In the annals of delightfully bad horror films, few can hold a candle to Frank Henenlotter’s 1982 freshman film Basket Case. Following the bloodthirsty trail of revenge left by a monstrous flesh sack and the (formerly conjoined) twin brother from whom he was untimely ripped, the film is weirdly disjointed but utterly charming, minus a tonally bizarre sexual assault that happens in the final moments.
After an opening scene in which a doctor is killed in his home by an unseen assailant, fresh-faced basket-toting Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) arrives in New York That Was, the smoky gritty haven for weirdos in diaspora that gave the city life before the Disneyfication of the city at the hands of Rudy Giuliani (as I noted in my Ghostbusters review, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is required reading on this topic). He finds a room at the seedy Hotel Broslin, which is populated by an assortment of odd characters: the gruff and off-putting but oddly paternal manager (Robert Vogel), a woman whose sole joy seems to be standing on the stairs and telling new tenants about the previous occupants of their rooms like an absent-minded oracle, a drunkard in a suit who is constantly scheming to steal whatever cash he can from other residents, and lovable neighbor Casey (Beverly Bonner), who seems obsessed with smiley faces. In the midst of this motley crew, the ostensibly naive Duane at first seems like an innocent about to be swindled… until his basket starts to move. Whatever’s inside is hungry.
It is to Casey that a drunken Duane reveals his and his basket’s backstory, although she (understandably) finds it to be laughably unbelievable. Duane’s mother died in childbirth, bringing both Duane and his brother Belial into this world. Belial is a monstrously gross thing, more a tumor than a living being, only loved by Duane (with whom he shares a telepathic rapport) and a kind aunt. When the boys’ father finally decides to separate the two, assuming that the Belial growth will simply die, preteen Duane is unable to stop him. In the night that follows, Mr. Bradley is murdered by the now-independent Belial, and the boys are taken in by their aunt, until the day that they set out into the world to find the doctors who separated them so that Belial can rend them limb from limb.
This mission is complicated when Duane meets and falls for Sharon (Terri Susan Smith, looking exactly like Vanessa Bayer in a bad wig), the receptionist for one of the doctors. When he lies to Belial and sneaks away for a date in the park, Belial takes a turn for the worst, first destroying their hotel room in a rage (in a choppy but impressive stop-motion sequence that involves the hilarious visual of a drawer flying at the screen in a straight line, gravity be damned) before setting out to kill the (relatively) innocent others in the hotel, and Sharon herself.
Only a mind like Henenlotter’s could have come up with this premise and followed through with such a noteworthy movie, especially on a budget that famously cost a mere $35,000. The Belial puppet is aggressively disgusting, actually appearing on screen much less than he will in your memory. Van Hentenryck’s performance is a little underdone, but his Sandman-like looks and his Midwestern “gosh”-ness serve as a lovely counterpoint to Belial’s bloodthirsty misdeeds, and the supporting cast feels richly conceived, even those who appear only briefly. The film was followed by two sequels (and Duane and Belial also cameo in Henenlotter’s next film, Brain Damage), so don’t let their apparent deaths at the end of the film depress you. There’s much more gore and glee to come.