This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film is the final one of the month: low-budget cult classic Basket Case. Directed by Frank Henenlotter (Brain Damage), this movie was chosen by friend, horror expert, and marketer Alexis Van Straten. I rented Basket Case from my local video store Queen Street Video.
Trigger warnings: sexual assault (I think?).
An older gentleman in a suit, Dr. Lifflander (Bill Freeman), leaves his house in the dark. Almost immediately, he hears a rustling in the nearby trees. “Who’s there?” he asks. Startled by further movement, he rushes back inside and attempts to dial the police, but his phone line is cut. Lifflander hears something in the ceiling, and retrieves a handgun from his drawer. When the power is cut and the lights go out, he shouts, “Oh God, no! No!” The doctor fires into the shadows, but a twisted claw hand pulls his face downward. When his face moves back into the frame, he’s bleeding profusely.
Cut to beautiful early 1980s Times Square, Manhattan. A young man with a prodigious ‘fro, Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) carries a basket through the seedy neighbourhood. A dealer sidles up to him and offers him literally every drug I’ve ever heard of. Duane declines and heads to the Hotel Broslin, whose sad lobby is a nexus of local characters, including the desk clerk (Robert Vogel, looking like a young Alan Dershowitz), who informs Duane rooms are $20 a night. Duane, like the upstate rube he is, pulls out his wad of cash in front of everyone, and pays in advance. Passing a few oddballs on the way to his room, he finally closes his door, sets the basket down, and exhales: “We’re here.”
The basket sputters and raspberries in return like a small Tasmanian devil. Duane runs out to buy whatever’s in the basket some food. He tosses burger patties into the open basket while skimming through Dr. Lifflander’s bloodstained files. After the creature in the basket eats about a dozen burgers, Duane enjoys a single one himself and tries to drift off to sleep. However, he begins to hear voices in his head. Duane shouts at the basket-dweller to be quiet and let him get some sleep. (The mystery thickens!)
The creepy old man from the lobby, O’Donovan (Joe Clarke) – visions of cash wads dancing in his head – tries to peer through Duane’s keyhole. But Duane’s neighbour, sex worker Casey (Beverly Bonner) shoos him away and warns Duane about his peeping tom. She and Duane become fast friends. Duane then takes his basket and pays a visit to Dr. Needleman (Lloyd Pace). The receptionist, Sharon (Terri Susan Smith, a dead ringer for SNL’s Vanessa Bayer), at first mistakes him for the electric typewriter repairman. (She does a pretty good impersonation of a typewriter; a regular Michael Winslow, she is!) She eventually lets him see the doctor under some dubious pretences: Duane pretends he and the doctor are old friends, but doesn’t want to give his real name. Sharon, like everyone else, asks what’s in the basket, but Duane doesn’t answer.
Sharon, realizing Duane is visiting from out of town, is outraged he hasn’t been to see any of the tourist spots yet. She offers to show him the sights: “We’ll even get you some 3-D postcards!” Duane is admitted to see Needleman, busy eating his lunch. Duane pretends he’s having chest pains, but it’s just an excuse to remove his shirt and show the terrible scars on his side to the doctor. Duane later leaves and the receptionist – very unprofessionally – asks him out on a date. Duane first declines, but later sets down his basket in a corner and plans a date with Sharon in whispered tones – so he won’t hear.
But first Duane takes his basket on a date to a kung-fu movie. He begins to nod off during the high-octane action flick, and a nearby tough in a tank top takes the opportunity to steal his basket. The man rushes the basket to the washroom, and kicks open the lock. When he opens it, he screams. The howls of terror awaken Duane, who rushes past the man – clutching his bloody face – and finds his basket. “Not now,” he warns the thing in the basket. “Save it.”
Dr. Needleman, visibly shaken by his encounter with Duane, calls Dr. Kutter (Diana Browne), who is in the middle of a candlelit dinner with a young paramour. She answers Needleman’s call, but is terribly annoyed by the interruption. Needleman, panicking, tells Cutter their colleague Dr. Lifflander is dead, cut in half. Kutter, however, is busy trying to get laid and blows off Needleman. Sharon, his receptionist, locks up for the night, leaving the doctor alone. Duane sneaks back to the doctor’s office and empties the contents of the basket in front of the locked door. “Don’t forget the address book,” he advises. A gnarled hand grasps the door knob. Needleman, in his office, is alarmed by a massive crunch. When he goes to reception, he sees the front door has been torn off its hinges.
Dr. Needleman runs. He barricades his office door with filing cabinets, but when he turns on his light, he sees what can only be described as a malformed lump of human matter stuck to the wall. The thing screams and attacks Needleman. The creature tears at Needleman’s stomach, spraying blood everywhere. Later, the creature reconvenes with Duane in the back alley and hands him the doctor’s address book. Inside, Duane finds Dr. Kutter’s address. For some reason, the duo are hunting and murdering doctors.
Duane wakes his little buddy with a pack of hot dogs for breakfast, and tells him to sit tight: today, Duane is going to case Kutter’s place. He’s purchased the little mutant a television to keep him entertained, but almost the second Duane leaves, the monster tears off the television knob. The thing begins to freak out in a stop-motion animation: screaming, smashing things, throwing papers around the room. The other hotel residents hear the commotion coming from Duane’s room; it sounds like he’s trapped a wild animal in there!
Duane, however, has lied to his little friend. He’s actually on a date with the receptionist at the Statue of Liberty. The desk clerk, meanwhile, uses his keys to open Duane’s room. It looks, in the clerk’s own words, “like a goddamn bomb went off in here.” But no living thing can be found inside. O’Donovan, rubbernecker that he is, again spies the roll of cash on the night stand.
The clerk sends everyone back to their rooms, but O’Donovan returns later to pick the lock. He grabs the roll of cash and starts to count it (ignoring the sage advice of The Gambler, Kenny Rogers), then decides there might be something valuable inside the basket. He opens it and the thing leaps out at him, pushing him back into the hallway, into his own room. Duane, at Liberty Park, reels back in physical pain as the thing attacks.
The desk clerk (who runs up a lot of stairs in this film) hears O’Donovan screaming and he and others break into his room. They find O’Donovan’s torn and bloody corpse inside, and a blood trail that leads out the window. Duane rushes back with Sharon from the Statue of Liberty and pushes through the crowd of gawkers in the lobby. Sharon wants to join him, but he flips out at her and shoves her into the street. “He killed O’Donovan! I don’t want him killing you!” Duane bounds up the stairs, catching the attention of the detective (Kerry Ruff) investigating the murder.
The detective and Duane have a little chat in his hotel room. Duane keeps slipping up, referring to “we” instead of “I.” The detective inquires what is in the basket, but when he opens it, the basket it completely empty. The detective promises to be back with more questions and leaves. Duane then searches around for his friend, and finds he’s hiding in the toilet. (It’s quite the visual image.) The lump and Duane have a heart-to-heart on the toilet. Duane apologizes for lying about his date, but they’ve been following the lump’s orders for so long. He just wanted to have a little fun. But, no matter their conflicts, the two agree they’ll always be together.
Casey, Duane’s neighbour, finds him and his basket, drunk at the bar. (I should clarify: the basket is not drunk.) Casey invites him to a back table and the two get progressively more hammered and giggly. When Casey asks what’s in the basket, Duane tells her the truth: “my brother.” He says he and his brother were conjoined twins, but his twin, Belial was deformed. “He looks like a squashed octopus,” Duane accurately notes. Belial talks to Duane constantly through telepathy. Duane used to be able to communicate that way, too, but not since the two of them were medically separated.
We flash back to the twins’ birth. Their father (Richard Pierce), is disgusted by Belial and heartbroken that the twins’ birth resulted in his wife’s death. By the time the boys are twelve, their aunt (Ruth Neuman) brings in a representative of the state to determine if the aunt can continue to home-school the twins. But she’s so disgusted by the twins, she nearly faints. Later, twelve-year-old Duane overhears his father scheming with three doctors – Lifflander, Needleman, and Kutter – to perform a risky surgery. They should be able to separate the twins so Duane can live a normal life. Belial, however, won’t likely survive the surgery.
The doctors drag the conjoined twins to the surgery table by force. (The surgery table, for reasons not explained – perhaps lack of access to a set that looks anything like a hospital – is the family dining table.) After the twins are sedated, the doctors undertake the bloody, noisy surgery. After separation, Duane wakes up in the dead of night and hears Belial in his head. He runs outside and finds Belial has literally been put in the trash. (Rude!) But he’s survived the surgery. The two then scheme to get revenge on dear old Dad.
Their father is awakened by the sounds of construction in the house’s basement. He descends two flights of stairs into the world’s largest basement. Eventually, he steps on some discarded nails. He looks up and sees the bandsaw whirring frantically. The saw then slides out of place and flies toward him. His feet drop on opposite sides, indicating (I guess) that he’s been split in half. Later, the twins’ aunt tells them it’s safe to come out of hiding. The police couldn’t find enough evidence to determine who killed their father, and everyone thinks Belial is dead. The aunt will continue to raise them and read them passages from The Tempest, but eventually, like the kid in “Puff the Dragon,” their aunt dies.
Following their big night of drinking, Casey and Duane stumble back to their rooms. Duane panics when he nearly forgets the basket outside, and rushes out to grab it. He then nods off, and Casey, curious to see if Duane’s story is real, opens the basket. But it’s empty! Casey returns to her room, strips down and changes into a happy-face nightgown, and lays in bed. But Belial has hidden himself in the pillows. He pushes himself closer to Casey and begins to caress her. She screams!
The concerned hotel residents come running again. The desk clerk goes in alone this time and sees the window is open. Did something jump out the window? Casey wisely decides to spend the night with another female hotel resident. Belial, for his part, has returned to his basket in Duane’s room, where he lovingly fondles Casey’s stolen underwear.
The next morning, Duane grabs the basket and sets to work: “Let’s get this over with!” When they arrive at Dr. Kutter’s, they realize she’s a veterinarian! Duane enters the office, saying his cat has been badly cut on its side. But Kutter recognizes Duane’s name and figures out what’s going on: “You’re the freak we separated.” Kutter thinks Duane should be thanking her; he’s able to have a normal life, thanks to her work. She, too, demands to see what’s in the basket, and Belial leaps out at her, tearing at her face, ripping out her tongue, and strangling her. Kutter reaches for a scalpel from her drawer to defend herself, but Belial is stronger. He pushes her face down into the drawer. Duane and Belial sprint out of the veterinary office and the nurses head back to find Dr. Kutter, with several scalpels jutting out of her face. (It’s pretty gruesome.)
Sharon is waiting for Duane at the Hotel Broslin when he returns. She’s discovered her boss, Dr. Needleman, has been killed. She’s devastated. She wants to be with Duane during this troubling time. They go to his hotel room and soon begin to embrace and kiss. (Duane kisses exactly as you might imagine a home-schooled kid would.) They fall onto the bed and Sharon pleads, “Take me, Duane.” That’s when Belial pops up from the basket and screams. Sharon panics. Duane wraps Sharon up in a blanket and throws her into the hallway. He closes the door and shoves Belial back into he basket, fighting back tears. Sharon pounds on the door outside and demands to be let in. (Honestly, it’s shocking the hotel hasn’t kicked Duane out yet. Is all that trouble really worth that $20?)
Sharon eventually tearfully leaves and Duane, somehow, falls asleep. Belial then exits his basket, his eyes glowing red. He caresses Duane’s hair, goes to the open window, and screams. Duane, in his slumber, dreams of himself running stark naked down the darkened city street. He finds the apartment of Sharon and goes to her room. Duane begins to caress her face, her legs, then tentatively touches a nipple and begins to fondle Sharon’s breasts. Duane wakes up from his erotic dream, drenched in sweat. But worse than damp sheets; Belial is missing!
When Sharon wakes up, it’s not Duane romantically caressing her, but the red-eyed face of Belial she sees. Belial attacks Sharon, choking her to death. Duane, through their telepathic connection, realizes what Belial is up to and rushes to Sharon’s room. He finds Belial on top of her bloody body. (It’s unclear, but I think the suggestion is that Belial raped Sharon before killing her. It’s completely vague.)
Duane shoves Belial into his basket and takes him back to the hotel, smashing the basket against the walls and yelling curses. The desk clerk decides he’s had enough after this latest outburst and climbs the stairs to evict Duane. But just as he enters the room, Belial leaps out of the basket and clutches Duane’s crotch, lifting him high into the air. He then chokes Duane and both twins fall out the open window. They dangle from the neon sign of the Hotel Broslin. Belial hangs by one hand, and manages to both choke Duane and keep him from falling to his doom with the other. A crowd gathers around this outlandish scene. In time, both brothers drop and fall to their deaths.
- Basket Case is a neat twist on the traditional Jekyll and Hyde story: the halves of outer civility and inner barbarity are divided between two conjoined twins. The inner violence is literally kept locked inside a basket. This is perhaps why the film goes where most would fear to tread – in suggesting that Belial has acted out the (literally) unconscious desires of brother Duane by forcing himself sexually upon Sharon. That the violence only began after the twins were separated would suggest the danger of keeping these two portions of the self completely distinct.
- But in a way, the film wants to have its cake and eat it, too: the back story, where Belial is treated (exactly) like garbage is meant to elicit sympathy. How could anyone treat a human being this way? In a way, his murderous rampage against the doctors seems nearly justified. But the film also takes great pains to highlight the monstrosity of Belial. All the horror of the film comes from the horrid sight of Belial. It’s hard to emphasize horror at deformity, but also plead for understanding of things that look different.
- As my ever-practical wife Meg noted, Belial eats a lot. Where exactly is he pooping? In the basket? Or is that what he was doing on the toilet in that one scene?
- Meg also was quick to point out the unrelenting ugliness of the film. It’s hard to make a film look pretty in 1981 with nearly no budget, but even the settings are – without exception – seedy. From fleabag hotels to the grimy theatres of Times Square and some unusually squalid doctors’ offices, this is a film that makes you feel al little dirty. The filmmakers somehow seem to make even the Statue of Liberty seem sordid and disreputable.
- I get the joke about “Kutter” and “Needleman,” but what is a “Lifflander”? Have I totally missed the doctor joke in this surname?
Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: If you have a stomach for truly low-budget films, you could do a lot worse than Basket Case. The story takes a strange turn at the end, but the puppet Belial is a blast, and there are some truly hilarious line readings throughout.
Best outfit: In the final sequence, when Belial and Dwayne dangle from the Hotel Broslin neon sign, there’s a sex worker with a really great geometrically patterned dress.
Best line: “If this happens again … uh, I don’t know.” – the hotel desk clerk, amazing in a crisis.
Best kill: Dr. Needleman’s death is especially visceral, all the moreso because it’s the first scene in which we see Belial.
Unexpected cameo: Strangely, Casey actor Beverly Bonner plays Casey again in Basket Case 2 and the mostly unrelated Henenlotter movie, Frankenhooker (extended Basket Case Universe, anyone?). She also plays – not Casey – a fast food manager in Basket Case 3.
Unexpected lesson learned: Though it may seem like a good idea, don’t schedule life-changing surgery in your dining room under the cover of night.
Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Hotel Broslin.
Next up: That’s a wrap, folks! We’re all done for 2018!