Friday, July 8, 2011
by Eric “What’s in the basket?” Beetner
You’ve been warned that this post will be too much about me, but you must understand Basket Case was a very important film in my life. Stop judging me, we just started here.
See that poster over there? Bleeding letters, spooky eyes peering out, teasing tag line? That poster hung over my bed in high school. Not on the wall, on the ceiling so the eyes watched you as you slept, or tried to. Around it were posters for Dario Argento’s Creepers, the original Halloween and Dawn of the Dead (signed by Tom Savini--geek check!). Do I need to go into how hard it was for me to get laid? No? Good, let’s proceed.
(As an aside, I should take a moment to acknowledge the girls who were cool and brave enough to get in my bed. Kudos to you young ladies.)
You see, I was a mid-80s horror junkie. I attended more than one Fangoria Weekend of Horror. I even spent the night walking the streets of New York and sleeping on a bench on Grand Central Station because our hotel room fell out at the last second but I didn’t want to just pack it in and go home and miss the convention. This, added on top of the insult I suffered the night before by being refused entry to a Slayer/Megadeth/Bad Brains concert at the Ritz because I was too young. You’ve heard of “The Man”? I met him that night.
This all ties in together because, as proven, I was a horror movie nerd, I mean nut, and much of my impression of New York City night life was derived from movies, Basket Case being chief among them.
You see, Basket Case is not a glossy Nightmare on Elm Street budgeted A-list affair. It is gritty, dirty, ugly and as malformed as the evil twin hiding in the basket.
Briefly: Duane is one of a set of twins. His brother, Belial, was born...different. In a tricky flashback structure Pulp Fiction would have been jealous of (and you know Tarantino is a Basket Case fan), we learn that Belial is nothing more than a misshaped blob that hangs off Duane’s torso like a lump of spilled butterscotch pudding.
But they love each other. They can communicate telepathically, of course. But when a trio of doctors arrives to finally set God’s mistake right and remove Belial, things take an ugly turn. Duane doesn’t want Belial removed. Belial doesn’t want to be tossed in the garbage like yesterday’s meatloaf, which he kinda resembles.
The operation is a bloody, messy and--from the looks of it--highly unsanitary affair. Long story short, Belial isn’t dead. Duane rescues him and keeps him in the titular basket and now that they are grown, they head to beautiful New York City to track down the butchers who separated them. And give them a cupcake and a thank you note? No. To kill, KILL, KILL!!!!
The NYC they encounter, on their modest budget that matched my own 15-year-old pocket change, was one of hookers, pimps, grifters, porn theaters, junkies and a flophouse manager who should have been a big star for his mustache alone but suffered from an utterly cardboard line-delivery acting style. Overall this movie is not exactly an ensemble of on-the-cusp stars. More like off-the-floor mannequins.
The film becomes a checklist of revenge set pieces as they hunt and kill, one by one, the three doctors who performed Belial’s really, really late term abortion. Of course anyone who gets in their way doesn’t stand a chance either. (Here’s a tip--do not try to steal the basket. Y’know what? Just don’t open it at all. Seriously, the best thing you could find in there is laundry. The worst is violent shrieking death.)
But the plot is certainly not why this film was so influential to me. The execution, however, is.
You see, as a horror film nerd and a video store employee (my ticket to discount posters to plaster over my walls and ceiling until not a single chip of the cat shit brown walls remained), I decided I wanted to make movies. When I got to film school they showed us Citizen Kane, The Searchers, Breathless, Battleship Potemkin. They fed us a diet of films they called great in hopes that greatness would inspire us.
Yes, I had seen all these films before and still, I didn’t take much inspiration from them. You see Citizen Kane as someone working out with a Super 8 camera and, if anything, it makes you want to give up and go home because there is no fucking WAY you can ever make something that good. Game over, man.
But I had a secret. I knew better. My high school years had been spent wallowing in the muck as well as swimming upstream through the classics and the avant garde. Guess what? The muck was much more inspiring.
I could watch a film like Basket Case, and specifically the scene where Duane and Belial defy physics and build a death trap machine from a radial arm saw and somehow send it down a flight of stairs to bisect a human torso until all that remains are two freestanding legs that fall, with deft comedic timing, one to each side of a dirty basement floor, and thrill to the giddy joy of it. I watched that scene over and over until I praised out loud the inventor of the rewind button.
What did I learn from the slumdog charms of Basket Case and other 80s gems like it? I learned, “Well, shit, I can do that. If this is all it takes to be called a movie, and if I’m deriving this much visceral pleasure from it, hell, I can make a living out of that. Citizen Kane be damned.”
The film is not without heart either. As the revenge continues, Duane begins to have some second thoughts, a problem Belial doesn’t have. Granted Belial was the one cut off and left for dead in the trash, so he does have more of a bone to pick.
Duane making friends with a hooker doesn’t seem to really bother Belial, but when Duane finds true love, oh look out. He can’t talk, walk upright or presumably wipe his own ass (if he even has one...?), but Belial can feel jealous rage with the best of them.
Did I mention the effects? Where should we start? With the stop motion they use when they show any full “body” shots of Belial, like when he trashes the hotel room like a post-nuclear attack Keith Moon? With the gloved hand of the director they use when Belial feels up a tittie? The utter impossibility of a woman’s face getting skewered by approximately 142 scalpels and syringes that were laying flat in a drawer?
Glorious, gory mayhem.
And the New York City streets have never seemed more dangerous. It’s like the 12th ring of hell. This is when Times Square was a truly scary place, and when I walked from midtown to Greenwich Village that night in 1985, I saw Belial in every darkened alley. His red glowing eyes stalking me from every dead end and under every dumpster.
I’ve never walked anywhere, New York or otherwise, and felt the presence of Charlie Kane over my shoulder.
Ignore the sequels. They try to cash in on the camp value Basket Case earned after its release. But the original wasn’t intentionally campy. It just happened that way. If it was, it wouldn’t have a downbeat ending right out of the blackest Film Noir.
I’m not the only one to see the greasy charms of Basket Case. It has become, since it’s 1982 release, a genuine cult classic. The thing’s got a 75% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. For a film that is technically inept, that says a lot for the earnestness and the gore and--yes, I’ll say it--the characters. It has actual characters. One of them is a mute, rage-filled abomination, and yet you feel a little tug at the old heartstrings for the wrongs done to the mutant and his brother. You even find yourself wanting Duane to find love in the middle of all the bloodletting. Best not to mention the whole "Belial rapes the beautiful girl" scene. I'm trying to build a case that you actually like the little freak.
There’s even some great humor. The running, “What’s in the basket?” gag is on par with my favorite running line of all time, Escape From New York’s “I thought you were dead.”
Did I say it wasn’t intentionally campy? Maybe I spoke too soon. The way Duane feeds Belial like a zoo keeper, the cheap-ass recycled sets, the way Belial likes to perch on (or hide inside) toilets? Yeah, maybe they knew what they were doing.
So, okay, maybe I never hit it big as a director, but I work in the industry and I make a good living. This would have seemed unattainable if not for films like Basket Case, which made movie making so much less intimidating. They made it seem possible. And even now, as we head toward the 30th anniversary of Basket Case (holy shit!), the fact that people are still talking about it, still seeking it out and still seeing the scrappy deformed charms of this kill-happy camp classic makes me think my dream still isn’t dead.
And if it is going to die someday, please let it die as gloriously gory and karo-syrup blood soaked as Basket Case.