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, Lloyd Pace, Bill Freeman, Joe Clark, Ruth Neuman
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, in spite of some paper-thin characterisation and second-rate acting. 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 seems to flock, a community of shared misfortune and last ditch empathy, and the perfect location for a faceless murderer to set up shop.
But in spite of 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 who 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. But 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.
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 horror 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 of the insecurities of a human being, 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 worth its salt.
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, who manage to add a peculiar warmth to proceedings.
Ultimately, the most astonishing element of Basket Case is Hennenlotter’s ability to forge bizarre characters who are somehow worthy of our empathy. This is a filmmaker who has been accused of peddling cheap exploitation, and there is no questioning that fact, but the lowly transients of the Belial Hotel are somehow able to offer a sense of community. On some bizarre level, this movie almost manages to feel like home.
Confronted by a vengeful Duane, the ironically named Dr. Cutter turns nasty, belittling the ‘freak’ she had once operated on and dismissing his threats as those of a harmless little weirdo. But wherever Duane goes, his mysterious little basket goes, and the unfortunate quack soon has her face shoved into a drawer full of the very scalpels she once so glibly wielded.
Most Absurd Moment
Disguising itself as call girl Casey’s cushion and landing a late-night grope, our sexually curious blob retreats under panic and chaos, returning to its basket with a frilly souvenir of carnal proportions.
Most Absurd Dialogue
Soused on a six-pack of Budweiser, 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.’
Henenlotter’s unique brand of oddball sleaze screams cult status, while his ability to forge grim characters worthy of our empathy is really quite the achievement. This is grimy, perverse filmmaking, 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.