If you’ve ever wondered where the term “grindhouse” originated, it came from theatres located on 42nd Street in New York City which used to feature “bump-and-grind” burlesque and striptease shows. Eventually, these same theatres started to screen the sleazy grindhouse exploitation films we all know and love. The peak period of the “grindhouse era” was the 1960s and 70s. By 1982, the invention of home video was on the horizon and the era of grindhouse cinema was coming to an end. Nevertheless, 1982 still managed to produce a film which can be described as a quintessential piece of grindhouse cinema. A filmmaker named Frank Henenlotter dreamed up a horror film while walking around the seedier areas of Time Square and 42nd Street and he believed they would make the perfect setting for his off-the-wall story. The end result was Basket Case, a delightfully sleazy film which likely would have been a pretty successful hit during the grindhouse era, but ironically enough, wound up developing its cult following on home video. The original trailer for Basket Case is one of the better grindhouse trailers ever produced, as it delivers a compelling hook by asking the question: “What’s in the basket?”. The trailer does not provide a visual reveal to this question, but closes off with the lead character drunkenly answering: “My brother”. It’s a great “WTF” moment which leaves the audience intrigued and the film certainly delivers on its wacky premise.
Basket Case opens with a terrified doctor panicking inside his home before he is killed off by something unseen. We then meet the lead character, Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck), who is seen walking down 42nd Street while carrying a locked basket. He winds up renting a room at a cheap sleazy hotel filled with strange characters, most of whom are compelled to ask what Duane is carrying in his basket. Duane soon visits a local doctor, who also winds up dying a very violent and gory death at the hands of whatever is in the basket. We eventually learn the horrifying truth about what’s inside and it is indeed Duane’s brother! That’s right, it turns out that Duane is one half of a pair of Siamese twins and was born with a conjoined brother named Belial. However, Belial turned out to be nothing more than a hideous deformed blob with eyes, teeth and hands. During their childhood, the twins’ father hired three doctors to perform an operation to surgically separate them and he intended to dispose of Belial. However, Belial fought back and wound up killing his father instead. Duane is now taking his brother to find the three doctors who performed the operation, so Belial can exact a gruesome revenge.
Shot on 16 mm film with a shoestring budget, Basket Case was obviously inspired by the works of Herschell Gordon Lewis. As you might know, Lewis was the filmmaker who invented the “splatter film” and pretty much gave birth to the grindhouse era. Like Lewis’ films, Basket Case is cheap, crude, amateurish, and most of its gore effects are less-than-convincing, but it’s infinitely more entertaining. The problem with Lewis’ works is that they often had nothing else going for themselves besides their shock value. Most of the violence in Lewis’ films is not all that shocking anymore, so when viewed today, the films are often quite boring. However, Basket Case does not fall into this trap as it maintains a nicely inventive tongue-in-cheek sense of humour. The film gets a lot of mileage out of its authentically sleazy 42nd Street settings and the garishly colourful characters who populate the 42nd Street hotel provide a lot genuine laughs. In fact, Basket Case even pays tribute to its grindhouse roots by setting one scene inside a grindhouse theatre screening a chop-socky martial arts flick. The absurd plot involving a murderous Siamese twin could almost be considered a demented variation on Brian De Palma’s Sisters, but the narrative unfolds surprisingly well. It keeps up the intriguing mystery of what’s inside the basket for nearly half the movie, and Belial’s first appearance on camera is a wonderfully shocking reveal.
Yeah, the stop motion animation for Belial isn’t exactly Ray Harryhausen-level stuff, but he’s got a surprising amount of low-budget charm. There’s also a lot of charm to the character of Duane and even though Kevin Van Hentenryck gives a very amateurish performance in the role, he’s strangely likable. One of the most interesting elements of Basket Case is the bizarre relationship between Duane and Belial, especially when Duane begins a romance with a pretty young secretary and his twin brother becomes enraged and resentful. Basket Case proved offbeat and clever enough that it actually managed to garner some attention from mainstream critics, who had to acknowledge this sleazy exploitation flick was pretty entertaining for what it was. One critic who was not a fan of Basket Case was Rex Reed. When Frank Henenlotter asked for the critic’s opinion after a screening, Reed replied: “This is the sickest movie ever made!”. Even though this quote was never used in any of Reed’s reviews, Henenlotter still decided to put it all over the film’s advertising! Basket Case proved popular enough to spawn two sequels from Henenlotter and a similarly-themed 1988 cult film called Brian Damage, but alas, the director has done limited work during the past 25 years. Nevertheless, Basket Case remains one of the more entertaining exploitation films ever made and provides a fitting send-off to the grindhouse era of cinema.