Basket Case (1982, Frank Henenlotter)

Basket Case is endlessly creative. Director Henenlotter doesn’t have the budget to execute anything, but it never stops him from trying; sometimes to mesmerizing effect. The film’s got these scenes requiring a lot of special effects and utilizes (obvious) stop motion to get them done. It’s all part of the buy in. Basket Case doesn’t have the budget to do first-rate effects, might as well embrace the cheapness.

And the cheapness helps reconcile the film’s broad, desperate comedy with its horrific and tragic conceit (though Henenlotter seems utterly oblivious to the tragedy). Basket Case is the aggressively exploitative tale of Kevin Van Hentenryck and his previously conjoined twin brother. They’re in New York City to kill the doctors who separated them, as the doctors were trying to kill the brother.

The brother is entirely a special effect, too occasionally claymation, otherwise an obvious puppet. Henenlotter doesn’t make the audience wait long to see the brother, who’s mostly just a head and arms. The set pieces are instead about the victims seeing the brother and being horrified. Henenlotter doesn’t try to do any characterization on the brother; he doesn’t have any personality. It’s sort of strange, given how Henenlotter relies on loud caricaturization for the film’s cast.

Lead Van Hentenryck is the only one to get a character arc. Everyone else is just someone he encounters, whether its love interest Terri Susan Smith or the denziens of his cheap (but surprisingly safe) dirty old New York, Times Square hotel. And it’s not much of a character arc. Sean McCabe, playing the character in flashback, gets more of one. It’s just something amid nothing.

Van Hentenryck’s extremely likable. From his first scene, walking through Times Square with a large, padlocked wicker basket, there’s just something likable about him. Van Hentenryck plays it harmless; the vengeance quest isn’t weighing on him–the doctors did try to kill his brother.

The eventual conflict is more about the brother’s concern Van Hentenryck is going to abandon him. Smith is a fetching love interest, after all. Van Hentenryck has to do both sides of the fraternal conflict. The brother can only speak to him and does so telepathically. Van Hentenryck does surprisingly well in those scenes; the likability pays off, which helps, since Henenlotter errs on the side of absurdity. Sometimes so much it gets in the way of narrative progression. Writer-director-editor Henenlotter sometimes lets things drag, which doesn’t help his actors. They need all the editing help they can get since Henenlotter’s not doing them any favors with the script and if he does direct performances at all, he does so badly.

A lot of the cast is likable, even when their performances aren’t any good. Some get credit for keeping a straight face, like Beverly Bonner. She’s a sex worker who befriends fellow cheapo hotel denizen Van Hentenryck. For whatever reason, Henenlotter’s editing on Bonner and Smith is the worst in the film. Shots will hang on them too long, like there’s something more imminent. But there’s never anything more. Bonner has it the worst, but only because Smith’s transition from prospective love interest to love interest gives her less to do.

Robert Vogel and Joe Clarke are the “best” in the hotel supporting cast. Diana Browne’s the most amusing loathsome villain.

The hotel itself is the film’s biggest success. Henenlotter’s frequent establishing shots–just the hotel’s neon sign, as it’s not a real location–its cramped “lobby,” its endless staircases, its motley crew of residents. It’s not authentic, but it’s the most realistic thing in the film.

Gus Russo’s score is a little too minimal. There’s never an attempt to aurally prepare the audience for a scare. Bruce Torbet’s photography is fine. Henenlotter just can’t compose a shot.

Impressively and possibly contradictorily, Basket Case is an accomplishment without ever being a success.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written, edited, and directed by Frank Henenlotter; director of photography, Bruce Torbet; music by Gus Russo; produced by Edgar Ievins; released by Analysis Film Releasing Corporation.

Starring Kevin Van Hentenryck (Duane Bradley), Terri Susan Smith (Sharon), Beverly Bonner (Casey), Ruth Neuman (Duane’s Aunt), Richard Pierce (Duane’s Father), Diana Browne (Dr. Kutter), Sean McCabe (Young Duane), Lloyd Pace (Dr. Needleman), Joe Clarke (O’Donovan), and Robert Vogel (Hotel Manager).


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