Basket Case reminds me of the annual Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. Both grotesque exhibitions of excess achieve the perfect degree of campy self-parody through great creativity that makes for total entertainment. Not to mention, Basket Case is similarly meaty to a hot dog eating contest in that it stars a mass of animated clay as its anti-hero. The film, produced on a shoestring budget, celebrates outsiders while it mocks more serious body horror works like Brian De Palma’s Sisters. The first in his career directing cult films, Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case is a film meant for enjoyment above all else.
The plot follows Belial, the raging mass of flesh, as his formerly conjoined twin brother Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) escorts him around New York, on a quest to enact vengeance on the doctors who forcefully separated their bodies from one another during their youth. While Duane appears physically intact as an adult following the surgery, save for a large abdominal scar, Belial was much less fortunate. Having two arms, a complete face, and lacking any real body, he must be transported around by Duane and kept locked in a woven basket. The lock stays in place mostly for the safety of others, as in many scenes Belial is liable to maul anyone who opens the basket. Despite their lack of physical connection, the brothers communicate through telepathic ability, perhaps because animating Belial’s mouth may have proven too challenging on a minimal budget. Viewers never hear Belial’s voice on account of this psychic ability, only his constant screams of anguish. On paper, Belial could be viewed as a misunderstood menace, due to others’ constant neglect of him and the physical and societal barriers preventing him from living the life which he desires. Thematically, the neglect Belial faces contributes to feelings of envy and anger which boil to a point where he cannot withhold his rage. In practice however, Belial raises as much sympathy as a ball of clay and serves mainly as a wildly entertaining movie monster as he demolishes hotel rooms and mauls doctors in imaginative stop-motion and puppetry sequences.
Beyond the film’s farcical premise, certain artistic choices embrace its B-movie status. Nearly all the acting comes off as stilted, the dialogue unnatural, and the conversation devoid of logical flow. Nonetheless, the film foregrounds these flaws in using conventional editing techniques like reaction shots to capture hilarious character expressions, particularly in regards to Belial, whose face is frozen in a scream with his mouth agape. The uncanny depictions of New York’s citizenry provide for some of the film’s funniest moments; several characters have inexplicably abrasive and aggressive demeanors when interacting with the Duane, who is generally charismatic. This strange level of aggression from even minor characters signals the anger present throughout the film. Though I view the movie as a light-hearted romp, the ridiculous amount of screaming cannot be ignored. My favorite moment in the film occurs when Belial surprises an evil doctor (aptly named “Needleman”) and the film alternates between shots of both victim and blob screaming several times each.
The interconnectedness of the brothers, and their “separation” anxiety are hinted at several times throughout the film. For all the unremarkable acting the film has to offer, the brothers’ relationship still comes across as quite charming; in one quirky visual gag, Duane dumps McDonald’s burgers into Belial’s basket for him, and the basket shakes side-to-side as he devours them. Another editing gag comes when the film uses jarring cuts to shift from Duane, who becomes intimate with a receptionist he meets early in the story, to Belial screaming and causing mischief. In spite of the tragic nature of Belial’s character arc, the film typically depicts him for laughs; consider if The Elephant Man were a comedy and John Merrick got shot at the end as a joke.
Basket Case deserves its cult status on the outrageousness of its plot alone, but its competent understanding of the formal mechanisms of horror make it an exceptional parody film. In fully submitting into its vulgarity, Basket Case tells a depraved tale of loneliness and revenge, as an outsider punishes a society who will never accept him. Even with how dopey some elements of the film seem, I still find the film’s finale to be disturbing due to its perverse and tragic nature. Thankfully, the film spawned two sequels that continue up the ante on the original’s camp, adding a greater emphasis on the unsettling prosthetics and creature designs. I adore Basket Case for its disregard of objective filmmaking standards; clearly the film is a passion project, and it succeeds because that passion transfers all the way to the audience watching it. While the film is by, for, and about outsiders, viewing it feels like being let in on a hysterical inside joke. It doesn’t hurt either that Belial is just so damn loveable.