Basket Case (1982)

Basket Case poster

Tagline: The Tenant in Room 7 is very small, very twisted and very mad.
Director: Frank Henenlotter
Writer: Frank Henenlotter
Starring: Kevin Van Hentenryck, Terri Susan Smith, Beverly Bonner, Robert Vogel, Diana Brown
X | 1hr 31min |Comedy/Horror
Budget: $35,000 (estimated)


Basket Case is a gloriously depraved little number that puts the majority of exploitation schlock to shame. Cult Director Frank Henenlotter’s other notable works are just as smutty and bizarrely realised, and each film exhibits a surprising level of depth, despite the kind of paper-thin characterisation and second-rate acting one would expect from such a grungy outing. Subsequent efforts Brain Damage and Frankenhooker took a rusted scalpel to twitchy issues such as drug abuse and prostitution, and with Basket Case that kind of slapdash social surgery takes on a far more literal form.

The movie is shot on the kind of budget that oozes grime. Set in a New York underbelly reminiscent of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, to which, at least aesthetically, it seems to pay an obscure homage, the majority of events take place in the type of remorseless, skid row building where all of society’s scum seem to flock, a community of shared misfortune and last ditch empathy, and the perfect location for a faceless murderer to set up shop.

Basket Case 1982 Review Frank Henenlotter
Look, kid. For the last time, I am not Bob Hoskins! Yeesh!

But despite its setup, Basket Case is not that easily defined. In an era of copycat slasher flicks it is a heady breath of carbon monoxide, the story of a seemingly naive and amiable stranger and his mysterious padlocked basket. It takes us a while to see exactly what lies beneath, but we soon begin to realise that this is no domestic hamper as its owner calmly claims. It is instead the home of a frenetic, growling malcontent, the kind of genetic monstrosity that is able to devour a whole pack of hot dogs in a matter of seconds, and who insists on keeping its owner awake at night with unremitting bouts of telepathic pillow talk.

The owner in question is protagonist, Duane (Van Hentenryck), the latest resident of the unashamedly seedy Hotel Broslin. On the surface, Dwayne seems like a fish out of water, a polite kid with an unusually large wad of notes who immediately draws the attentions of the vulturous locale, and who strolls through his precarious environment with an air of strange impermeability, and it doesn’t take us long to find out why. Duane isn’t merely blowing in the wind. The boy is on a rather disturbing mission, a mission of revenge against a group of corrupt doctors who put him and his deformed accessory through the kind of surgical trauma that leaves more than just a giant, hideous scar, and the reason for our titular creature’s wanton savagery quickly becomes apparent.

Basket Case 1982 Review Frank Henenlotter
Dr Cutter was warned about the dangers of plastic surgery.

As impudently exploitative as Henenlotter’s pictures are, they are a million miles from shock for the sake of it, and the movie’s formless antagonist is more than just a a mindless killer. He may be little more than a savage blob with two claws and a vaguely human face, but there seems to be something more psychological at play. The creature loathes to be seen by anybody and as a result hates to see his only friend mix with anyone else, a fact that proves detrimental to poor Duane’s sex life and breezy new love interest Sharon (Susan Smith). So possessive is the critter in the basket that he is prone to fits of unabashed rage, and you sense his telepathy has a little more reach than first anticipated, and considerably more malevolence.

It is this peculiar grounding that transforms the movie into something quite special. Unlike most movie monsters, the blob in the basket is not the product of another dimension. He is not a supernatural killer or otherworldly demon, and he most certainly wasn’t born evil. Instead, he is a product of familial rejection, of mankind’s cold abhorrence for the catastrophically abnormal. He possesses all the insecurities of his human counterparts, all of the loneliness and desire, and when his pent-up carnal urges get the better of him, he goes in search of the female form like any sexually repressed blob confined to social anonymity, though his approach leaves more than a little to be desired.

Basket Case 1982 Review Frank Henenlotter
It was in that moment that the subject of his PhD proposal became clear.

It is these personal issues, at least in part, that see a carefully plotted act of vengeance descend into something rather more tenuous, and when resident thief, O’Donovan, stumbles upon our grotesque quasi-lodger, his subsequent slicing arises suspicion, leading our increasingly neglected and jealous monster to flee the proverbial nest in search of a little sexual experimentation, a decision which results in one of the most startlingly indecorous finales you are ever likely to witness.

Basket Case is nihilistic, morally corrupt and excessively violent, but the movie is executed in such a way that you never once find yourself offended on any serious level, and in terms of content there is certainly every reason to be. This is due largely to Henenlotter’s unique tone and particular brand of comedic sleaze, but credit should also go to the film’s downtrodden cast, a distinctly amateur bunch who manage to add a peculiar warmth to proceedings. The most astonishing element of Basket Case is Hennenlotter’s ability to forge oddball characters who are somehow worthy of our empathy. This is a filmmaker who has been accused of peddling cheap exploitation, and peddle it he does, but the lowly transients of the Belial Hotel are strangely endearing. On a bizarre level, this movie almost manages to feel like home.

Best Kill

Back in the early 1980s, it wasn’t uncommon for society’s elders to dismiss the medical profession, writing doctors off as negligent quacks who do more harm than good. Some might call this ignorance, but you should approach Hennenlotter’s perverse medical entourage with extreme caution, particularly the nefarious and ironically named Dr. Cutter, who turns nasty when a curious Duane lands in her back alley medical practice, belittling the ‘freak’ she had once operated on and dismissing his minder’s threats as those of a harmless little weirdo. But wherever Duane goes, his mysterious little basket goes, and the unfortunate doc soon has her face shoved into a drawer full of the very scalpels she once so glibly wielded. Razor-sharp irony at its most literal.

Most Absurd Moment

What exactly fuels the libido of a creature with no sexual organs? Moreover, what kind of movie would leave us asking such a question, as if the emotional nuances of a maniacal gastropod are worthy of scholastic analysis? That, in a nutshell, is the power of Hennenlotter. Disguising itself as call girl Casey’s cushion and landing a surreptitious, late-night grope, our sexually curious blob retreats under panic and chaos, returning to its basket with a frilly souvenir of carnal proportions. I suppose you take comfort wherever you can find it.

Most Absurd Dialogue

Basket Case is transparently anarchic, riding a tenuous line between gross-out horror, creepy unease and devilish humour, an erratic and irresistible tone highlighted in the following scene. Soused on a six-pack of Budweiser in a dingy back alley bar, a paralytic Duane reveals a mite too much to sassy resident hooker, Casey.

Casey: There’s something else I’ve been dying to ask you. What’s in the basket?’

Duane: ‘My brother.’

Casey: ‘You’re brother?’ (laughs hysterically) ‘What is he, a midget?’

Duane: (laughs hysterically) ‘No. We’re twins. Siamese twins.’

Casey: ‘That’s funny. You don’t look Oriental.’ (laughs) ‘So what happened? Somebody shrink him?’

Duane: (laughs out loud) ‘No. He’s deformed.’ (continues laughing) ‘A freak! He looks like a squashed octopus!’ (laughs) ‘My mother died giving birth to us. He was attached to my right side. They wouldn’t let us go to school or anything. They kept us hidden. We were the big family secret. Everybody hated us, except our aunt. You see, he likes the dark. He doesn’t like to be seen; not even by me sometimes. And you know what else?’ (Casey shakes her head with a growing concern) ‘He talks to me.’ (points to his own head) ‘Up here. Without words. I just hear him whispering in my brain. Sometimes he talks for hours – he won’t shut up. I used to be able to talk to him like that, but that’s when we were still connected. Our aunt said it was our special gift, but since we’ve been separated, I can’t do it anymore. But he can still do it to me. In fact, he’s even better at it now. He always knows what I’m thinking.’

Casey: ‘Duane, you’re giving me the creeps.’

Basket Case logo


Henenlotter’s unique brand of oddball sleaze bleeds cult notoriety, his ability to forge grim characters as worthy of our empathy as our disgust really quite astonishing. Shocking, perverse and unrelentingly creepy, but by the time the credits rolled I was kind of touched by it all. Whether this is a reflection of me personally is yet to be established.


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