Basket Case – Frank Henenlotter – 1982

Frank Henenlotter’s Basketcase was his opening volley in a world of exploitative, yet heady body horror. In this seminal film, a young man, Duane, comes to Manhattan to seek revenge on doctors who separated and left for dead a grotesque misshapen Siamese-twin in his teens. With his mutilated kin in tow in the titular basket, Duane makes his way from quack to quack dispensing justice as only a rubber head monster can, with lots of blood and even more screaming.

Duane and Belial are disowned by their parents and go on after the surgery to live with a caring aunt who hides and cares for them. Belial can easily be seen to represent youth, and an attachment to the naivety left behind when one enters the real world. As Duane finds in New York there are many adult urges to pursue beyond juvenile revenge. But these twins are linked mentally and what Duane knows, so too does his twisted mirror image. So too do the desires, sexual and otherwise, get twisted into Belial’s purpose.

Henelotter creates a friendly New York, one where your neighbor might rip you off, but there are certainly many friendly and helpful characters that create a dark contrast for Duane’s split identity and fractured psyche. With each encounter, Duane longs more and more for normalcy, but his demon self, that brother cut from him at adolescence is angry about his separation and want s nothing more than to lash out at the world that spoiled the connection with human closest to him.

Duane believes that Belial is a worthy entity and enables this manifestation of stunted growth to dictate a move into the city to seek vengeance.  Duane’s family values are rooted in inverse proportion to the rejection felt as their parents abandoned he and his brother. The brothers, after their aunt’s death, are all each other have. Yet, as siblings tend to do, as Duane meets Sharon, his adult world-view interrupts his need to placate Belial. He wants these words and desires absent, so much so that he lies to his brother in order to try and see Sharon in secret, but these urges are passed on to his twin and the reflectivity of their relationship ends in sticky awfulness for Sharon as Belial rapes her in her sleep.

The film is as much a comment on mental surveillance and the danger of telepathic criminals as an indictment of youthful rebellion. Countless times throughout the film Belial surveys Duane and condemns his actions from his contained quarters, a mind free to think, but with a body limited in locomotion. Ultimately, this breeds jealousy and contempt from Belial, as he desires normalcy as much as Duane. At one point a biker in the hallway of the hotel exclaims the world is all going to blow up in nuclear fire, and it’s clear the film was constructed during the stress of the Cold War. In fact, one could even parallel Duane and Belial with East and West Germany, one side beholden to crimes of the past, and the other longing for the normalcy that would come with growing up and setting aside it’s stunted, malformed history for something that could integrate into a global community.

A pipe dream it would seem, for in the end, the warring sides of a dual mind shove each other over a precipice, and hanging from a neon sign over a band of prostitutes, Duane and Belial have a final gasp of life before loosing hope and plummeting to their demise. They fall to the ground and Belial falls next to Duane’s side, re-uniting them in death as they were in birth. Henenlotter suggests that we may be bound inextricably to family and history, that sometimes, our hands are tied, and our desires to extricate ourselves from our surrounding context will not come easily or at all, and certainly not with out blood.

The tone of the film is quite humorous, but the deaths are very bloody and over the top. But these qualities charm and are a needed counterpoint to the jet-black commentary Henenlotter is making about youthful cynicism. As the doctors die, we root for some kind of happy ending for these brothers, but the doomed are doomed from birth, and tragedy shows light only by leaving the audience spared from the bloodshed. At least until the sequels.


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