Basket Case was a truly distinctive piece of horror filmmaking: Frank Henenlotter’s cult favorite delivered all the splattery goods expected from an early 1980’s genre effort but what really made it stick was the vision that informed its twisted storyline. It was the kind of handcrafted low-budget original that offered the adventurous viewer a transgressive yet highly intelligent take on the way the outcast is treated by a supposedly normal society, all wrapped in a fearless storyline that combined the dark social themes of Tod Browning’s Freaks with the subversive paint-the-walls-red glee of Herschell Gordon Lewis.
The Basket Case sequels are a different experience entirely. They were made back to back at the dawn of the 1990’s and enjoyed higher budgets and a level of production value that Henenlotter couldn’t have dreamt of when he was making the first film on a shoestring in Times Square. Basket Case 3 brought the trilogy to an end and is much like the second film: goofball humor is allowed to take precedence over the storytelling and the result strains for cult-movie irreverence in a way that the first film didn’t have to.
The script, penned by Henenlotter with Fangoria‘s own Bob Martin, is packed with incident and a big character ensemble: after a pre-titles scene that recaps the tragic/sick humor finale of Basket Case 2, we pick up with the current states of Duane (Kevin VanHentenryck) and his ex-Siamese twin Belial. Granny Ruth (Annie Ross), caretaker of an extended freak family keeps Duane in a straightjacket and hauls him along with Belial, his new wife and a bus full of freaks to Georgia. Belial’s wife is pregnant and the only who can handle the delivery is Uncle Hal (Dan Biggers), a doctor friend who specializes in working with freaks.
Belial’s wife delivers – in fact, she delivers a whole gaggle of Baby Belials – but the that doesn’t mean the trouble is over. Duane has his eye on escaping and becomes interested in the local sheriff’s pretty daughter Opal (Tina Louise Hibert), the deputies become suspicious about the criminal status of Duane and Belial and it’s inevitable that Granny Ruth will have to deal with the public’s attitude towards her freak-ish adopted children. Lots of latex-slinging and over-the-top comedy ensues.
Basket Case 3 has an interesting set of main characters, a defiantly twisted sensibility and plenty of bizarro setpieces that seem tailor-made for cult movie infamy… and yet it comes off as less than the sum of its parts. As with Basket Case 2, Henenlotter has put aside the darker, edgier vision of his early work for something whose tone lies halfway between an early John Waters movie and a mid-1980’s Troma effort. It starts off with its volume knob cranked to 11, dousing the viewer in aggressively silly comedy, hammy acting and tons of gleefully cheap latex makeup by Gabe Bartalos. The lack of peaks and valleys becomes tiring after the first 20 minutes and the try-too-hard approach is likely to wear most viewers out before the end credits roll.
However, the bigger problem with Basket Case 3 is the slapdash nature of the storytelling. It feels like Henenlotter made a list of setpieces and started filming them before he had the connective tissue of his story worked out. The plotting lurches to and fro with abrupt shifts, character development is minimal and there’s so many subplots and such a large ensemble to cram in that Duane and Belial often get lost in the shuffle. Some the setpieces are pretty amusing – Granny leading the freaks in a sing-along of “Personality,” a finale that pays homage to both Aliens and The Terminator – but they aren’t enough to keep this overstuffed yet undercooked proposition afloat.
In short, Basket Case 3 is as joyfully eccentric as you’d expect a Henenlotter film to be but it also feels forced and self-consciously busy in a way that Basket Case never did. Less definitely would have been more here.
DVD Notes: Synapse has issued a new disc of this title that is a big improvement on the earlier DVD from Fox. This transfer is crisp, colorful and anamorphic (unlike the 4X3 Fox disc). The only extra is a trailer but the reasonable list price and the strong transfer makes it worthwhile for collectors who want to complete the trilogy.
Blu-Ray Update (8/9/16): Synapse has revisited this title for a blu-ray edition released at the same time as their Basket Case 2 blu-ray. Like its DVD predecessor, this new disc just features the film and the trailer but the film looks fantastic in HD, with rich colors and crisp details throughout. The lossless presentation of the 2.0 stereo track is nice and clear.