Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with another special AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. I had a chance to talk with one of the men who scared me the most as a child. I was very young when I first saw BASKET CASE. I’d have to say it probably was responsible for the ghoulish bastard I grew up into. Before I share my talk with Mr. Frank Henenlotter, director of such films as BASKET CASE, FRANKENHOOKER, and BRAIN DAMAGE, here’s a review of one of the true cult classics, BASKET CASE!
Available this week on BluRay from Something Weird!
BASKET CASE (1982)Directed by Frank Henenlotter
Written by Frank Henenlotter
Starring Kevin Van Hentenryck, Terri Susan Smith, Beverly Bonner, Robert Vogel
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
There are scenes in BASKET CASE that haunt me to this day. I remember renting the film when I was around 13 and being utterly creeped out by the sordid juxtaposition of sex, violence, and grime this film oozes from every frame. Though everyone mentions Cronenberg when the subgenre of “body horror” arises, I’d argue that Henenlotter’s films are just as effective and just as horrific as some of Cronenberg’s classics. The thing that differentiates Cronenberg and Henenlotter is that it seems Henenlotter isn’t afraid to get his shoes dirty, while I feel an almost meticulous restraint from Cronenberg’s films. But enough about comparing two great filmmakers, BASKET CASE is a classic film that shouldn’t be missed and if you haven’t seen it, you have no right calling yourself a fan of horror.
Henenlotter’s story of conjoined twins who seek vengeance on the doctor who separated them is a bizarre masterpiece filled with over the top gore, uncomfortable sex, stop-motion animation, and one of the most honest depictions of New York City I’ve ever seen. I know folks would scoff at this comparison, but like Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER, BASKET CASE shows the real New York. 42nd street lit with dingy neon and covered in a damp ooze that doesn’t wash out. The people have the stink of the street on them and an outsider sticks out like a sore thumb. That’s Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) in the first moments of the film, when he shows up to a dingy hotel carrying nothing but a knapsack and a large basket containing his twin brother, Belial. Though all of the accolades Scorsese has for being the documentarian of New York are attributed rightly so, Henenlotter’s BASKET CASE is just as effective a snapshot of a specific feel in a specific time in America.
The concept of Belial in the first place is a horribly creepy one. Carrying a malformed legless midget with sharp teeth and claws in a basket may sound goofy, but dammit if Henenlotter doesn’t play it all straight as an arrow. Duane’s conversations with his brother emit real feeling between two brothers and you can’t help but root these two freaks on. And once you see Belial in all of his lumpy glory, it’s an image you’ll never forget. In fact, there are so many iconic images in this one: young Duane and Belial on the operating table, a woman with a face full of scalpels, Belial’s sex scene, and the final minutes of the film which to this day have me on the edge of my seat and goosebumpy just thinking about it.
The BluRay version of this film is gorgeous, and as Henenlotter says in the interview below, he leaves the hairs and stains in it to retain that gritty grindhouse feeling that you are watching something you shouldn’t. As perverse and horrifying as it gets, BASKET CASE is a must own for all of you ghouls out there.
And now, here’s my chat with Mr. Henenlotter, probably one of my favorite interviews in quite some time…
AMBUSH BUG: Hi, Mr. Henenlotter, it’s an honor to talk with you. I’ve been a huge fan of all of your films.
FRANK HENENLOTTER (FH): Oh, thank you.
BUG: It’s really been great and actually one of the very first DVDs that I ever bought was BASKET CASE, so now I have to get it on BluRay now that it’s out on BluRay.
FH: Yeah, it looks a bit better.
BUG: Does it? Okay.
FH: I mean there’s only so far you can go with that, you know? (laughs)
BUG: So let’s talk about the BluRay first off. So what new things are on the BluRay that fans of BASKET CASE can enjoy?
FH: Well the only real change is that it looks cleaner and sharper and better than it’s ever looked before. Since we did the DVD I found the 16mm negative and I found the 35mm interpositive. They are virtually identical, but, you know, it’s a film that cost basically no money whatsoever, you know? It was the ultimate no budget film, so I was kind of limited in how much better I could make it, so what I decided to do is “I can’t make it look like a film that was obviously filmed yesterday, but what I could do is make it look like the original 16mm answer print,” because we shot it in 16mm and I remember shooting a film that was bright and colorful. When it was released theatrically it was dark and murky and cropped and it just looked awful. That’s how it was like on VHS as well. It was just terrible looking. I always hated the look of the film, so I was able to go back with this lab here and we baby stepped just about every scene, every shot. I pandered to the 16mm negative and made it look like that and I think it looks…well, it’s as good as modern technology can make it look right now.
BUG: That’s great. So you didn’t go the George Lucas route and add any giant special effects?
FH: Oh no. In fact, just the opposite. I didn’t fix anything that was in the actual negative. In other words, I fixed what was on the negative--dirt, debris, anything like that--but I didn’t cut the grain, that’s in the negative. I didn’t cut hair. There’s a couple of shots where there’s hair in the gate. That hair’s been there since the day I shot it, it’s in the negative, I’m not touching it. (laughs) You know, that hair is an old friend. (Laughs)
BUG: It adds to the charm of the film, I think.
FH: Well I don’t believe in going back and…I believe in cleaning things, you know, and polishing, and you know I’ve been polishing this turd over and over again and finally I’ve got the turd where it’s glowing now, you know, but I don’t think I should pretend it’s anything other than what it is.
BUG: What was it like, just the initial reaction to BASKET CASE? It seems like it was such a cult hit. Was it a hit? Looking back it seems like everybody knows what it’s about, but what was it like when it first started to catch on in the movie houses and things like that?
FH: When they first released it theatrically, they put it out at midnight. I thought when I was making it, I always thought, you know, this film is going to play weeks on 42nd Street that will be forgotten about, which was fine with me. Believe me. You know, I thought “Okay, fine,” but the distributors, Analysis, they decided to try to sell it as a cult movie by putting it on the midnight circuit and back then a midnight movie was different than what it is today. Back then it meant underground or subversive or oddball or something that was a little off the main beat, okay, and they also made a terrible mistake and they cut the film. They decided to make it more of a comedy by removing all of the gore.
BUG: Oh god…
FH: So it was terrible and no one went and then Joe Bob Briggs, the drive in movie critic, he wanted to host the drive in premiere down in Texas. He had seen the film at Cannes, at the Cannes film festival. He loved it and was writing about it, so he wanted to host the premiere and we told him “It’s been cut,” so he contacted Analysis and said, “No, I’m not going to host the cut version. I want the version I saw at Cannes.” So they gave him an uncut print and it played in Dallas uncut and it was doing sellout business.
FH: Meanwhile in Houston they were showing the cut print and it was dying. No one told me anything; basically they stole the print. Then one day I’m walking past the Waverly theater a couple of blocks away. Now it’s an IFC theater, but back then it was Waverly and that’s where it was at midnight and I see a line wrapping around the corner and I’m thinking “Wow, I wonder what this is for. It certainly couldn’t be for my film.” And I saw somebody in the line and I said, “Hey what are you going to go see?” and he goes “I’m seeing your movie.” And I said, “Why?” They said, “Oh, I saw it last week. I loved it.” I said, “Yeah, but it’s cut” and they go “Are you kidding me?” I said, “Listen, you didn’t see the woman with the scalpels in her face, did you?” And he says, “I sure did.” That’s how I knew “Okay…” And then shortly after that, about a week or two later, they advertised it as “the original uncut cult classic” or something like that, I don’t know, or “the uncut version.” So the moment it was shown in its original form, it kind of caught on pretty fast as one of those strange midnight films--and by the way, it played for two and a half years here in New York at midnight.
BUG: Oh, wow.
FH: I said that’s an amazing run, you know?
BUG: Definitely. What do you think it is about the film that resonates with so many people?
FH: I have no idea. Everybody asks me that and I’m as baffled as everybody is. I really am. It was also very difficult for me to judge my own movies. I really don’t have a clue. I’m thrilled, but I can’t answer that. I don’t know.
BUG: Well, I can tell you the reason why I love it is just that it is a tale of two brothers or a pair of brothers and there is this unsaid kind of like love between these two brothers, and I think for some reason with me, maybe it’s because I have a brother of my own, just stories about brothers and brotherhood and things like that…that really resonated with me above, I mean, the gore was awesome and there were so many scares and thrills and it was funny and all of these other things, but it seems like at its core it is about these two people who are linked by not only by brotherhood, but actually by skin as well.
FH: Yeah, well okay I’ll take that. Honestly I am the most mystified person in the world that it’s still selling. You know, sitting there in a lab doing an HD transfer, I just sat there shaking my head going “I don’t believe I’m here doing this, but okay…”
BUG: That’s good. Well, you seem to be one of the names that always comes up when they discuss horror films that involve body horror. You and Cronenberg seem to be the two that always seem to come up. Do you embrace that sort of subgenre of the horror film?
FH: Well, I don’t believe in the supernatural, so I’m not scared by a vampire, you know? I don’t know. I mean I enjoy films like that, but they don’t mean anything to me. I don’t worry about…I never worry about turning into a werewolf, let’s put it like that,okay? But I do worry about things that are wrong with me, and, you know, that’s a deep concern. I did a film in 2008 called BAD BIOLOGY and months before we started shooting that I learned I had cancer and that’s a “oh, well how appropriate. Now I’m going to do a film called BAD BIOLOGY, what fun.” (laughs)
FH: And actually it was wonderful therapy for me, it really was, because I was getting radiation treatment at seven in the morning, I’d be on the set at nine. I wasn’t worried about the cancer, I was worried about finishing a film and so far and so good, it’s all gone well so far.
BUG: Well, congratulations. That’s great.
FH: Yeah, but I mean to me that’s a realistic fear you know. A zombie I don’t think is quite realistic.
BUG: Sure. Even though there is a bit of a fantastic slant to some of your films, it is very much rooted in reality. You hear about conjoined twins all of the time in the news; was there one particular story that kind of influenced BASKET CASE?
FH: Yeah, actually I have…I have it right here and I’ll give you the title. Hold on, it’s an old medical book called ANOMALIES AND CURIOUSITIES OF MEDICINE.
FH: It’s an old, old book and flipping through there I saw a picture of a Siamese twin growing out of somebody’s side, but there was no head. It was just the legs and I think maybe two arms, I’m not sure. It was just like the lower half hanging out of this and I thought “Well, that’s interesting. Let me turn it around.” So that was how I figured how it would look.
BUG: And I also want to talk about BRAIN DAMAGE as well. That seems to have the same kind of themes except you gave the creature a little bit more of a sentient…like a personality, almost.
FH: You know what it is? I mean, they both deal with a normal person’s interaction with a monster or creature, let’s just say. Well why would you interact with a creature? Why in God’s name would you be carrying a monster in a basket unless there is some valid reason like “oh, it’s just his brother—okay, that explains it.” Why would a guy willingly let some kind of parasite eel live on his body? Either he has no will of his own and that’s been done to death, or “God help us, maybe he’s enjoying it--and why?” That gave me the idea of “Well wait a minute, maybe it’s a tradeoff. Maybe it’s…” Once I came up with “What if Elmore is the voice of addiction,” you know, it just kind of wrote itself and it was like “Oh, this is going to be easy,” you know?
BUG: Yeah. Both films are…I haven’t seen BRAIN DAMAGE in ages, but I definitely want to try to track that down. Is that available on DVD or BluRay yet?
FH: Oh yeah, it’s available on DVD. It’s not available on BluRay.
BUG: Okay, well I’ll have to seek that one out, because it’s been years since I saw it.
FH: I hear FRANKENHOOKER is going to be out on BluRay in November.
BUG: Oh, fantastic. Maybe I can talk to you again about that one. I love that film, too!
BUG: Back to BASKET CASE, was there anything while filming it that stands out to you that was particularly special? Or anything just looking back on the film that…
FH: Oh yeah, it was absolute chaos every minute, because we didn’t have money, so we only shot…we shot sporadically over a year based on when we had Peg. You know, it was mainly Ivan and myself funding the film and that was like…you know, for weeks and weeks there would be footage that we shot sitting in a lab, because we couldn’t afford to get it developed. So it was kind of chaotic and then all of the shots that we shot in New York were all done without permission. That was absolute hit and run, let alone Kevin Van Hentenryck running bare ass naked through the streets, you know?
BUG: (laughs) How did you coordinate that scene in particular? Did you just tell him to start running?
FH: Well, we did a couple of things. One of the things, since he was barefoot we actually swept the sidewalk that he was going to run on. Don’t run on a New York City street barefoot, okay? And then, you know, much to Kevin’s redit, we shot on one of the coldest days of the year. It was not planned, but (laughs) you know, that is so…we shot it in an area of Manhattan were it was very quiet at night near the Tribeca area, which is now teeming…we couldn’t do it these days, because it’s opened 24 hours, but back then it was mainly an industrial area, so it was very quiet at night. Nevertheless, what we did is we had him run from a heated van into another heated van right behind me and the camera and as soon as he got in the van it drove away. It didn’t even wait to see if we got it on film.
Now the point is, if someone saw us or if a cop came by, we would just deny it like “What? A naked guy? What would a naked guy be doing running?” We would just deny it and that never happened. I don’t know if anybody saw it. Nobody reacted, so, you know, we did it and we did it along…every shot was like that. I think there are only two shots where he is completely naked. We did it in one take and that was that. What we did is basically the van would, when they were ready to go, they would honk the horn and I would start the camera. I just remember standing there looking through the camera thinking “Oh my God, he’s naked” and that was that.
BUG: That’s great. And I think as much as they talk about films by Scorsese and things like that, TAXI DRIVER, really depicting the seediness of New York, I think BASKET CASE does that same thing.
FH: I loved it seedy. I was very comfortable in that atmosphere. I was cutting high school when I was fifteen. I grew up in Long Island and I would take the Long Island railroad into Manhattan and I was very comfortable going there. All of the years…you hear all of these stories about all of the crime on 42nd St. and how dangerous it was. What crime? I never saw it. I never saw anything like that, nothing ever happened to me and when I was 15 I looked like I was 10, so, I mean, I didn’t see it. Instead I was very comfortable and I very quickly learned the rules and what to do and what not to do. You know, you never take your seat until you adjust to the dark and you know what’s around you. (laughs) But I loved it there. I was very comfortable and it was the greatest film school I ever went to. When I moved into Manhattan I was there like maybe six nights a week until it all faded away, so yeah the seediness I thought was charming.
BUG: Definitely. And the hotel is almost a character in itself too, where he stays. How did you get that location?
FH: It’s all faked. I mean, we had a real location. We had a real location it was basically a hooker hotel and we knew that, because every time there would be a fight or something would go wrong, the hooker would set the mattress on fire. So the fire engines would come and they would take the mattress outside and in fact Kevin Van Hentenryck lived a block away from the place, so he had all of these stories about it, so we went in there and, you know, negotiated a pay rate. Once we came out of there we realized “this is going to be impossible.” If somebody was offering to guard our equipment, another person was doing this…it was like “Uh oh, we are in trouble,” so we never shot scene one in there, so we just faked it. We built…the lobby of the place was a building on Franklin Street…the clerk’s office is actually the freight elevator, and then the stairs was that building too, and then the rooms and all of that were sets we built. I mean, if you look at it carefully, especially when you see it in high def, you will notice the walls were nothing but stretched canvas.
BUG: (laughs) That’s great. I’ll look for that.
FH: We used to go out…there was a night every week when a lot of large objects to be thrown out in the garbage and Edgar and I would go out in a van and we would search for props and we would be like “Oh, a toilet…let’s put that in the dance hall…” We found a whole bunch of cardboard rolls and we painted them and they are like the heating pipes you see running along the top of the hotel. You know, it’s however you can make it. You know what I’m saying?
FH: However you make it on zero dollars.
BUG: I love that. So what’s next for you? What’s coming up for you in the future?
FH: Well there’s a documentary coming out called HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: THE GADFATHER OF GORE (Editor’s note: I reviewed it here and interviewed HG Lewis here!). That comes out the same day as BASKET CASE.
BUG: I’m actually going to be watching that this weekend, so I can’t wait.
FH: You know, it’s fun. It is what it is, you know what I’m saying? I had so much fun doing that, I’m doing another documentary now also about something weird called THAT’S SEXPLOITATION, which is going to be a visual history of non-Hollywood cinema from 1929 to 1969 and it’s going to cover everything from sleazy skin flicks to…so it’s going to be quite the horror show. (laughs)
BUG: Okay, great.
FH: That should be out…we are hoping it will be out at festivals next summer.
BUG: That sounds great. I’ll look for that, too. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. It’s been a real pleasure and I’m going to be reviewing the BluRay here next week, probably, and will probably put the interview along with that as well.
FH: Well great, thanks a lot.
BUG: All right, well thank you so much. Take care and keep on making those awesome films, I love every one of them.
FH: (laughs) All right, thanks a lot.
BUG: All right, take care. BASKET CASE is available now for the first time on BluRay from Something Weird!
Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole / wordslinger / reviewer / co-editor of AICN Comics for over nine years. Mark is also a regular writer for FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND and will be releasing FAMOUS MONSTERS first ever comic book miniseries LUNA in October Order #AUG111067 (co-written by Martin Fisher with art by Tim Rees)! Support a Bug by checking out his comics (click on the covers to purchase)!
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