Judge Gordon Sullivan may like Paris in the springtime, but he loves New York in the sleazy '80s.
Belial is Back! And this time he's brought along a few friends!
Basket Case should be added to the Library of Congress collection of important films. It captured a now-vanished aspect of New York, the city before it was Disneyfied. Basket Case 2 begins where its predecessor ended, but fails to capture that magic again, at least partly because it forsakes the city as its setting.
Facts of the Case
When we last left Belial and his brother (Kevin Van Hentenryck), they had fallen out of a window, presumed dead. As Basket Case 2 opens, we learn that they survived and are in the hospital. There, they are rescued by "freak activist" Granny Ruth (Annie Ross, Pump Up the Volume), who brings the brothers back to her home for "freaks." Once there, she attempts to shield her charges from the interest of reporters, police, and those who would exploit the unfortunate. Meanwhile, Duane has to come to terms with his life now that he and Belial have had their revenge.
Frank Hennenlotter directs odes to the sticky sidewalks of the Big Apple. In films like Basket Case and Frankenhooker, the city is almost another character, acting as not just a setting but as a foil for the otherwise naive protagonists like Duane and Jeffery. Furthermore, he captures the sleazy grindhouse aesthetic perfectly, with his prurient monsters, but tempers it with a sweetness and innocence often missing from exploitation cinema. He may not be the best director from his era, but he deserves a spot in cinematic history for capturing a bygone era in one of the world's major cities. Sadly, Basket Case 2 doesn't live up to his other films.
Basket Case 2 largely forsakes the original's Manhattan locale, instead substituting Granny Ruth's home for the physically repugnant. This setting is bland, which works well in contrast to the freak inhabitants, but it also makes the rest of the movie seem blander than it should. One of the welcome changes was a scene set in a roadside freak show, where we get a glimpse of a crazy carnival barker character, as well as some of the objects in his menagerie. Although short, the scene provided an interesting locale which I wish Henennlotter had spent more time in. To be fair, Hennenlotter reveals in the extras that he wanted to abandon the carnival atmosphere, which is why he chose to set the film in Granny Ruth's home. However, as I said, I don't feel this choice works as well as the setting of the first film.
What the film lacks in NYC atmosphere, it makes up in freak quotient. Instead of just the wicker basket we saw in the first film, with the occasional shot of Belial, in Basket Case 2 we get a full-on collection of freakish humanoids. One guy looks like he has grotesque piano keys for teeth, while another has a head that's grown into a hole. All of these characters are impeccably rendered, with little of the obvious "rubber mask" feel to them. Belial has a more active role in this film, and the special effects do him justice. He seems like an actual character instead of a lump of foam or clay. Sure, no one is going to mistake him for a Jim Henson creation from The Dark Crystal, but considering the era and the budget he conveys a surprising range of reactions in the film. In addition to Belial, the human actors are also effective. Kevin Van Hentenryck plays Duane with genuine confusion and empathy, Annie Ross' Granny Ruth is filled with missionary zeal touched with a hint of insanity, and Heather Rattray plays a sweet and innocent Susan.
Although the actors, and creatures, are fully fleshed out, their story pulls in two different directions. Basket Case was essentially a revenge flick, and the formula worked to give us insight into the characters of Duane and Belial. The sequel wants to keep the revenge aspect, while also digging deeper into the psychology of the Duane/Belial relationship. However, this time around the revenge doesn't work as neatly to reveal the psychology of the characters, so the revenge against the exploiters and reporters never quite meshes with the plot of Duane's self-discovery. The resolution of the reporter storyline gives the film a premature climax, which detracts from the final scenes with Duane.
The DVD provides an excellent presentation of the film. For a film of its age and budget, Basket Case 2 looks remarkable, and this transfer feels like an excellent reproduction of the source elements. The picture might be a little washed out, but the colors look surprisingly good, and while there is some grain, it looks appropriate and natural. In fact, appropriate is the word I would use to describe all the aspects of the video. Nothing is perfect, but every imperfection in the source enhances the look of the film. In the audio department, the stereo mix does nothing special, but it gets the job done. The extras are comprised of two featurettes, and both are worth investigating. "Beyond the Wicker" is centered on Greg Bartalos, the make up effects artist who brought Belial and his friends to life. He provides some anecdotes, some footage from the production, as well as some newer interviews with director Frank Hennenlotter and producer James Glickenhaus. It has a lot more character than your average behind-the-scenes doc, which is appropriate to the film. The other extra is an interview with one of the actors who was in makeup for the film, David Emge. He discusses his experiences on set, giving the actor's perspective on dealing with the effects. Between the two featurettes most of the production is covered, although a commentary with Hennenlotter and Kevin Van Hentenryck would have been appreciated.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I love Basket Case and Frankenhooker, so the bar was set very high for Basket Case 2. The movie didn't quite get there for me, which is sad. On the other hand, Basket Case 2 may be disappointing as a Frank Hennenlotter film, but as an example of some of the beautifully weird cinema coming out of the '80s, it's head and shoulders above many of its contemporaries.
The box for the DVD features a quote from uber-critic Joe Bob Briggs which says "Why did this sequel take nine years to make? Because it's perfect." I love Joe Bob, but I've got to disagree, mainly because I feel the story didn't come together quite as well this time out. However, for fans of the darker side of '80s cinema, Basket Case 2 is easy to recommend.
Basket Case 2 produced a hung jury, but the court has decided not to retry the case. The film is ordered to do community service in a home for freaks.
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• "The Man in the Moon Mask"--Interview with Actor David Emge
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