“Basket Case”: A malignant jack-in-the-box exacts bloody revenge, now on AMC’s Shudder

By on January 5, 2018

Night Flight was recently asked by Shudder — the AMC Network’s horror streaming channel — to curate a guest row of content, and so we turned to our resident expert on ’80s cult horror, our social media editor KJ, who selected four films from their cult horror library.

We had asked members of Night Flight’s community to select the fifth movie you’ll find in our row of five cult horror titles, and the winner is David Cronenberg’s 1977 cult fave Rabid, which we recently wrote about in this previous blog post.

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The poll is now closed, and thanks for voting! By the way, we’re still offering 25% OFF on an annual subscription (regularly just $29.99 for the whole year) to Night Flight Plus (promo code: SHUDDER), and a free month of Shudder (promo code: NIGHTFLIGHT)!

Read more about Frank Henenlotter’s 1982 horror comedy Basket Case below.

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Duane Bradley (Kevin Vanhentenryck) — a rather unassuming young man from upstate Glen Falls, New York, as we learn in a flashback sequence — is carrying an oversized wicker basket with him when he rents a room in the scuzzy Hotel Broslin in NYC (it doesn’t actually exist: Henenlotter merely mounted a neon sign to a fire escape to create the illusion).

Inside the padlocked basket is his deformed twin brother, cursed from birth with the name Belial.

He also apparently has quite an angry chip on his shoulder — if you can call those shoulders — because he’s had to rely on big brother Duane all his life.

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That’s because Belial is merely a blob of flesh, a head with deformed arms and a misshapen body.

The memorable makeup SFX were created by first-timer Kevin Haney, who then went on to work behind-the-scenes for “Saturday Night Live” for three seasons in the 1980s before becoming an Oscar-winning makeup artist on Hollywood features.

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We learn that Duane and Belial have come to NYC to exact bloody revenge on the unethical doctors who forcibly separated them with an unwanted surgery when they were both ten years old.

Along the way, Duane meets quite a few interesting characters, including Robert Vogel as a harried hotel manager in a stained undershirt, and a hooker named Casey (Beverly Bonner).

He also gets a date (his very first) with a cute doctor’s receptionist named Sharon (Terri Susan Smith), a lovely blonde with Bugs Bunny teeth who exposes exactly one large breast and nipple.

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Basket Case ultimately ends on a grim note that wouldn’t seem too out of place had it appeared in an early Scorsese film instead of this low-budget affair.

Director Frank Henenlotter offers an onscreen dedication to another of his other inspirations as a director, Hershell Gordon Lewis, the Godfather of Gore, whose influence is felt throughout.

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Belial and Frank Henenlotter

Henenlotter — who directed several of Night Flight’s favorite cult horror flicks, including Frankenhooker — became obsessed with going to the movies when he was still a teenager, living in Long Island, NY (where there was just one theater that would show exploitation movies).

He’s said he managed to keep his grades up but occasionally found time to ditch his high school classes to take the train into Manhattan to drop by some of the cheapo non-porn theaters on seedy 42nd Street.

HBO’s show “The Deuce” — which was a slang term the locals used for West 42nd Street, or “forty-deuce,” between Seventh and Eighth avenues — tries to re-create this rough-and-tumble seedy cesspool (circa the early ’70s), thick with street hookers, druggies, sickos, weirdos and tourists, but if you really want to see what Times Square looked like in the year 1982, check out Basket Case.

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By the time Henenlotter was thirteen, he’d already began to shoot his own short films, on 8mm and 16mm (M.O.S., or “mit out sound”).

Then, in 1980, Henenlotter met producer Edgar Ievins, who suggested he come up with an idea for a feature-length cult horror film, as long as it was inexpensive and fun, meaning tongue-in-cheek humor on the cheap and gallons of fake bright red blood.

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The director came up with this sometimes cringeworthy story of brotherly love involving a young man who carries around his monster sibling — in his own words, “a malignant jack-in-the-box” – in a basket.

He says he got some of his ideas for his twisted formerly-conjoined Siamese twins story while eating hot dogs at the now-gone Nathan’s in Times Square (we didn’t get the connection either).

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In the end, Ievins was only able to raise $8000, and Henenlotter matched that with another $8K of his own money, and apparently that was enough funding for Henenlotter to begin production shooting on 16mm with a crew of just four, renting equipment and shooting and editing for most of 1980 and ’81.

In the end he says his budget for Basket Case was around $33,000.

Henenlotter worked with two Belial puppets — one was basically a hand puppet — which most of the time he operated himself.

He also shot some of the visual effects using stop motion camera techniques.

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Basket Case was later blown up — thankfully keeping its grainy charm — to 35mm theatrical prints for screening in some of the remaining exploitation theaters in NYC and around the country.

After premiering on April 7, 1982 at Club 57 on St. Mark’s in the East Village, Basket Case went on to become an underground word-of-mouth midnight movie hit at the Waverly Theatre.

It eventually became a popular VHS rental you just had to see to believe (the first version we saw was the murky Media Home Entertainment home video, back in the mid-’80s).

The most recently-released version is a nicely cleaned-up DVD from our friends at Something Weird Video.

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Check out this odd-as-fuck compilation clip from “Beverly Bonner’s Laugh Track,” a special Stoner’s Easter Egg on the DVD release (even better if you’re really stoned when you watch it).

KJ says “It’s creepy and so unfunny that it appears to be created by elderly aliens who’ve only observed earth through re-runs of ‘Give Me A Break’. A must see!”

Watch Basket Case on AMC’s Shudder.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.