Basket Case director Frank Henenlotter on the film's history and impact
This Saturday, Channel Z is bringing one of the strangest buddy comedies of all time to the Alamo Drafthouse. Frank Henenlotter's horror comedy Basket Case is the tale of a country bumpkin named Duane and his horrifically deformed "twin," Belial. After his little, creepy conjoined buddy is forcibly removed, Duane sticks him in a basket and heads to the big city to seek a little revenge, creating an unforgettably strange movie along the way. Shot for almost nothing with an amateurish cast and crew, somehow this weird tale became a cult favorite, spawning two sequels that charmed/disgusted multiple generations of fans.
We spoke to Henenlotter to get his thoughts on the films enduring popularity, its equally strange sequels and how the movie helped launch a new business model for horror films.
See also: From Basket Case to Raiders, the undying cult of genre film
Westword: When you were making this movie, did you have any idea it would be playing in theaters more than thirty years later?
Frank Henenlotter: Oh god no! In fact, just the opposite. The only reason I even finished making it was because I was convinced no one would ever see it. [Laughs] We originally wanted to do it with a budget of maybe $200,000 at least, so we could afford equipment and make it look a little good. We were able to raise zero dollars. So I started with my own money, which was $8,000. It was all that I had in the bank. Eventually the producer of the film, Edgar Ievins, he matched it with another $8,000 of his money. Then we were able to raise a little bit more here and there. But it was shot for $35,000, and I thought it was so shabby after a point that I had to switch emphasis from a more serious horror film to more humor. I had nothing else, you know what I mean? If you have nothing else, hype the blood and make everybody idiots.
There was a point where I was kind of dejected about it, thinking, "Well, it's not the script I wrote." But you don't abandon things once you start them. That's bad form, you know? We had already shot enough of it, so I just figured, let's go ahead, film it this way, and don't worry about it, because no one will ever see it. If we're lucky, it will play a week on 42nd Street, we'll make our money back. If it plays any other theaters it'll be skid row theaters like 42nd Street. No one will ever see the damn thing. And I am, to this day, still horrified. [Laughs] I'm proud and embarrassed that it's still playing, you know what I mean?
I was going to ask if your feelings about it have changed over the years -- sounds like maybe it has and it hasn't, at the same time.
Yeah, both. I cringed at how shabby some of it is, but I also realize that it's that shabbiness that audiences enjoy. But I'm still trying to make it look better. We shot it in 16mm, and when it was blown up to 35mm it was done so poorly and so badly that all the theatrical prints were terrible. They were so dark it looked like no one had lights in this film. It was terrible! I couldn't stand watching the film. That was the version that was originally released on VHS as well. It's just god-awful.
When digital tools came along, when you were able to remaster a film digitally, I was able to do a lot with it. I remember going to HBO studios and doing a digital master of it and going, "Oh my god, it's starting to look good." With what I was able to do with HD, it finally looks like what I shot in 16mm. It's still no beauty, but it's not as awful as it once looked. There's still no way I could fix all the shots. We were all just absolute amateurs doing it, so this is what it looks like. This is what it is.
For years we thought the negative was lost. It wasn't lost. It was hidden right under our noses in plain sight. When I found it, I was elated because I felt finally I can make the film look like it was meant to look, the way I shot it. We were able to do that, finally. The 35mm prints are not the film I shot. The HD master, what's out on Bluray now, is finally the film I shot. It;s taken, waht, thirty-odd some years for me to fix it, [laughs] but it's enough now that I can walk away from it and say, "It is what it is, but here's what I really shot." It may still suck, but it's there.
As an aficionado of b-movies, backyard auteurs and shitty movies in general, I'd say it actually looks pretty good.
Finally technology is where you can fix the mistakes of the past. I mean, it wasn't a mistake. What I did on HD was how it should have always looked. We must have paid for the cheapest blow up from 16mm to 35mm ever made. No care was taken with it. It added tons of additional grain and dirt on top of it. I was thrilled to finally get that off of it. I still wouldn't "fix" things in the HD master that have been with the film since day one. There's a clump of hair or dirt, something, when the detective is talking to Duane, and that was in it from the day we shot it. I will not take it out. Those pieces of dirt and jumps, all that kind of stuff, as long as they were built in to the negative, I won't touch it. They're as much a part of the flavor of the film as the actors and the bad special effects.