My aunt’s old house used to be on stilts. Well, it was less a house and more a studio apartment—a single large room with a slanted high roof so it looked like a little house. It was set off a few yards from the larger house built and owned by my grandparents. The stilts on my aunt’s little house kept it elevated above my grandfather’s open-air workshed underneath, which housed a multitude of powertools and sawhorses. Whenever I stayed overnight at my grandparent’s house, I usually slept in the stilthouse, which had a tendency to sway and creak in the nightly Texas winds.
My family on my mother’s side was always interested in scaring my brothers and me. The stilthouse with its late-night swaying over a veritable bed of sharpened metal provided the perfect venue for such shenanigans. In addition to the ghost stories, urban legends, and threats that we could collapse at any given moment, my aunt and uncles rented movies that most would probably consider wildly inappropriate to watch with an 8-year-old boy. Those are some of my best memories.
During this time of late-80s home video, when VHS was still a relatively new thing, the more independent film companies would have to spend significant portions of their budgets on marketing. Film covers were usually more finely crafted than the films they advertised, and before the feature there were a number of trailers for similar films offered by that company. Empire Video, Image, Prism, Canon—all these companies had to outdo each other in the effort to get people to rent or buy their videos. One of those companies was Media Home Entertainment, and I believe it was before Day of the Dead that my youthful eyes were exposed to the trailer for a film that left me fascinated for another few years.
That trailer was for a film called Basket Case. “What is the secret Dwayne is hiding in the basket?” “What’s in the basket, Easter Eggs?” “What’s in the basket?” “What’s in the basket?” “Open it—if you dare!” It was a perfect example of what trailers seem to fail at these days: it was intriguing because of what it didn’t show. Dwayne’s conjoined twin brother Belial never made an appearance in that trailer, but we did hear some slurping and lip smacking from within. We saw people screaming. We knew that whatever was in the basket, it wasn’t Easter Eggs. I wouldn’t be able to actually see Basket Case until the early 90s, when it was re-released by Video Treasures. By that time, I was a bona fide horror junkie who had seen quite a number of films, and Basket Case was not a disappointment.
For those of you who don’t know, Basket Case is an odd horror comedy about a young man named Dwayne who moves into a filthy New York City apartment building carrying only a wad of cash and a mysterious picnic basket. His reasons for moving in and the contents of his basket are the subject of a lot of hearsay in the building. As it turns out, Dwayne is on a mission of vengeance with his twin brother Belial, who lives in the aforementioned basket. They were once conjoined twins who were separated against their wishes. They maintain a psychic rapport that keeps them in constant communication. In the course of carrying out their plans, Dwayne meets and falls for a doctor’s receptionist, much to Belial’s dismay.
This year, we celebrate the thirtieth birthday of a mutant lump of flesh we call Belial. He has won the hearts and minds of genre film fans since he first invaded the screens of cheap sleaze cinema. Basket Case was shot on 16mm film for around 35,000 dollars, which even in 1982 hardly qualified even as a shoestring budget. It has since become a talked-about cult favorite that has spawned two sequels and a number of releases, including a surprisingly gorgeous blu-ray transfer. It is just one film out of a countless parade of forgotten exploitation films that were created to fill grindhouse theaters of this era, so why does Basket Case have the longevity it currently enjoys?
I think a lot of it has to do with the sincerity of writer and director Frank Henenlotter. Whatever Henenlotter’s reasons, I am convinced he made the film that he wanted to see on screen, the film that was particularly suited to his own bizarre tastes. Although the material is outlandish and the budget relegates its production values to the realm of the laughable, the tone of the film and the performances delivered by its actors are played straight, without unnecessary camera winking. To some extent, Henenlotter and his cast and crew took this production more seriously than some of his peers.
While Kevin Van Hentenryck would never win any acting awards, he does deliver an affable and sympathetic lead character in Dwayne Bradley. His hair is a huge mess of curls, he is friendly with his neighbors, charming with his romantic interest, and he just wants to protect is brother—right? Without the charm of Van Hentenryck the audience would be less inclined to buy in to his story. While watching, I find out I care about what happens more than I usually do when watching exploitation flicks. There are so many mean-spirited people in this film that the few who show humanity really stand out. The scene in particular where Dwayne joins his neighbor Josephine for a few drinks at the bar and he drunkenly reveals his secret is particularly well written, and it makes the viewer sorry to see Josephine pulled into the madness.
The setting also has a lot to do with Basket Case’s success. As with Bloodsucking Freaks, Maniac, and New York Ripper, it chooses to take advantage of the sleaze and decadence of New York’s 42nd Street before it was ruined by Giuliani. This film, along with other exploitation pictures, would receive its theatrical presentation in the grindhouse theaters of the area it was depicting. This was exciting for the locals and, for those people in the suburbs, it would also present a depraved neighborhood that simultaneously accessed the fear of the inner city, vindicated their own prejudices, and inspired relief that they didn’t live there. Pretty good for a cheap sleaze flick.
The ultimate reason Basket Case remains a strong cult film is also the most simple: it delivers the goods. Sure he looks like a lump of latex and rubber, but just as Kermit the Frog brings life to a bit of felt, Belial brings life to the low budget effects that compose him. The stop motion work is amateurish, yet charming, and it reveals more effort by Henenlotter’s effects team than they probably had to do. The bizarre nature of the story and the violence on screen gives fans of films like this the excitement they are looking for. There is nudity, blood, and absolute weirdness—a true recipe for entertainment. Combine that with characters that one can root for and cult classic status is officially and deservedly achieved.
Those are my thoughts about Basket Case on its 30th anniversary. Many of you might wonder why I chose to dedicate the first three paragraphs to an anecdote that barely even mentions the film. Well, I believe a true dedication to a genre picture is lacking without something that shows just how much importance these crazy films possess. When I tried to think of Basket Case, that memory of sitting in the stilthouse came flooding back with all the force of a tsunami, and it was impossible not to write about it. That movie has been with me for essentially my whole life, a life that includes hosting a monster movie podcast called Monster Island Resort and directing the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival in San Diego—and for that I am grateful. Happy 30th to Basket Case! If you want a great double feature, get the blu-rays of Basket Case and Frank Henenlotter’s other classic feature Frankenhooker. And don’t forget to ask: what’s in the basket?
Miguel Rodriguez is the director of the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival, San Diego’s first film festival dedicated to macabre cinema and art and the host of the Monster Island Resort Podcast, the online radio show that goes bump in the night. He keeps old Godzilla vinyl figures and the ashes of his dead cat in his picnic basket.