Monday, October 7, 2013

Basket Case 3: The Progeny

(R, Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment, 90 mins., release date: February 14, 1992)
If you're looking for a proper evaluation of how Frank Henenlotter's three Basket Case films evolved, it would be best to invoke the kind of directorial kindred spirits one could glean from each particular outing.

The 1982 original was a seedy, sensationalist splatter classic that established the 42nd Street urchin as heir to the damp, sticky grindhouse throne once lorded over by Herschell Gordon Lewis and Andy Milligan. Filmed on the lowest of low budgets, it was advertised with canny precision (elliptical trailers and free surgical masks for theater patrons) and eventually became one of the defining cult movies of its decade thanks to VHS.

After lucking into a three-picture deal with Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment, one of which is the legendary Frankenhooker, Henenlotter was persuaded into making a pair of proper sequels to his beloved debut. For the first of them, 1990's Basket Case 2, the director broadened the universe of deformed "others" and made them the heroes against an exploitative, greedy society of "normals." Henenlotter drew upon the spirit of Tod Browning moreso than Clive Barker did in the same year's thematically-similar Nightbreed.

Basket Case 3: The Progeny wasted no time coming to fruition, released a mere couple of years after the last film and eventually proving to be a disappointment for Henenlotter, who never made another feature until after more than a decade with Bad Biology (2008) and instead focused more on his boutique video label Something Weird. What's surprising about this third entry is that the depraved imagination of Henenlotter, who once pitched a project called "Insect City" that was deemed too outrageous for any studio to fund or any moviegoer to pay to see, felt less feverish than ever before. The result was something which could've easily been filmed by the likes of Lloyd Kaufman, thus answering a question only the most brain-damaged of horror geeks have ever asked themselves:

"What if Frank Henenlotter had directed a Troma movie?"

Picking up after the previous film's events in a manner similar to the way Basket Case 2 launched itself from the window of the Hotel Broslin, Part 3 recaps how Duane Bradley's (Kevin Van Hentenryck) panic attack drove him to steal away his deformed, surgically-removed Siamese twin brother Belial post-coitus(!) and heal old wounds with a needle and thread. This was clearly not a good idea, as Duane has spent months in solitary confinement, replete with padded cell and straitjacket, at the house of monster matron Granny Ruth (Annie Ross). Belial has cut off all telepathic communication with Duane, but they may be forced to make some grasps at peace once the news breaks that Belial has impregnated Eve (Denise Coop), his lumpen love interest from the second film.

Ruth resolves to break out the old school bus and gather all of her colorful charges for a road trip to Peachtree Valley, Georgia, so that Dr. Hal Rockwell (Dan Biggers) can safely deliver Eve's brood. In the interim, Duane thinks of escaping and befriends Opal (Tina Louise Hilbert), the petite daughter of the town sheriff. Eve's water breaks upon arriving at Uncle Hal's, where Granny Ruth reunites with her long-lost son, Little Hal (Jim O'Doherty), a mountainous man-blob with multiple arms who films Eve's miraculous birth of twelve junior Belials. It's at this point where Duane finally gets free and runs to the police office to confide to Opal, only to get arrested and inadvertently lead a pair of dopey deputies to Hal's doorstep hoping to capture Belial for a million-dollar reward. Instead, they murder Eve and make off with the newborn mutant children.

Basket Case 3 proceeds to rehash the revenge story of its predecessor, as Sheriff Andrew (Gil Roper) threatens the safety of the freak community and Granny Ruth, Belial and the rest of the clan form a militant revolt against their oppressors. Plot-wise, there's nothing different going on compared to the previous movie, only the villains have changed, even if there are still leftover potshots to be taken at yellow journalists (in this case, a Geraldo Rivera doppelganger introduced at the very last moment). The sheriff is introduced as a close friend of the Hals, but turns disloyal and dastardly without any real reason. He's just another boring casualty in Granny Ruth's campaign for abnormal rights.

The long-tested fraternal bond between the infamous Times Square Freak Twins is equally squandered. The first film, a fish-out-of-water in which the fish was a piranha, established a convincing jealousy between Duane and Belial as the former tried to find happiness with an office receptionist. Part 2 introduced darkly-funny psycho therapy and ended with the promising bout with madness seen at the start of Part 3. Henenlotter doesn't find a novel way to progress their relationship, reducing Duane into a kooky nuisance and retaining Belial's stunted, perpetual anger to the point where all of Granny Ruth's "breakthroughs" prove useless once Belial attacks Uncle Hal simply because there needed to be a flashback to the separation scene from the original.

Basket Case 3 hints at some good ideas in its own wild way, including the bizarre fantasy sequence involving Belial having a threesome with twin sisters (Carla and Carmen Morrell) that suggests Belial dreams of bachelorhood and freedom from familial responsibilities both brotherly and paternally. But they just don't go anywhere at all. Brain Damage and Frankenhooker showed more courage of conviction on Henenlotter's part, using their tasteless set pieces to follow through on their own twisted views of morality.

Henenlotter forsakes all promising elements and instead becomes afflicted with a fatal case of the wackies. This is the most emptily madcap of anything he's made, and the increased emphasis on broad comedy becomes stifling. Little Hal is allowed to riff during Eve's childbirth like a bad Rip Taylor impersonator. Opal is revealed to be a leather-clad dominatrix who bullwhips Duane into non-submission. Granny Ruth scat-sings her way through a group sing-along of Lloyd Price's "Personality," which, to be fair, is really fun. And Belial is presented with a mechanical body clearly stolen from the Power Loader seen in Aliens, although with Belial operating it, it brings to mind Krang from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon.

The gore effects suffer from this gear change, too, as one victim is strangled to the point where his eyes and mouth bulge out like it were some live-action recreation of a Tex Avery short. Granted, the "parasite pants" scene from Brain Damage and the Super Crack massacre of Frankenhooker were just as chintzy, but they still managed to evoke chuckles and cringes. The most gruesome scene here involves the accidental flattening of one of the terrible tots, but that comes across like an afterthought and has no genuine set-up.

Fittingly, the performances become even more campy. Kevin Van Hentenryck and Annie Ross are as enthusiastic and game as before, but by having to reprise their roles to no greater good, their pleasures are more isolated. Duane eating a bowl of Corn Flakes as Belial kills one of the offending deputies (affording another instance of insufferable improv involving an Elvis drawl) offers mere chuckles when it could've been truly hilarious. And watching Granny Ruth go shopping for condoms at a drugstore or ordering fast food from counter girl Beverly Bonner (whom you may remember was kindly prostitute Casey from the original) are needless diversions compared to her gleeful, nationally-broadcast send-off speech. The rest of the cast strain way too hard with very little charisma for cheap laughs.

Frank Henenlotter felt cheated by the movie's producers, whose demands apparently resulted in causing eleven pages of possibly interesting material to fall by the wayside. Not only that, but the need for an R-rated feature which could be easily picked up by major video distributors (MCA/Universal initially handled the videocassette release) showed noticeable fallout from the ratings board struggles which plagued Frankenhooker. Basket Case 3 suggests the dangers of compromise in breeding more of a natural abomination than anything Gabe Bartalos could ever concoct in an FX lab.

This is what happens when a Maverick goes on autopilot.

(Synapse have released single disc editions of both sequels, but Part 3 gets no bonus features to speak of excepting a trailer. If you're as much of a fan as I of Frank Henenlotter, skip directly to Second Sight's region-free UK release of the entire Basket Case series on Blu-Ray, which includes an honest retrospective featuring interviews with Henenlotter, Kevin Van Hentenryck and Annie Ross among others).

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