Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Director Report Card: Frank Henenlotter (1982)

Frank Henenlotter is a self-described exploitation filmmaker. In the eighties and early nineties, he wrote and directed five bizarre horror comedies that would quickly win him a cult following. A great lover of grindhouse cinema, Henenlotter packed his films full of gore and nudity. Yet his absurd sense of humor and ability to craft genuinely gooey imagery makes his films more then just sleazy throwbacks. Henenlotter seemingly vanished for years before returning in the new millennium. Let's track through this bizarro journey, which began on the seedy side of New York with a very strange basket...

1. Basket Case

Frank Henenlotter’s reputation was built upon “Basket Case.” Inspired by his love of exploitation and grindhouse cinema, Henenlotter managed to scrap together 35,000 dollars to make his first feature film. “Basket Case” would find some acclaim as a midnight movie – mostly thanks to a blurb from Rex Reed were he referred to it as the sickest movie he ever saw – before VHS would bring it wider attention. During the horror video boom of the eighties, “Basket Case” would be rented many times by sicko horror fans and teenage boys looking for something shocking. The low budget effort would soon garner a devoted cult following.

Duane Bradley walks into Manhattan carrying a huge wicker basket with him. After he checks into Hotel Broslin, a sleazy establishment inside Times Square, he goes about his mission. Inside the basket is Belial, Duane’s hideously deformed twin brother. Born conjoined, the two were separated as youths by doctors who considered Belial nothing more then a growth. Sharing a psychic connection, the brothers are in town to wreck bloody havoc on those doctors. However, a girl soon comes between Duane and Belial, tearing the brother’s bond apart.

“Basket Case” is undeniably crude, in multiple meanings of the word. The story is bizarre and distasteful. There’s certain amounts of blood, murder, sex, rape, nudity, and an overlaying atmosphere of sleaziness. The meager budget is all too apparent at times, as the sets are primitive and the special effects are goofy. The acting is usually terrible from the majority of cast members. Despite the obvious limitations and outwardly offensive material, there’s something endearing about “Basket Case.” As cheap and ugly as the flick is, “Basket Case” is the work of an artist with a clear vision. Frank Henenlotter conceived, wrote, and directed the film. Belial and the film he occupies is his deformed little baby.

The film’s outrageous content is probably what it owes most of its cult following too. However, what really makes “Basket Case” special is the emotional root at the story’s center. The film is essentially about a brotherly bond that slowly goes sour. For years before the movie starts, Duane and Belial have only had each other to rely on. Their physical bond had been severed but their familial connection remains strong. However, as the story progresses, Duane becomes a more normal person, finding a girlfriend and making friends. This threatens the relationship Belial has with his brother, the only connection he has to the human world. Naturally, as in Cain and Abel and countless other myths, this jealously and resentment causes the brothers to turn on each other. “Basket Case” might be a sleazy creature feature but these elements make it something a little deeper too.

“Basket Case” has been referred to by its director and others as a horror/comedy. But I’ve always wonder how intentional the humorous elements are. Whenever the film goes for more blatant laughs, the sequences frequently come off as mawkish and overly silly. Such as Belial eating his way through a pile of hamburgers. Or grabbing his brother by the crotch and lifting him into the air. The more genuinely funny moments are likely unintentional. Such as the amusingly awkward stop motion effects used to bring Belial to life a few times. Or the seriously wooden performances of a police detective. This is where I suspect the truth lies: Henenlotter realized, with such a low budget, that many aspects of the film would be laughable. Rather then try and fight this, the writer/director embraced the project’s cheesier aspects, deciding to emphasize the story’s gonzo comedic streak.

Another reason why I think “Basket Case” has developed its loyal cult following is the story’s unsettling element of body horror. The film partakes in many of the same troupes as other films did at the time, with a fraction of the budget. Monsters tearing people apart weren’t an uncommon sight in the early eighties. Conjoined twins is a concept that reoccur in fiction from time to time. However, “Basket Case” roots its horrific content in an unnerving… Fleshiness. We see the scar running down Duane’s side. Belial is a lump of bumpy flesh, protruding bones and muscles seen through his jaundiced skin. The effects are crude but it’s clear what the director was going for.

Belial is the villain of the film but, in an odd way, also a lovable antihero. Henenlotter keeps the deformed twin off-screen until exactly the thirty minute mark. The monster spends most of the movie as an unconvincing puppet or a glove grasping off-screen. Or, most hilariously, a stiffly animated stop-motion model. Even with these deficient effects, Belial’s gasping face can be startling. Moreover, Belial communicates mostly in hellish, tormented shrieks. This suggest that he’s in constant pain. As much of an outsider as Duane is, Belial is far worst off. While his more normal brother gains a girlfriend, Belial is left to toil in his basket. When he attempts to recreate Duane and Sharon’s coupling, it goes horribly wrong. Belial is a monster. He was born that way. The ugly twin does some very nasty things but he’s also pathetic and worthy of sympathetic.

“Basket Case” has occasionally been a source of controversy because of its gore. Various releases of the film around the world have cut out the blood and violence. This is surprising to me as the movie’s gore effects are clearly tongue-in-cheek. When Belial attacks his enemies, we see the puppet squirming on the victim’s body. Lots of fake blood sprays from off-screen, splattering on faces or the surroundings. The bigger the gore gags get, the sillier they become. A female doctor has her face shoved into a drawer of scalpels, the blades sticking from her bloodied face. Belial and Duane’s father is split in half with a ridiculous buzz saw contraption. The film’s tone and atmosphere is what’s occasionally unsettling. The fake gore is just goofy.

The acting in “Basket Case” is amateurish. Kevin Van Hentenryck plays Duane. His line reading is often flat. It’s clear that he’s trying to imbue the part with some emotion but there’s a seriously unpolished element to his performance. A sequence devoted to Duane getting drunk for the first time is especially laughable. If Hentenryck’s acting is awkward, the rest of the cast is often outright bad. Terri Susan Smith as Sharon gives a preposterous performance, alternating between incredibly wooden and overly emotional readings. The romance between the two characters is seriously underwritten. Duane and Sharon develop feelings for each other out of nowhere. Sharon even outright says that there’s no reason she should be attracted to this weirdo.

As uncooked as the lead performances, they’re actually better then the supporting cast. The characters in the Hotel Broslin are all incredibly cartoonish. The hotel manager speaks only in cliched lines that are broadly barked by Robert Vogel. The other Broslin residents, such as the guy who likes to peep through key holes or the older woman who strikes up verbose conversations suddenly with Duane, are equally badly acted. The doctors who become Belial’s victims all seem to be reading their lines off of cue cards, adding very little emotion to the dialogue. “Basket Case” was the first and only screen credit for many of the actors involved. This isn’t surprising, as most of the cast is clearly uncomfortable on camera. Only Beverly Bonner, as possible prostitute and one of Duane’s only true friends Casey, seems to have any sort of energy suited towards acting.

Frank Henenlotter has always been a big proponent for the sleazy, old days of Manhattan. That love is clear in “Basket Case.” The film is set in and among the Times Square of the day. The second scene has Duane walking down the New York sidewalk, while a drug dealer tries to sell him everything. Theaters and sex shops are visible in the background. In one scene, Duane visits a greasy 42nd street movie house to watch a kung-fu triple feature. (In the middle of the movie, Belial murders a weirdo in the bathroom.) The Hotel Broslin wasn’t a real place, the location pieced together from various sets. Despite that, it captures the same feeling the actual places create. If you have an appetite for the sleazy, “Basket Case” certainly delivers.

One of my favorite scenes in “Basket Case” shows that, despite the film’s obvious shortcomings, Frank Henenlotter had some decent visual sense as a filmmaker. After Duane nearly has an intimate encounter with his girlfriend, Belial leaps from his basket. He stands on the window ledge, shrieking into the night. This leads to a dream-like sequence where Duane, nude, runs through the streets of New York. The camera switches to a first-person perspective as Belial approaches his next victim. The musical score, which is otherwise not notable, hums ominously over the moment, building a genuine sense of unease. Say what you will about the rest of the movie but this scene stands out for good reason.

Ultimately, I sort of definitely love “Basket Case.” The performances are ridiculous, the story is odd, and the production was clearly very cheap. Yet that raw quality somehow adds to the film’s charm. It’s a true indie effort, with no bells and whistles. Instead, the movie has to rely on its bizarre streak of inspiration to win viewers over. Which it totally does. At the same time, the script occasionally gets at something a little deeper. While many locally produced horror flicks of the time are similarly charming, its this hidden depth and an actual ability to amuse or unnerve that makes “Basket Case” a sicko classic. [Grade: B+]

No comments: