Basket Case (1982)

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*. One of the most remarkable things about this film is that it’s an extreme low-budget production that works (and enjoyed considerable cult success) despite the transparent lack of talent involved.
*. This is surprising. Night of the Living Dead, for example, works because George Romero was actually a very smart and effective filmmaker and he got some well-suited performances. You can still watch Equinox today because Dennis Muren was obviously someone capable of better things. But with Basket Case you are watching a movie put together by amateurs who weren’t going anywhere.

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*. Even the gore is basically just the same mutilated face effect being repeated, with scalpels thrown in for Dr. Kutter. Speaking of which, just how does she get all those scalpels stuck in her face when all Belial does is stick her head in the scalpel drawer?
*. I don’t know what the right way to pronounce “Belial” is. I know I didn’t pronounce it the way it is here when I was a schoolkid reading Milton. But I guess people are free to pronounce their own names however they want, and if that’s the way this particular Belial wants it then fine.
*. I remember the first time I saw this movie thinking that the basement of the Bradley house in Grand Falls was huge — far too big for the basement of a normal house. In fact it was shot in a sex-club dungeon in New York.

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*. Is this an example of “reproductive horror,” a sub-genre David J. Skal describes in his book The Monster Show? I think so. It belongs alongside better-known examples like Rosemary’s Baby, The Brood, It’s Alive, and even Alien. Belial is the product of a monstrous birth that kills his mother, and never seems to grow out of being a baby: carried around in a reed basket and unable to speak aside from making screaming noises. Even his iconography (the claw of a hand sticking out of his basket) recalls It’s Alive, at least to my eyes.

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*. Belial’s rape and possible murder of Sharon was controversial from the day it was filmed, with some of the crew being so upset they walked out on director Frank Henenlotter. In his essay on the film in Cult Movies 2, Danny Peary takes extreme exception to this part of the film. I’m not sure I agree. Yes, it seems unfair since Sharon is an innocent and excessively nice person, but I think it fits in with Belial’s issues over sexuality generally, and reinforces his shared bond with Duane (it’s natural they’d both like the same girl).
*. While that scene is thematically consistent, I think people find it objectionable because it breaks with the predominant black-comedy tone of the rest of the movie. Up to this point we’ve been able to laugh at Belial’s slaughter of the sleazy doctors and greedy low-lifes. Sharon’s death takes us outside of all that.
*. But should this upset us? This is an unapologetically sleazy, borderline exploitation film. It’s dedicated to Herschell Gordon Lewis (which is something you have to wait until the end of the partially fictional credits to find out). And Lewis often mixed up sex and violence in grotesque ways for shock value.

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*. Two of the four lights in the fixture over the operating table are burned out. Do you think they might have wanted to fix those? But maybe they didn’t need them, as the extra lights they’ve set up aren’t even turned on.
*. How great is Diana Browne’s Dr. Kutter? She’s such a lusty, amoral bitch. I love her first appearance as a zaftig cougar with a toy-boy that she likes to see drool. Even when Duane reveals who he is she remains completely unintimidated and even tells him to get packing. The other doctors are just types, but Kutter is an original.

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*. While I don’t think Belial is that impressive in terms of the puppet effects (often just a hand in a glove), he is at least something different. Henenlotter wanted a “malignant jack-in-the-box” and got it. What confuses me is trying to figure out how intelligent he is supposed to be. At times he seems like Duane’s dog: they share an empathic connection, but he can’t speak or do much except fetch and attack. At other times he comes across as quite intelligent and independent.
*. Of course since he can’t speak, and since we can’t hear his telepathic communications with Duane, it’s hard for us to gauge what mental level he’s at, or even what sort of moral compass he has. Indeed, I’m not even clear who’s calling the shots. Is the whole revenge plot his idea, or Duane’s? Or are they co-conspirators all the way?
*. This was a cult movie back in the day of “midnight movies,” and it’s very much set in that same milieu. We don’t have midnight movies any more, and I suspect there aren’t many people who miss these older, run-down repertory cinemas that stayed open all night showing fringe films. But do we miss the films? Because they were a product of that cultural environment, and with that environment gone the “cult film” is something that looks very different.

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