To mark the 30th anniversary of the release of Frank Henenlotter's cult horror Basket Case, Second Sight have put together a three disc DVD and Blu-ray package containing the original, parts two and three and numerous extra features for release on October 22nd. Released between 1982 and 1992, with part two coming out in 1990, the Basket Case trilogy sees the law of diminishing returns borne out, with the memorably ugly seediness and psychological horrors of the original giving way to the forgettable broad comedy of parts two and three.
A tale of conjoined twins separated against their wishes, Basket Case sees Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) and his basket dwelling, deformed brother Belial (a Hebrew term originally meaning worthless), pitch up in the pre-gentrification New York of the early 80s intent on tracking down and killing the surgeons responsible for the operation that has left them physically and mentally scarred. Released in the pre-CGI era, this is a nostalgic trip down a memory lane filled with prosthetics, puppetry and stop-motion animation, before tangible cartoon violence was replaced by its much less effective animated equivalent.
Lo-fi, grimy and tinged with a pathos that undercuts the black humour and violence, the strength of Henenlotter's original lies in it's blending of grotesques; the fantastical, twisted form of Belial with the actual collection of drunks, working girls, sleazy cops, thieves and addicts that reside in and around the bottom of the barrel hotel Duane and his brother check in to. This is a New York populated by the lost, lonely, mentally unbalanced and corrupt, and Henenlotter, either consciously or otherwise, evokes sympathy for his murderous central figures by placing them in the midst of such rotten, debauched company. Throw in a budding romance between Duane and a doctor's receptionist, an element that causes tension between the telepathically linked brothers, and you have the recipe for a bloody (and at times bloody funny), eyebrow raising take on familial angst, revenge and body horror.
By the time of Basket Case 2 the budget was higher, the finished product glossier and the effect much less striking. Jettisoning the sleaze of the original, the first sequel sees Duane and his volatile brother seeking refuge from the cops and the media in the sanctuary of a private refuge for other physically challenged outcasts. This time romance blossoms for both of the brothers, Duane with the granddaughter of Granny Ruth (Annie Ross), the institute's grand dame, and Belial with Eve, similar in looks but opposite in temperament. The refuge's other guests are a wildly over the top collection of grotesques that are neither horrifying or amusing, and that's the great weakness of the movie. Henenlotter misfires by ramping up the physical grotesqueness on show to levels that are just plain silly.
Horror-comedies (or is it comedy-horrors?) the trilogy may be, but the darkness of the original was what made it such a cult favourite in my eyes, the sequels blow it by opting for slapstick farce over gruesome black comedy. Although featuring one of the most hilariously wrong sex scenes ever committed to celluloid, Basket Case 2 fails to hit the demented high of its superior predecessor.
By the time of Basket Case 3: The Progeny, the joke was wearing very thin. Actually far more graphic in terms of violence than either parts one or two, Henenlotter piles on high camp (there's even a musical number), a half-baked narrative revolving around Belial and Eve's multitudinous offspring and comedic skits that belie the sleaze and palpable psycho-drama of the trilogy's gutter-level origins. In the space of three movies, Duane and Belial become banal parodies of what were once interesting characters, as happened to Freddy Krueger and Jigsaw in the A Nightmare on Elm Street and Saw series' respectively. That it happened in so short a time points to the fact that though Henenlotter struck gold first time out, he subsequently forgot to sieve the shit out of the pan in his eagerness to capitalise on the deserved fondness afforded Duane and Belial's initial appearance.