Second Sight’s ace Blu-Ray bundle of Frank Henenlotter’s cult schlockers gets a welcome repress.
As he says in Second Sight’s excellent feature length making of, What’s in the Basket?, Frank Henenlotter never wanted to be a director. He just loved movies, and his early shorts were a lark fuelled by the exploitation flicks Henenlotter devoured in the grindhouses of New York’s legendary 42nd Street. With a similarly waggish outlook on his subsequent feature career, it’s no surprise that the crackpot auteur has amassed such a fervent cult following. His quirky, intensely personal visions are the absolute apex of B-movie horror comedy. For in the pantheon of laugh-laden ghoulishness, there are few films as rib-ticklingly funny as Henenlotter’s Brain Damage (1988), Frankenhooker (1990), and Bad Biology (2008). But what really impresses is just how fully formed the helmer’s one-of-a-kind schtick was from the outset; Brain Damage et al are perhaps superior, but BASKET CASE, his 1982 debut proper, is Henenlotter’s quintessential text.
Sitting proudly alongside Night of the Living Dead (1968), Eraserhead (1977), and Re-Animator (1985) as one of genredom’s greatest, art-fuelled first strikes, Basket Case is every bit as exhilarating. Like Romero, Lynch and Gordon, Henenlotter delights in letting his now trademark obsessions run riot from the out; the body-based weirdness on display is less him finding his creative voice than him screaming a rallying schlock manifesto at the top of his lungs.
Through Henenlotter’s lens, NYC is an uproarious, off-kilter cesspool; a seamy netherworld inhabited by cartoon-y lowlifes and assorted kooks. And although initially presented as a fish out of water, Basket Case‘s chief protagonist, Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck), quickly becomes the Big Apple’s de facto tour guide as the affable but deeply unstable young man prowls Gotham at the murderous command of his deformed brother, Belial, whom he carries around in a giant wicker basket. Out for vengeance against the quack doctors who separated them, Belial is brought to life via a mixture of deliciously naff puppetry, stop motion, and foam rubber moulding. The guffaws that immediately greet his absurd appearance and execution quickly vanish as he becomes an increasingly more powerful and charismatic presence across the film’s running time.
Indeed, the Siamese twin offcut’s rage at being shunned by the world is as poignant as it is frightening, with the normal-looking Duane’s sidelining of him as he falls head over heels for Terri Susan Smith’s ditzy secretary Basket Case‘s pathos-strewn core. It’s affecting, character-focused drama, and Henenlotter’s further probing of the Bradley brothers’ estrangement (and bitter-sweet reconciliation) is the crux of the helmer’s equally awesome sequels.
Picking up right after the events of part one, BASKET CASE 2 (1990) sees the Bradley boys whisked straight from hospital and into the care of Granny Ruth. Quirkily essayed by jazz singer Annie Ross, Ruth is an unflappably positive mother hen to an assortment of other “unique individuals” – Dawn of the Dead‘s (1978) David Emge among them, albeit unrecognisable beneath Gabe Bartalos’ imaginative freak make-up. The now sleeker, redesigned Belial, of course, is naturally at home in such a protective and nurturing environment, and Henenlotter’s rousing parable of individuality and tolerance is built around how at ease he becomes in his own lumpen skin. Duane, meanwhile, grows increasingly uncomfortable; Henenlotter over-eggs the existentialism a touch but he always makes sure a ghoulish punchline is never far behind.
With the thoroughly creepy sight of a cackling Van Hentenryck in Belial garb, and a tense showdown with a sleazy private eye (played by From Beyond‘s (1986) king perv, Ted Sorel) sitting firmly at the top of the most genuinely unnerving moments of his career, Henenlotter doesn’t even bother trying to outdo them come BASKET CASE 3: THE PROGENY (1991). Instead, the director and co-scripter Robert Martin – the original editor of Fangoria – mine the rich vein of outrageousness that powered their previous pairing, Frankenhooker. Ross’ freak-accompanied rendition of Lloyd Price’s 1959 single Personality, and Belial clomping about in a mechanical death machine as he and Duane try to get his snatched, newborn brood back are certainly as memorably ludicrous as anything in their showstopping tale of sluts and bolts; and sheriff’s daughter Tina Louise Hilbert is almost as striking as Frankenhooker‘s eponymous zombie babe in her dominatrix gear. It’s a mite too shaggy pace-wise, admittedly, but Basket Case 3‘s fourth wall-breaking coda at least ensures it’s a fittingly potty end to Henenlotter’s charming franchise.
A standard amaray reissue of their limited edition Blu-ray steelbook, Second Sight’s Basket Case Trilogy repress contains all the same brilliant supplementary material that made it so vital upon its original release in 2012. While the absence of any supportive bumf for the vanilla Basket Case 2 and 3 is somewhat annoying (meaning those who own Synapse’s US DVD of part 2 should keep hold of it for completeness), Second Sight atone with a spread that’s otherwise definitive. Front and centre is the aforementioned What’s In the Basket?; David Gregory’s exclusive exploration of Basket Case‘s making and legacy featuring all of the series’ key players, and as exhaustive, insightful, and endlessly rewatchable as anything in Henenlotter’s oeuvre. A profile of the Blu’s sleeve designer, Graham Humphreys, is another Second Sight coup. It’s a breezy yet informative natter that also covers several of the poster artist’s other iconic creations, such as the Evil Dead (1981) and Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) quads.
Elsewhere, Something Weird’s old 20th Anniversary Edition DVD is plundered, with Basket Case 1‘s nifty outtakes; a cool fifteen minute location tour (co-hosted by Henenlotter’s Bad Biology partner, rapper R.A. the Rugged Man); and a cracking, director-led group commentary all ported over. Trailers and behind the scenes galleries round it out, but it’s visually where Second Sight’s set truly excels; each flicks presentations are textured, delicately balanced, and nothing short of eye-popping.
Shot for buttons on 16mm, the first Basket Case looks unbelievably good in Second Sight’s stunning, sourced-from-Something Weird HD transfer. As Henenlotter explains in his quick introduction, no amount of money would ever make it look brand new, but the Basket Case here is as close to its pre-35mm blow up as possible; its gorgeously grubby colours, clarity, and 1.33:1 framing exactly as the helmer intended. Massively trumping Optimum’s tired DVD double feature (as well as Synergy’s long out of print R0 stand alones), the technically superlative Basket Case 2 and 3, then, are also astounding; Henenlotter’s day-glo colour palette luminous in their lush, 1.77:1 OAR scans.
BASKET CASE: THE TRILOGY is out now on Region B locked Blu-ray via Second Sight
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