Director Frank Henenloter discusses his horror cult classic Basket Case which arrives on Blu-ray September 27
Back in the early 1980s, filmmaker Frank Henenlotter wanted to make a horror film which he believed no one would really see, or want to see. Nearly three decades later, that movie Basket Case is hitting the shelves for the first time on Blu-ray starting September 27. This disturbing movie centers on a man (Kevin Van Hentenryck) who carries around a strange wicker basket which contains his mangled and mutated brother Belial. The brothers roam the streets of New York City, seeking vengeance against the doctors who separated the Siamese twins. I recently had the chance to speak with Frank Henenlotter over the phone about Basket Case, and here's what he had to say.
Can you talk a bit about where this crazy concept sprung from?
Frank Henenlotter: I used to make my own little amateur movies, 8 MM, 16 MM, I made them to make them. I enjoyed making them. I never had any intention of doing this as a career, but it was always so much fun. One day, I'm making a baby out of plasticine and I meet (producer) Edgar Ievins. He's watching and he says, 'Hey, why don't we do a commercial horror film.' That was that. We sat down and tried to figure out a title for it, and I didn't have any ideas in my head. I was just running through titles and when I came up with the title Basket Case, I immediately thought of a guy walking around with a wicker basket, with some kind of jack-in-the-box monster in it. It just cracked me up. That's what we did. That's it.
It's funny to me that there are so many movies that go through production without titles and this movie spawned from the actual title.
Frank Henenlotter: Yeah, I know. The second one was just the opposite, Brain Damage. I wrote it and I had no idea what to call it. I didn't come up with the title until the very last minute. But yeah, Basket Case kind of came from that. I mean, why else would anyone else use the word 'basket' in the title? (Laughs).
You obviously had to shoot this on a very low budget. Was it difficult trying to assemble a cast together for this?
Frank Henenlotter: Well, first of all, it wasn't a low-budget film. It had no budget. We had zero. We shot the whole thing for $35,000 which is damn-near impossible. All that really did was pay for the lab fees. It didn't pay for anything else. When we could film on location, we did. We never got permission from the city for all the exteriors we did, let alone having Kevin Van Hentenryck running around naked. No permission, no permits, we just shot it guerrilla style. We built sets at a friends house, who had a wonderful loft. We built the sets out of basically canvas or anything else we could find. Edgar and I would go out on the streets, there were certain nights you would throw out heavy objects in New York. 'Is that a toilet bowl someone threw out? Is it clean? Let's use it for the film.' We saw these cardboard rolls someone was throwing out. We grabbed those and they became all the pipes you see in the hotel. That's the way you do it. The casting was done by a woman named Ilze Balodis, and she worked at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She knew everybody there so she did all the casting from the school. They got the joke of the film, so we had a very funny cast. Some of them were also on the crew too, because we had no crew.
I read that some of the crew members were actually so offended by one of the death scenes that they walked off. Can you talk about your approach to the level of gore and violence?
Frank Henenlotter: It's very gory, but that's the style of the film. It's all monster-movie violence. You can't do this to people in real life, so I didn't think it was offensive. I thought it was bloody and I didn't really see what the fuss was. If a little nasty monster is ripping a doctor's stomach open, so what? Let him! What's the problem? Yeah, some of the crew walked off, but the crew was maybe four people who walked off. It was the scene where the monster was on top of the girl. They weren't offended by that. They were offended when I walked over and poured blood all over her groin. She didn't care, so why should they? They started bitching and complaining so I said, 'Get the hell out of here.' Who cares. Since I didn't have a crew, Kevin Van Hentenryck was helping me light the scene and Edgar, the producer, was underneath the bed making Belial go up and down. It was just me, the producer, and Kevin Van Hentenryck in that scene. But that's what it's like when you have nothing. I couldn't afford to pay the crew. We had no money, so they weren't really obligated to be there.
Can you talk about your plans for releasing this, and your take on the public's initial reaction? It became this amazing cult classic in the years that followed, thanks to home video.
Frank Henenlotter: First of all, I had no approach. I just filmed the damn thing. I didn't know what it was going to be. I thought, if I did a horror film, it will play on 42nd Street and, for $35,000, we can make our money back. I never thought anyone would see the film, think about the film, talk about the film, or care about the film. That didn't bother me, because I was used to making movies that I never showed. To me, if I make this film and it plays on 42nd Street, that's like me never showing it. So, I was caught off guard by this. I was caught off guard when the distribution company, which was Analysis Films at the time, decided to release it as a midnight film. Back then, midnight films were always something that were a little offbeat, crackpot, not normal film. It's the exact opposite of what midnight movies are now. So, any film released as a midnight movie, audiences already knew it's going to behave a little differently. They sold it as a midnight film and I was completely caught off guard with the popularity of it. It played midnights here in New York for two and a half years, in the same theater. I just couldn't make sense of that. I still can't. I don't understand the popularity of the film. I don't know why people like it. People tell me why they like it, but I'm still baffled by it. What can I say, the fact that we have it coming out on Blu-ray just confounds me. I got it the other day and I shook my head and said, 'I don't believe this thing. It won't die.'
I believe you also supervised the Blu-ray transfer as well, correct?
Frank Henenlotter: Yes, that's the first time I have ever done that. In the past, I never had the chance to. It was all done by someone else. This time, I actually sat in and made it real clear. I said, 'If we're going to do this again, I want to hear New York so I can physically sit there.' Fortunately the guys we worked with got the joke right away. I said, 'Guys, don't treat this as a normal film. Treat this as a cartoon.' I wanted it bright and colorful. What I tried to do with the film was make it back in 16 MM. What happened was, when they blew it up to 35, the dupe negative they used was a disaster. It was dark, too ugly, grainy, it was just a mess. Then they sent it to theaters and showed it in 1.85:1, which is too tight. That was my fault. I assumed if I shot it fullscreen, they would show it fullscreen. No, that was just me being dumb. The theatrical prints, I always hated. I thought they were the worst-looking things I had ever seen. I remember when I was shooting this thing in 16, I was behind the camera and I remember the film looking very bright and very colorful. It's taken this long to get it back to that. I got most of the 16 MM negative and we worked from a 35 MM positive. We didn't work from those awful dupe negatives. We had most of the 16 MM print that we first made, so this really does look like the original film. In fact, I even had the guys at the lab originally add in a little blue tint, and I loved that look. It disappeared when they did the blow-up to 35 MM. This is the first time my little blue tint is back in the movie. No one ever saw the 16 print. The 16 print we made was shown to distributors. We had two prints and that's what we used as calling cards to distributors. The public has never seen a 16 print of this film, so this is really, truly what I shot back in 1981. I didn't fix any mistakes in the negative. There's hair in that negative in a couple of shots, I'm not fixing that. That was in there from Day One. That's the movie.
So the movie is the same, but it's the best that it's ever looked?
Frank Henenlotter: Yes. It looks like it should have, back in 1981.
Is there anything you're currently working on that you can talk about?
Frank Henenlotter: Let me plug another one. Coming out on the same day as Basket Case is a documentary I did on Herschell Gordon Lewis called Godfather of Gore: The Herschell Gordan Lewis Documentary. That was a hell of a lot of fun to do, and I had never done a documentary before. It was started by Jimmy Maslon, who filmed allthe interviews and it ended up in my lap. I was very happy to take over. I liked the idea of doing a documentary, so I'm doing another one right now called That's Sexploitation, which is going to be 40 years, like a visual history of anti-Hollywood sex in the movies. Anything from non-Hollywood films, going from schlocky sexploitation films shot for theatrical release down to the kind of stuff you'd see if a put a quarter in a peep machine. I should have that done by the end of the year. Hopefully, if all goes to plan, it will be selling next year.
Finally, what would you like to say to fans of Basket Case and, for people who might not be so sure about the movie, what would you like to say to them to get them to pick it up on Blu-ray?
Frank Henenlotter: Well, I wouldn't talk anybody into picking up one of my films (Laughs). You're at your own peril. I think anybody who has seem the film and likes it already, they're going to be shocked at how good it looks. That's all I'm going to say. It doesn't look that different, but it looks clean. What I've been trying to do with this film, you know the phrase, 'polish a turd?' That's what I'm doing with Basket Case, trying to polish that turd and, finally, I think that turd is about as pretty as it's ever going to look right now.
That's excellent (Laughs). That's about all I have for you, Frank. Thanks so much for talking to me.
Frank Henenlotter: OK, thanks a lot.