Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Director Report Card: Frank Henenlotter (1990) Part 1

3. Basket Case 2

“Brain Damage” is a beloved cult artifact today. Upon release, many fans of Frank Henenlotter were disappointed in it. Those that loved the freakishness of “Basket Case” wanted more of the same. The public – by which I mean monster fanboys and people with Fangoria subscriptions – demanded a sequel. Eight years later, Henenlotter would deliver. The simply entitled “Basket Case 2” added more monsters and madness while significantly lessening the nasty tone. While not everyone loved this approach, “Basket Case 2” continued to grow the cult of Duane, his brother Belial, and the basket he calls home.

The sequel picks up from the original's ending, with Duane and Belial's dive out of the Hotel Broslin window, into the middle of Times Square. However, the two survived the seemingly fatal fall. After escaping from the hospital, Duane and his misshapen brother are taken in by Auntie Ruth. Ruth collects “freaks,” sickeningly deformed individuals rejected by society. While Belial feels like he belongs for the first time in his life, Duane begins to strain against the life style. Differences must be put aside when Ruth’s family of oddities are threatened by a tabloid reporter.

“Basket Case” was made for 33,000 dollars. “Basket Case 2” was made for 2.5 million dollars, sixty times the original’s budget. That’s a significant increase. The slapdash sets of the original have given way to actual locations. The clumsy puppets and awkward stop motion have upgraded to far more elaborate creature effects. This is most obvious in Belial himself. Previously an undefined blob of flesh and bones, he now has a clear skeletal structure, with asymmetrical limbs extending from his sides. The increase in money means a far more polished, better constructed film. It also means the sequel looses some of the original’s sleaziness and home made charm.

A theme in the original “Basket Case” was family. Duane and Belial’s special brotherhood was misunderstood by their father and their doctors. Together, they reeked bloody retribution against everyone responsible for tearing them apart. “Basket Case 2,” meanwhile, expands that sense of family. Duane and Belial just don’t have each other to watch after. Now, they have an entire family of freaks to relate too. Each one is an outsider, due to their hideously deformed features. Aunt Ruth watches out for each one, as if they were her children. When Belial arrives, they happily accept them. A key sequence has Duane pointing out that a normal looking human, when living among freaks, becomes the outsider. If it wasn’t clear in the first “Basket Case,” the sequel makes it evident that Frank Henenlotter’s sympathies lie strictly with the monsters.

“Basket Case 2’s” biggest problem is not necessarily its lack of sleazy, 42nd Street atmosphere. That’s more a matter of taste. Instead, the sequel actually has a fairly thin script. After Belial and Duane integrate themselves at Aunt Ruth’s place, the new conflict between the brothers is established. Instead of building on that for the rest of the film, this plot point is put on the back burner until the last act. The middle section of “Basket Case 2” instead focuses on Belial and his merry band of freaks lashing out at those that threaten their comfortable set-up. The film quickly enters a formula, of the monsters cornering some who means them ill-will before Belial gorily dispatches them. The repetitive script suggests Henenlotter didn’t actually have that many ideas for a sequel.

If you’re looking for monsters, “Basket Case 2” certainly delivers on that. The deformed individuals that Belial and Duane shack up with are memorably bizarre. Some are hulking but gentle, such as a hunchbacked giant with an elongated face or a female with a mushroom shaped head. Others are willing to partake in the violence, such as a wheelchair bound creature with a huge external brain. Or a fellow with a metallic brace around his head and a ghoul-like face. Others are more neutral, like the fellow with a huge row of teeth extending out of his head. There’s about a dozen bizarre creatures on display in “Basket Case 2,” each grotesque but treated as human beings.

While it’s easy to be enthusiastic about the fine monsters on display in “Basket Case 2,” their designs often strain believably. Belial was hardly realistic but he at least seemed within the realm of plausibility. Too many of Aunt Ruth’s friends don’t. Such as Moon-Face, a freak with a face shaped like a crescent moon. Or a mutation with a head like a frog’s, who often croaks. One freak has a head covered in fifty different noses. Another heavily resembles a mouse, with elongated teeth, beady eyes, and large ears. Even the more low tech deformities, such as the guy who appears normal save for the worms growing out of his face, seem unlikely. “Basket Case 2” is more overtly comedic then its predecessor. Its goofy monster designs pushes the film too far into a cartoonish area.

Despite doubling down on the bizarre deformities and body horror, “Basket Case 2” is actually a less gory film then Belial’s first adventure. Or, at least, it feels that way. The blood shed is certainly less creative. Belial dispatches most of his enemies in the same manner. He leaps onto their faces and tears their flesh with his claws and teeth. Henenlotter tries to mix up the presentation. The first attack mostly takes place off-screen, Belial leaving the body in an interesting place. The second has a photographer attacked in a dark room, his camera flash occasionally illuminating the carnage. The third death scene is clearly illuminated, Belial wrestling a gun from an attacker’s hand. Only the last murder does more then toss some blood on the performer’s body, as Belial brutally deforms the final victim’s face. Considering part of “Basket Case” and “Brain Damage’s” extreme appeal were in their heavy gore, it’s slightly disappointing that Henenlotter dialed it back on the sequel.

I criticized the acting in the original “Basket Case.” It was clearly an amateur production and, in most ways, added to the film’s gonzo charm. Part two is obviously a more professional film and, naturally, its performers are more refined. Even then, Frank wouldn’t dare recast the lead part. Kevin Van Hentenryck returns as Duane. Though his line delivery is still occasionally flat, Van Hentenryck adapts to the new material nicely. He’s sinister in a few scenes, funny in others, and appropriately weird most of the time. As for Belial, the new puppet is a lot more detailed and expressive. If I’m being totally truthful, I do prefer the goofy charm of the first film’s puppet.

“Basket Case 2” is a bigger story then the original, with a more extensive cast. The most important addition is Annie Ross as Granny Ruth. Ross exudes a genuine warmth as the old woman. This is important, as we have to believe that she really does care for the weirdos and monsters she takes care of. Ross even does good work when the script asks her to give motivating speeches to her family. Kathryn Meisle plays Marcie, the reporter on Duane and Belial’s case. She's not exactly a two dimensional bad guy, as the script doesn’t give Meisle much to work with. Even then, she creates a mildly likable character. Jason Evers, as her editor Lou, goes in another direction. He makes the tabloid reporter as nasty, sweaty, and greedy as possible, creating an amusingly vile villain. Of the major supporting players, Heather Rattray as Susan is the only one I dislike. Her performance is weirdly flat.

The original “Basket Case” had its share of nudity and was permeated with sleazy atmosphere. The sequel dials way back. Except for one scene. You see, part two has Belial falling in love. Among Auntie Ruth’s freaks is Eve, a female with a similar deformity to Belial’s. Deeply shy, Eve spends nearly the whole film hiding in a womb like blanket. She finds a soul mate in Belial, who slowly brings the female monster out of her shell. The climax to “Basket Case 2” has the two brutally deformed monstrosity consummating their love. That’s right, we get to see two squat, malformed freaks bring new meaning to the phrase “doing the nasty.” It’s a sick joke, one the film happily embraces. Maybe the sequel needed more of that good old fashion gross humor.

In the previous film, Duane was the normal one while Belial was the outcast. The sequel turns this on its head, making the human brother the outsider among a family of mutants. It’s a clever switch, if admittedly one of the few fresh gags the sequel has. After realizing his love interest isn’t as normal as she appears, Duane freaks the fuck out. This sets up the sequel’s final, memorable image. Duane decides to undo the separation that drove the first movie’s plot. He sews Belial back to his side. This is another switcharoo, as now the monster becomes threatened by his human brother. If, nothing else, it produces a cannily unnerving final image to conclude the film on.

“Basket Case 2” is clearly not as entertaining as the first film. The script is less focused. By removing the characters from the grindhouse setting of the original, much of the story’s cult appeal is sucked away. Henenlotter attempts to compensate by upping the grotesque special effects and oddball humor. This approach is almost successful. “Basket Case 2” clearly has its share of fans. That demand would see Henenlotter returning to the Bradley siblings for a third adventure. It’s not a bad creature feature and has enough freakish flair to be of interest to horror/cult weirdos. Yet recapturing the original’s unique energy proved difficult. [Grade: B]

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