WHAT'S IN THE BASKET? SPOILERS, THAT'S WHAT!
The first time I saw Frank Henenlotter's splattery debut movie was more than twenty years ago, on the twice-censored British video release. I suspect at the time I was too young to fully understand it when I first saw it. Not because I was a kid; but simply because I knew nothing of the world of 42nd Street and Times Square grindhouse cinemas, so the film came out of a tradition I'd never heard of and I didn't really get the joke; thus I probably didn't care as much for the film as I should have done, and as I now do.
Made in 1982, Basket Case is a grainy, neon-soaked hymn to trashy exploitation cinema, with gore, violence, sleaze and grotesquerie and the tackiest locations of a New York long gone: it's gloriously tasteless yet in places almost moving, as Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) turns up at the seedy Hotel Broslin carrying a large wicker basket. What's in the basket? His hideously deformed ex-Siamese twin, Belial! And Belial is out for bloody revenge against the dubious doctors who ruthlessly separated them and left him to die with the garbage... Produced on 16mm for $35,000 (estimated, according to the IMDb), it's a triumph of ideas and imagination over pitifully limited resources, shot against the kind of production design that money genuinely can't buy. Watching it now on BluRay still isn't the ideal (which would be when projected slightly imperfectly in a damp fleapit cinema full of suspicious characters), but it's an immeasurably better viewing experience than a VHS tape with most of the splatter taken out.
Despite the downbeat ending, they survived for a pair of sequels in which Duane and Belial, now fugitives, meet up with Granny Ruth (Annie Ross), who runs a community of "unique individuals" - unfortunate people with rat heads, frog heads, eleven noses and so on. (Significantly, none of the "freaks" on view correspond with any real-life disabilities or disfigurements.) Basket Case 2, which arrived in 1990 (though takes place immediately after the first film) has the brothers tracked down by a tabloid reporter seeking a big exclusive: will Granny stand by them against these exploitative lowlifes? Meanwhile, both brothers fall in love, Belial with the similarly malformed Eve, and Duane with Granny Ruth's beautiful granddaughter Susan (Heather Rattray). But she has a unique condition of her own...
1992's Basket Case 3 is sometimes subtitled The Progeny (although not here), and features the whole community travelling to Georgia as Eve is about to give birth to Belial's child. But the uncaring, heartless "normal" people yet again only see a chance to exploit the unfortunate freaks and make some easy money out of them - this time a couple of comedy cops out to claim the million dollar tabloid bounty on Duane and Belial. But again they've reckoned without the freaks' community standing up for themselves and each other, and without Belial's perhaps unexpected love for his own offspring.
Both sequels are smoother, slicker and better budgeted than the original film: they're in 16:9 (Basket Case is in 4:3) and the fleshy make-up effects by Gabe Bartalos are far better. But they don't have the rough edge of the first: whereas in Basket Case absolutely anything could happen, the sequels feel more mainstream and therefore a bit safer. In the first film Belial was a savage murderer and the humans, no matter how despicable, were the victims, but in both sequels the regular people are the villains and the "unique individuals" are the kind, considerate and humane ones. It's intriguing that Duane, an accomplice in Belial's killing spree and a wanted fugitive, is the nominal hero but spends most of the sequels struggling to cope with the increasingly surreal strangeness around him, just wanting to get away from the freaks and live a normal life when those "normals" are the ones that cause all the problems. Even if the two follow-ups don't have the grimy, squalid nastiness of the first entry and don't really match up to it, they're still oddly charming in their cheerful bad taste, and all three are absolutely worth seeing.