Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Film Appreciation - What's in the Basket? Or, Even Squashed Octopuses Have Feelings

Guest contributor Daniel Evans conjoins Film Appreciation with the 1982 film Basket Case.

So you want to know "what's in the basket?"  And you would also like to know what an episode of Ren and Stimpy would look like if directed by Abel Ferrara or if the cast of The Little Shop of Horrors all dropped a Quaalude with John Waters and started listening to The Velvet Underground incessantly. Well, I think the nearest thing to getting those answers is to watch Basket Case, an urban trawl through the greasy slime pit of a city infested by characters of every dubious character trait, and a disturbed young man and his basket dwelling twin both intent on revenge.

The story (if it at all matters to you after that earlier "basket dwelling twin" line) concerns Duane, a troubled individual with a wicker themed secret. The city's neon fatigued patrons are naturally curious about this mysterious basket, and we are eventually treated to the sight of a rubbery blob of flesh lunging from it and grabbing onto whatever it sees fit to chew on first, be it hamburgers, sausages, or a human face! We learn that poor Duane was born with this misshapen attachment on his side, and we see his parents despair at having to name the thing as well as their other "normal" child. Eventually settling on the slightly demonic Belial, they proceed, 12 years later, to hire some seriously under trained doctors to forcibly de-attach Belial from Duane in their parents' living room (beats waiting in A&E for 12 and a half hours I suppose). Naturally pining for his companion, and with the onset of puberty hurtling towards him like acne splattered, socially regressing runaway train, he digs Belial out of the trash.

In the ensuing years they find themselves in The Big Apple, and in The Hotel Broslin, an establishment that would make the famously crumbling Chelsea Hotel and its ghosts of Burroughs and an amphetamine drenched Dylan seem like a plaza that Donald Trump would flick his quiff towards. With vengeance on the agenda they forge a blood soaked path along the sidewalks, where every corner could have Travis Bickle escorting Cybill Shepherd into a shady sex cinema. Together they hunt for the doctors that tore up their burgeoning brotherly bond with several swift slices from a scalpel. Their mission of retribution is, unfortunately for Belial, somewhat blighted by receptionist Sharon, who falls head over toe for Duane (it must be the fantastic nest of curls he has sitting upon his head) and their walks through parks and public displays of affection only infuriate the already unstable brother more. He wants his companion (and his fantastic nest of curls) all to himself.

Director Frank Henenlotter, possibly working with a budget even Jess Franco would struggle with, creates a memorably imaginative cult classic here. Every location is real and seemingly untouched, giving it a rogue documentary feel, and the lack of actors with any discernible talent could easily be people just pulled from the street and told to play along as Belial exacts his revenge around them. Despite the budget, the film looks great, if your idea of looking great is a slept in leather jacket covered in snot, blood, booze and other questionable traces of life lived in the gutter (which mine is). And the guerrilla approach to shooting the film (I think out of necessity rather than an artistic statement) only adds to the feel of madness surrounding the two protagonists. The special effects, whilst not even up to the usually low standards of B-movies, are utterly charming, especially the stop motion Belial scooting angrily along the floor! Obviously the gore is not used sparingly and cakes the walls in its extravagance, and the attacks by Belial are gloriously over the top and vicious.

You can't really call Belial a villain; he has a genuine bond with his brother that is somewhat touching. It's the parents and the doctors here who are the real monsters. Everyone growing up had a friend that the elders didn't approve of, and whilst most parents don't try and destroy said friend and dump him in a black bag next to the bins, they will try and steer you away from them for your own "safety". And Belial is the brotherly equivalent of a friend that you can't bring home to your dear old ma and pa, an unacceptable force of no good, a shame on the family. So, naturally, he had to go. But Duane (with them awkward teenage years looming) rebels and they go about their task regardless.

The dream sequence is interesting. Duane dreams himself naked running down a road, and then visiting Sharon, and making love to her (I'm assuming he ran there after his nakedness was not approved of on the all night bus). But he awakes in a sweat to find Belial gone (hopefully not naked on the all night bus) and goes to find him. He does, at Sharon's. Belial's jealousy manifests itself in a shocking sexual assault, imaginatively staged considering Belial's lack of anything resembling genitalia. I see this as an attack by Belial in souring Duane and Sharon's connection and saying their brotherly union is the only union that matters. Bros over Hoes in other words.

Henenlotter followed this with his also memorable and imaginative work Brain Damage. Then two Basket Case sequels were made, neither of which reaches the dizzy heights (or drugged out lows) of the first one. So if you want a snapshot of life in the early '80s amongst the squalor and degradation in the stickier corners of New York then you cannot go wrong with this. If you want a claret sodden tale of brotherly love, revenge and jealousy then look no further. Or if wicker's your thing then you will find it here in abundance!

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