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 grungy outings. Subsequent efforts Brain Damage and Frankenhooker took a rusted scalpel to twitchy issues such as drug abuse and prostitution ― well, kind of ― 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.
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 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 Belial Hotel. 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 attention of the vulturous locale as he 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.
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 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 quietly sentient and 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 Basket Case 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. Nor is he your typical 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.
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 irrepressibly 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 largely due 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.