works much better. The second movie felt wrong because it didn’t move quite as smoothly from the first film. Perhaps too much time had passed or maybe it was just too drastic a change in tone, for whatever reason it felt like a mis-step, to say the least, and a number of fans absolutely hated it. But with the groundwork for the full-on comedy style laid out in that movie, the third movie could take the baton and run with it. And it certainly does that.
The film is an absolutely, yep, demented delight and the plot mixes one or two very nasty moments in with a lot of outrageous comedy and even a completely mental musical number (a rendition of the song “Personality”).
Kevin Van Hentenryck returns for the second time to play troubled Duane Bradley while Annie Ross is also back as Granny Ruth, a woman kind enough to shelter and look after a number of wayward freaks. This time around we also get some nosey cops, an S & M-loving young woman (Tina Louise Hilbert), some mutant babies in serious danger and a touch of cybernetics.
With moments of indulgence throughout, including time taken to actually name all of the freaks this time around, and everything taken to its absolute extreme, Basket Case 3 shouldn’t work but it absolutely does. I’m sure that lots of people will disagree with me but the fun of this movie is seeing Henenlotter just go absolutely all out with his vision and take it as far as he can. If it wasn’t obvious in the flawed second movie it becomes impossible to miss by the end of the trilogy – Henenlotter is on the side of the freaks. The “normal” humans are the ones who commit the evil deeds.
The acting is on a par with the acting in the second movie, which means that everyone does okay with the exception of Van Hentenryck, who was never cut out to be a great actor but had the good fortune to work with Henenlotter on the first movie and make the role of Duane Bradley forever his. The special effects are impressive most of the time, the comedy should appeal to viewers now acclimatised to it after the jarring experience of the second movie and there are, as you’d expect, at least one or two moments of gruesomeness to remind you that this is a Henenlotter film.
Of course, anyone who absolutely hated the second film and wanted a return to the aesthetic and tone of the first film will not be won over by this final instalment but anyone else who still had fun with the second film has a chance of enjoying this freakout finale as much as I did.
Basket Case – The Trilogy is released on 22 October here in the UK. Extra features abound on the disc containing the first movie while the other two discs only have the movies on them. There’s still enough here to encourage fans to part with their cash. Those who already realised that the American Bluray would actually play on any machine (you just had to press “disc menu” when the disc tried to inform you that you couldn’t see it) will find that a lot of the extra features are ported over from that release. That’s not a problem, however, because that release was pretty darn fine. There’s an introduction from Henenlotter to kick things off, an entertaining commentary track, a selection of outtakes and behind-the-scenes material, a 15-minute piece “In Search Of Hotel Broslin” and a whole load of stills and memorable trailers. New to fans of the movies will be the enjoyable “What’s In The Basket?” – a look at the warped and wonderful trilogy. As if that wasn’t enough, “Grisly Graham Humphreys” runs for almost 20 minutes and focuses on the man responsible for many of the best poster art from the 1980s and beyond (he still does a lot of great work and you can find examples of his work here – and he is responsible for the artwork on the exterior of the boxset).
DIRECTOR: FRANK HENENLOTTER
WRITER: FRANK HENENLOTTER, ROBERT MARTIN (CO-WROTE BASKET CASE 3)
STARS: KEVIN VAN HENTENRYCK, TERRI SUSAN SMITH, BEVERLY BONNER, ROBERT VOGEL, JUDY GRAFE, ANNIE ROSS, HEATHER RATTRAY, CHAD BROWN, KATHRYN MEISLE, GIL ROPER, DAN BIGGERS, JIM O’DOHERTY, TINA LOUISE HILBERT
RUNTIME: 90 MINS APPROX/89 MINS APPROX/89 MINS APPROX