1982’s sleazy, over-the-top Basket Case is a bizarre but entertaining combination of seedy slice-of-NYC-life and absurd psycho-sexual horror involving former conjoined twins. The operation left sensitive Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) with a scar that looks like a cracked, yellowing callus–and, naturally, a brother, Belial, whom he carries around in a wicker basket as the two of them seek revenge on the doctors who separated them and literally threw the weaker, more disfigured brother in the garbage.
This is all handled with the sensitivity and subtlety of a movie that calls itself Basket Case and includes a literal, plot-relevant basket. Belial gobbles whole packs of uncooked hot dogs while his basket shakes. He looks like warty bread dough with T-rex arms, and apparently his teeth naturally grow in points. His eyes intermittently glow red, but not for any discernible reason. He has a telepathic connection to Duane. He shrieks in emotional agony, commits gruesome murders and attempts multiple rapes, trashes low-rent motel rooms, hides in a toilet, grabs his brother by the balls. He’s kind of the worst. The movie intermittently tries to position him as a kind of Frankenstein’s monster-like figure who is more sinned against than sinning, forgetting that Frankenstein’s monster was too classy to steal anyone’s panties.
Nothing in this movie makes any sense, right down to the characters’ names. The twins’ disgusted father refuses to acknowledge that he has two sons instead of just one and an aberrant growth, so he never names this worst of all possible Muppets. We can only assume that task was left to the twins’ genuinely loving aunt, but if so, why would she saddle him with “Belial”? If you have a kid on your hands who looks like microwaved chewing gum, you need to go with, say, a solid, All-American Jeff, not Literal Devil.
If you start asking questions in Basket Case, you will never stop. Why doesn’t this motel kick Duane out? Why doesn’t Duane just invest in a backpack? Does Belial fuck? (The sequels answer this with a fervent yes.)
This is, needless to say, not a good movie. It’s incoherent. To say the acting is amateurish is to put it kindly. It’s full of odd detours and never come to anything. But it’s also a bizarre, heartening testament to the sheer scrappy energy and inventiveness of a bygone era of low-budget horror. Basket Case presumably can’t afford to pay anyone very much–and what actual actor would even agree to be in it?–but it pours the funds it has into creating a genuinely memorable monster. There’s puppetry. There’s endearingly obvious stop-motion animation. Writer-director Frank Henenlotter has only modest skills, but he works them to the utmost here to wring everything he can out of this schlocky premise, both technically and narratively.
There’s a real, unmistakable exuberance here and–best of all–a genuinely great sense of place. This is New York in the early 1980s, all porno theaters and dive bars and dirt-cheap motels that rent by the hour, and there’s hardly a set in this movie that you could walk onto without risking a staph infection. Almost everyone looks like they need a shower. This is the setting Basket Case deserves and thrives in.
Basket Case is streaming on The Criterion Channel, Tubi, and Kanopy. It’s also preserved in MoMA, which just makes me feel good about the world.