Exploring Exploitation Film: ‘Basket Case’

The following is a guest post by Christopher Pink.

Basket Case is Frank Henenlotter’s 1982 horror/exploitation film. A psychotic take on A Boy and His Blob, if the titular Blob’s power was bare-hands murder instead of shape-shifting, Basket Case is, at heart, a story of two brothers. The two brothers are Dwayne and Belial (the name “Belial” providing a bit of foreshadowing), both raised in upstate New York, sans-Mother and mostly sans-Father. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The movie opens with a pretty decent kill scene, with what we later find out to be Belial slinking around in the shadows off-camera. It does a good job of setting the tone of the film, which is to say a version of a slasher, but doesn’t really clue the viewer into what’s to come. The film then moves quickly to the next scene, with a shot of Dwayne walking in Times Square holding a large wicker basket, while a dope dealer harangues him with shouts of “smoke, smoke, smoke”, a list of every drug known to man, and that all-important question, “What the f— is wrong with you anyways, man?”

I should slow down a bit. My intention here isn’t necessarily to review the film. You can find that done several places, and probably much better than can be done by me, (for instance, check out the Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In episode featuring the film). My intention here is to try and place the film in context, and as a secondary task, to set up what I want the point of this column to be.

On first glance Basket Case, or really any exploitation movie, turns a lot of people off. It’s almost like it was designed that way, (strange that, isn’t it?). Exploitation cinema’s goal is to titillate and shock, and so by its very design and orientation, it’s exclusionary. But, that’s not to say that the stories told in these movies aren’t valid or valuable. On the contrary, exploitation and B-movies have been influencing Hollywood for years, since almost the very beginning, by providing a freer medium to work within, and helping to define “the line” in terms of what mainstream audiences will find acceptable in any given era. To see what I mean, you have to look no further than Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie, or even Oscar-winning Guillermo Del Toro, but I’ll leave his works for another day.

And yes, Basket Case is violent, bloody, gorey, sexually explicit, campy, at times goofy, and features a bewigged blonde whose warbly line delivery would have a member of the academy choking on their pinot. But, because of this expansive palette, the filmmakers have a certain freedom to weave their story. They’re not bogged down by restrictions. They’re not trapped on a sound stage, forced to give lines on an immaculately designed set, or to spend days prepping for the big “action scene”, or safety-socking it through the producer-and-artist-contract-approved single sex scene, which is of course meant to add “realism” and poignancy to the film. If a character’s father dies, you know damn well it’s been foreshadowed, and discussed, and consequences have been set up for down the line. Everything flows into everything else neatly. Anything less is substandard and not allowed.

The father does die in this film. It’s not set up with any great amount of foreshadowing. There are no long dialogue sections beforehand, just to set the mood. You’re not expected to clutch your chest in disbelief when it finally happens. No, you learn just enough about him to know he’s a dick, and then he’s cut in half by a gigantic saw. How did they get that saw down in the basement? How did they get access to a saw that big in the first place? In a film like this, it doesn’t matter. The plot moves quickly and viscerally, leaving you with only after impressions, and no time for contemplation, and because of that it creates a different kind of film viewing, a kind more rooted in viscera, and much less rooted in the mind.

Speaking of sets, (it was a paragraph ago, but whatever), the film moves the setting quickly from upstate New York, to a seedy, pre-Giuliani Times Square, where most of the rest of the film takes place. Basket Case’s setting is actually very special, by virtue of being set in the pre-obscenity-law version of Times Square, a place where everything you wanted could be had, if dope and stroke-booths were everything you wanted. And, of course exploitation films. What makes this setting so special, is that it was known as something of a Mecca for exploitation cinema, with some movie houses showing only Kung Fu flicks, all day, every day and night, and others showing films like Basket Case. Some of these theaters were referred to as “grind houses”, a term brought somewhat back to light by Tarantino and Rodriguez in their “Grind House” pictures. And so, you have an exploitation flick set in an exploitation flick playground.

Another aspect of the setting I found with a truer ring that most Hollywood fare, are the people Dwayne runs into in the seedy motel he checks into shortly after arriving in Times Square, (Belial is with Dwayne, but is housed in the titular basket, and is thus hidden). The people he meets are actually nice. I don’t mean nice in the normal uptown-suburban-“normal” way that perhaps most of us think of when we hear the word “nice”, but they seem to immediately sniff him out as abnormal and subterranean, and adapt to him immediately. They’re not overly nice or particularly accommodating, but they’re not portrayed as vicious jackals either. They just accept his existence and move on. Contrast this with more common and mainstream fare, and this setting would have to have some kind of point. It would be presented as menacing, or filthy-with-a-purpose (looking at you, The Deuce), or containing some hidden garden of redemption, where all the downtrodden are presented as hidden flowers; roses grown in concrete. There’s no poetry here. The people merely exist as they are. The backdrop is presented, and the story moves on.

I haven’t touched on the story much here. It’s a story about family, and how far you’re willing to go for them. It’s a story of isolation, and ostracization, and shame. It ends with a line finally being crossed, and the two brothers finally turning on each other. But, in keeping with the theme, the line being crossed is presented in graphic detail, evoking an emotional response that I find extreme despite the film’s age. That graphicness has a point. The brutality of the penultimate scene perfectly encapsulates the dramatic tension that has been escalating since early in the film, and most importantly, it isn’t exhibited in a highly artistic fashion, or gilded with preening and long, searching shots. It doesn’t need to be. The brutality speaks for itself, not in dialogue or even in the thousands of words the pictures themselves offer. It is presented, naked and blunt, in a way only an exploitation film can.