by Steve Habrat
In the 1980s, the horror genre was besieged by an array of drive-in and grindhouse slasher movies. Among the numbers were hockey-mask clad madmen, scarred dream-world psychopaths, and slumber party massacres, but the bad boy of them all had to be 1982’s Spanish bloodbath Pieces. Directed by Juan Piquer Simón, Pieces is one of the most savage and downright hilarious slasher movies from the movement—one made all the more likable through its flaws in logic and it’s seemingly insatiable bloodlust. Boasting the gruesome taglines, “It’s exactly what you think it is” and “You don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre,” Pieces goes for the jugular vein with its violence, never cutting away from the skin-shredding brutality and chainsaw carnage that fills the screen. It’s a treat for those who absolutely adore their exploitation films with geysers of gore and an abundance of topless babes sprinting around as a chainsaw growls just inches behind them. While it may not be nearly as terrifying as Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Pieces is a extravagant effort that continues to win over cult horror buffs with its ominous synthesizer score, fluid attack sequences, cheese-filled dubbing, and shriek-inducing climax that leaves your jaw cemented to the floor.
Pieces picks up in 1942, with a young boy named Timmy assembling a puzzle of a nude pin-up girl. As he quietly and harmlessly snaps the pieces together, his mother walks in and erupts in anger at the boy, threatening to burn the filth Timmy is playing with. In retaliation, Timmy grabs an axe and proceeds to gruesomely hack his fuming mommy up into bloody bits. The police and a concerned neighbor soon show up on the scene and find the seemingly terrified and innocent Timmy hiding in the closet. Many years later, a bloodthirsty madman is running loose on a college campus in Boston. As the body count rises and the campus shudders in fear, a hardboiled police lieutenant, Bracken (played by Christopher George), partners with an enthusiastic college student, Kendall James (played by Ian Sera), and a beautiful undercover agent, Mary Riggs (played by Lynda Day), who is on campus posing as a tennis star, to identify the murderer before more bodies turn up. As the group investigates the horrific crime scenes, they discover that the shadowy killer is claiming various severed limbs from his victims and assembling a macabre work of art.
As unintentionally hilarious as Pieces may be, much of the film’s appeal is drawn from the rivers off blood and gore that flow forth from the screen. About as exploitative as you can get, Pieces contains unflinching violence that is off the charts—opening with a hair-raising attack with an axe, and following it up with a nasty beheading, a very messy pool encounter, a simultaneously goofy and savage attack in an elevator, a waterbed stabbathon that splashes blood all over the audience, and a topless chase that culminates with a chainsaw tearing a poor girl in two right after she wets herself out of fear (According to some members of the cast and crew, the poor actress actually did urinate due to a real chainsaw being shoved into her face. Simon must have loved the hell out of reaction, as he left the girl’s accident in the film). To give the film an extra gross-out edge, Simón instructed his crew to use pig carcasses for specific scenes, adding a blunt-force realism to the up-close-and-personal shot of a buzzing chainsaw separating a girl’s lower half from her top half. While much of this carnage is stomach churning, overblown, and about as gratuitous as you can get, the real shock comes in the final moments of the film, when Simón effectively reveals what our silhouetted antagonist has been up to with those body parts he has been claiming. The surprise won’t be revealed here, but it’s a stitched-up science project/warped work of art that acts as the cherry on top of this strawberry sundae. And just when your heart slows to a normal rate, Simón springs one more surprise that is gloriously out of left field, vaguely channeling the final supernatural minutes of 1980’s Friday the 13th.
And then we have the performances, all of which are extremely over the top, made even more ridiculous through the ham-fisted dubbing that Simón applied in post-production. Ian Sera is fine enough as our curly-haired hero, Kendall, who gets involved with the case after one of his gal pals bites the dust. He develops a fast friendship with Lt. Bracken, who practically makes him an honorary police officer in seconds, and a far-fetched relationship with Lynda Day’s Mary, the gorgeous undercover agent who struts around campus as a tennis pro. Much of Day’s performance relies on her good looks, but her unforgettable “bastard!” moment is pure cheese you can’t help but chuckle at. Together, they dash from crime scene to crime scene, as squeamish cops recoil is disgust and vomit all over their shoes. Christopher George ultimately blends in with the woodwork as Lt. Bracker, the veteran cop that is always one step behind the killer. Hulking actor Paul L. Smith stops by as Willard, the suspicious groundskeeper who pummels a room full of cops and grins maniacally to himself as he cleans the chain of his chainsaw. Another shady cast member is Edmund Purdom, who is present as the campus dean, an oily suspect in the morbid case.
While Pieces aims at being a nauseating slice of terror, this little exploitation gem works much better as a sleazy little laugh riot. The synthesizer score sets the spooky stage nicely in the opening credits, but that gritty sense of unease is quickly sacked by a skateboarding chick smashing into a mirror, a leering glimpse at a aerobics/dance class set to a pure 80s robotic tune, the killer attempting to “conceal” his chainsaw on a cramped elevator, and Day’s nighttime encounter with a wandering kung-fu instructor who ate some “bad chop suey.” And then there is the bottomless pit of female nudity, which is certain to keep male eyeballs ogling at the screen. Any chance that Simón gets, he’s coaxing his female victims to shed their tops as they run for their lives from the figure pursuing them. Overall, the horror may be scarce, portions of it may not make a lick of sense, and the performances are borderline embarrassing, but cult fanatics and exploitation aficionados are guaranteed to adore Pieces simply because it is a 90-minute orgy of excess. This is one of the sickest and most fun grindhouse movies around.
Pieces is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
When I sit down and reflect back on the horror films that have scared the daylights out of me, there is one gritty and uncompromising masterpiece that really stands out among the others. That particular film would be director Tobe Hooper’s 1974 cannibalistic nightmare The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a horrifying and skin-crawling trip into a rotting and withering Texas wasteland that is just a little too unshakably real. Made for a measly $300,000 dollars and inspired by the brutality of the evening news, the dishonesty of the US government, and real-life serial killer Ed Gein, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre would go on to become a massively influential slasher movie and give birth to one of horror’s most notorious boogeymen—Leatherface. While the name alone will turn off many squeamish viewers, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn’t your typical exploitation horror film. There isn’t a massive fixation with blood and guts, but there is a burning desire on Hooper’s part to stuff the film with rusted atmosphere and stomach churning anxiety that has been baking in the smoldering Texas sun. You practically expect the film to reek of gasoline fumes, sweat, and decomposing road kill. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre emerged from one of the most unforgiving eras in the history of horror and has remained one of the cruelest genre efforts of the 1970s, right up there with such spine-chilling classics as The Exorcist, The Last House on the Left, Jaws, and Dawn of the Dead.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre begins with Sally Hardesty (Played by Marilyn Burns), her paraplegic brother, Franklin (Played by Paul A. Partain), Sally’s boyfriend, Jerry (Played by Allen Danzinger), and mutual friends, Kirk (Played by William Vail) and Pam (Played by Teri McMinn), venturing out into the backwoods of Texas to investigate the grave of Sally and Franklin’s grandfather after reports of grave robbing and vandalism in the area. After checking on their grandfather’s grave, the group decides to head over to the old abandoned Hardesty farm. Along their way, they pick up a local hitchhiker (Played by Edwin Neal), who claims to live nearby the old Hardesty farm. After cutting both himself and Franklin with a razor, the group kicks the man out of their van and leaves him out in the Texas sun. The group thinks their problems are over, but while exploring the abandoned farm, they discover another secluded home that they believe is also abandoned. It doesn’t take long for them to figure out that the home isn’t abandoned at all and one by one they fall victim to a deranged group of cannibals led by the hulking chain saw–wielding Leatherface (Played by Gunnar Hansen).
Hooper kicks off The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with narrator John Larroquette reading from a text crawl that explains what we are about to see is based on true events. We then have a pitch-black screen cut with brief flashes of what appears to be a decomposing corpse. During your first viewing, you won’t be entirely sure, but you will swear that rustling and grunting sound effects that accompany the dark are the sounds of furious digging and scraping. Then a radio report kicks in with news of a local grave robber and the macabre creations that the individual has been leaving in the local cemetery. Hooper then cuts to a close-up of the face of a gooey corpse, pulling his camera back to slowly to reveal the body of the corpse has been tied to a massive headstone. If you look carefully, it almost looks like the corpse is grinning at the viewer. As the camera continues to slowly pan back, Hooper is revealing an amber wasteland and his elevated corpse is warning us that death rules over this nearly abandoned and decrepit part of the great state of Texas. It also seems to be conveying that madness will be the king for the next eighty-four minutes and you are a poor sap at its mercy. With this monument to madness on full display, the radio reporting on strange disappearances and morbid local activity in the background, and Hooper revving up his clank-roar-and-bang score, we are pinned to our seats, stomachs uneasy about what carnage is to come and what redneck monsters this dried up abandonment will spit out. The first time I saw, it nearly paralyzed me with fright.
After this massively effective opening sequence, it could have been very easy for Hooper to cater to exploitation audiences hungry for plenty of blood and guts, but he keeps a good majority of the violence off the screen and lets our imaginations fill in the nasty stuff. Instead, he continues to pump in the rotting atmosphere of a once delightful small town full of happy memories now gripped by unemployment, hopelessness, and insanity. It is the ultimate American nightmare. Every single character is suspicious or just plain spaced out under the burning sun and every home or farm is sinking away into the cracking landscape. When Hooper lets Leatherface Sawyer out of his house of horrors with his chain saw buzzing, the terror hits highs you never thought possible. He lumbers around the inside of Sawyer household while screeching like a banshee and plopping his victims on meat hooks. When he dashes through the night after scrappy victim Sally, who basically becomes our heroine, it actually feels like Hooper was creeping through the trees and filming an authentic chase between these two (Someone call the authorities!). You may have to lean forward to fully see what is going on, but in a way, the pitch black highlighted with streaks of blue keep your imagination buzzing just like Leatherface’s chain saw. This pitch-black chase reminds the viewer how removed from society these people are, that the Sawyers are the ones that live on the path that is just off the beaten path, far away from modern society.
Since the sets, atmosphere, and monster are all so good, you barely even notice some of the amateur acting that plagues the first portion of the film. The only one of the kids that really stands out is Marilyn Burns as Sally, who must have been without a voice for a month after all the screaming she does in the final twenty minutes. Once you see the horrors she is staring down (I don’t think that is animal meat on her plate), you will not blame her for all the screaming. Then we have Edwin Neal, who plays the kooky hitchhiker who used to work at the local meat packing company. He is just plain crackers as he slices his hand with a razor and then giggles over it. To make things worse, he is the brother of Leatherface, a hulking, mentally challenged killer who likes to wear masks made of human flesh. Hansen plays him with plenty of gusto and he is made all the creepier through the several costume changes he undergoes. He switches from butcher, to housewife, to formal dinner attire and one is creepier than the next. Also on board here is Jim Siedow as the old man who runs the gas station. He seems like a harmless old man at first, but it is soon revealed that he has ties to Leatherface and the hitchhiker. To make things worse, he is cooking up some seriously nasty BBQ in the back of the gas station.
Like most of the other classic horror films of the 1970s, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre doesn’t shy away from making a political statement. Hooper has stated that “the film you are about to see is true” gimmick at the beginning of the film was a response to the lies told by the US government during Watergate and the Vietnam War. You could also view it as a cheap exploitation trick to lure in audience members hungry for some major depravity. Hooper has also said that he was inspired to make the film after repeatedly seeing jaw-dropping violence and graphic coverage on the evening news. There is also plenty of inspiration drawn from Ed Gein, which is especially present in the Sawyer family homestead that is complete with human bones fashioned into furniture and even human skin covering the light over their dinner table. Overall, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the most starkly convincing horror films I have ever seen. It is raw, in your face, and unforgettable, begging to be seen again and again to spot the tiny details thrown in by Hooper. But the true terror lies in the idea that there is nothing overly fantastic here. Sometimes, a simple backwoods cannibal wearing human skin as a mask and wielding a chain saw is one of the most terrifying things out there.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Way back in 2003, most casual horror fans believed that Danny Boyle had created the running zombie with his 2003 horror gem 28 Days Later. His sprinting ghouls then inspired Zack Snyder, who sped up his undead in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. While these two films made the running zombie popular, it could be argued that zombie godfather George A. Romero did it first in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. Yes, you read that correctly. If you think back to the opening sequence of the film, the cemetery zombie that terrorizes poor Johnny and Barbara isn’t afraid to hustle for his meal. While the rest of the ghouls shuffled their way to the farmhouse, that iconic zombie moved at a very fast walk. About thirteen years later, the fast moving zombie appeared once again in the Italian made Nightmare City, another one of the European knock-offs of Romero’s 1978 masterpiece Dawn of the Dead. Much like Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Nightmare City doesn’t actually contain cannibalistic undead. No, these maniacal terrors are suffering from radiation poisoning and they are not simply craving a hearty meal of entrails. They crave blood and they are not afraid of using guns, knives, and clubs to get it. Hell, they even drive a car and fly a plane!
Set in an unnamed European city, a television reporter named Dean Miller (Played by Hugo Stiglitz) arrives at an airport to await the arrival of a scientist he is supposed to interview. While he waits, a mysterious military plane makes an emergency landing and unleashes a slew of radioactive zombies that proceed to shoot and stab the police and military officers waiting outside. Dean manages to escape the slaughter and he makes his way to the local television station to warn anyone who will listen to him. Just as Dean is about to make an announcement, the military steps in and prevents him from spilling too many details about the incident. It doesn’t take long for the ghouls to make their way into the city and begin killing anyone in their path. As the city is overrun, Dean attempts to rescue his wife, Dr. Anna Miller (Played by Laura Trotter), who works at the local hospital. Meanwhile, military officials General Murchison (Played by Mel Ferrer) and Major Warren Holmes (Played by Francisco Rabal) scramble to contain the situation and understand what type of threat they are up against.
While there isn’t much of a plot to Nightmare City, director Umberto Lenzi, the man who gave the world the Cannibal Holocaust knock-off Cannibal Ferox, keeps the action and bloodletting rolling at a furious rate. There is maybe five minutes of downtime before that dreaded military plane makes its emergency landing and unleashes those crusty-faced infected. The make-up on these ghouls is less than impressive, as their faces just look horribly scabbed over. There is nothing particularly memorable about any of them and they never wear the grotesque detail that many of the other ghouls of Italian zombie movies wore. Hilariously, all of the ghouls in Nightmare City are male and when they attack their female victims, they feel the need to rip off the women’s shirts for a quick boob flash before they start hacking and slashing. As far as the gore is concerned, the film never matches the jaw-dropping intensity of one of Lucio Fulci’s zombie films. Just because the film never matches the gore of a Fulci film doesn’t mean that Nightmare City is a softie. No, brace yourself for eyeballs being gouged out, blood slurped out of necks, heads getting blown to bits, an arm being yanked off, and even a women’s breast getting sawed clean off.
Probably the poorest part of Nightmare City is the stiff performances from nearly everyone involved. Mexican actor Hugo Stiglitz tries has hardest to make something of a role that simply asks him to run from one location to the next. His Dean is asked to be a tough guy, but sometimes he looks a bit bored firing a machine gun at a handful of charging ghouls. Despite his faint disinterest, he still manages to give the best performance in Nightmare City. Trotter barely registers as Dean’s terrified wife, basically just throwing herself on the ground and acting helpless. Ferrer does passable job as the no-nonsense General Murchison, but even he just stands around in an underground military bunker and forces himself to look important. Rabal’s Major Holmes is another bore who tries to inject a bit of emotion into his role. The only scene he really seems invested in is a steamy make-out session between him and his artist wife, Shelia (Played by Maria Rosaria Omaggio). Much like Trotter’s helpless Anna, Omaggio’s Shelia is asked to flash her chest and cautiously wander around her massive home.
Despite everything working against Nightmare City, it still manages to be a surprisingly fun European zombie movie. In addition to the poor effects, lousy acting, frail plot, and silly exposition, the film also features the biggest rip-off of an ending you will ever see. Yet you will be willing to forgive all the flaws because Lenzi really goes out of his way to deliver the thrills and he even manages to craft a few moments that are fairly suspenseful. The most stunning is an aerial shot of swarming infected charging through the city. To break up the mild suspense, you’ll get a few solid laughs, especially when Stiglitz lobs a television at charging infected and it blows up like a grenade. In the years since its release, Lenzi has tried to argue that the film actually is making an anti-nuclear message and that it is extremely critical of the military, but it is glaringly obvious that the film is just a low budget exploitation cheapie. Overall, Nightmare City is certainly no Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Zombie, City of the Living Dead, or The Beyond, but as far as action packed escapism goes, you can do much, much worse. No one will blame you if you seek this sucker out for a midnight viewing.
Nightmare City is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Before Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci became known as the “Godfather of Gore,” the grindhouse/horror legend dabbled in a number of non-horror film genres. In the late 1950s and 60s, he directed a handful of comedies and then set his sights on thrillers and gialli in the early 1970s. In the mid to late 60s and early 70s, Italy was enamored with spaghetti westerns and it comes as no surprise that Mr. Fulci decided to contribute a few westerns of his own to the booming subgenre. Near the end of the spaghetti western craze, Fulci released Four of the Apocalypse, a surprisingly sensitive but brutal trip into the Wild West that plays by its own set of rules. Lacking a strong, silent hero going to war with a pack of snarling gunslingers, Four of the Apocalypse is heavy with character development and shockingly light on gunplay. If you’re a fan of Fulci’s gory later work, rest assured that Four of the Apocalypse has plenty of the blood and torture that many of his fans expect, but you will also be surprised to find that you get attached to the four main characters before you are blindsided by the pitch-black tragedy that looms over the second half of the film. It really proves to those who wrote off Fulci as a horror hack that the “Godfather of Gore” is capable of making films with some serious substance.
Four of the Apocalypse picks up in Salt Flat, Utah, with a big time gambler named Stubby Preston (Played by Fabio Testi) arriving in town looking to make some money. Shortly after arriving, Stubby has a run-in with the Sheriff and he winds up thrown in jail with a beautiful prostitute, Bunny (Played by Lynne Frederick), the town drunk, Clem (Played by Michael J. Pollard), and the local loony, Bud (Played by Harry Baird). That very evening, a group of masked bandits attack Salt Flat and leave the town a bloody mess. The next morning, Stubby cuts a deal with the sheriff and the four soon find themselves traveling to the next town, which is 200 miles away. As they make their way down the dusty trail, the colorful group gets to know each other and Stubby begins taking a liking to Bunny, who also happens to be pregnant. The lighthearted trip is soon interrupted by a mysterious bandito that calls himself Chaco (Played by Tomas Milian), who wishes to join and travel with the group. Chaco claims that he is an expert hunter and that he can defend the rag-tag group from raiders and bandits. All seems well at first, but Chaco soon reveals himself to be a sadistic bandit that leaves the group for dead. With no food or water and one of their group severely wounded, Stubby vows to track down and kill Chaco for what he has done.
While the spaghetti western was known for delivering plenty of shoot-em-up action, Four of the Apocalypse shies away from the relentless violence that made the genre so popular. While a gun is fired here and there, the only real action comes from the beginning of the film, with the masked bandits turning Salt Flat into a war zone. This early scene has plenty of Fulci’s signature gore, with holes blown through the bellies of drunken cowboys and gunslingers hung from buildings. It is actually a fairly creepy sequence, especially since the bandits seem to be attacking for no reason and they are sporting white masks with eyeholes torn into them. From there on out, Fulci leaves most of the gunplay behind and focuses on the sunny relationship between our four likable travelers. The downside to this opening explosive action is that the pacing is thrown off and the film seems to come to a screeching halt when the group hits the road. While the all-out action is pulled back, Fulci does darken the whole affair when Chaco rides into the frame. Chaco is certainly a captivating character, but with him comes torture, rape, and death, all of which shatter the innocence of the group. Things really get grim when cannibalism rears its ugly head in one of the darkest moments of the entire film.
Four of the Apocalypse also features some truly exceptional and memorable performances from nearly everyone involved. Fabio Testi really casts a spell as Stubby, the handsome and outgoing gambler that everyone seems to be familiar with (Even Chaco has heard of him!). A clean-cut guy who can’t say no to a good shave, Stubby is far from the conventional spaghetti western hero. When he mingles with a group of hardened outlaws near the end of the film, he is glaringly out of place but we can see that he may be considering going down the path that these men have chosen. Then we have Frederick’s Bunny, the beautiful prostitute who strikes up a romance with Stubby. Despite her line of work and her growing baby bump, she retains a youthful innocence that is rare when it comes to spaghetti western prostitutes. Pollard’s Clem is a pitiful soul, one who is a slave to the bottle and will literally do anything for a swig of whiskey. Fulci really focuses on his sad eyes, which easily pierce your heart. Baird’s sweet but simple Bud was probably the most sympathetic and naive character as he rambles on about speaking with ghosts in a graveyard. Yet the one that stands high above all these characters is Milian, who is absolutely unforgettable as the unpredictable Chaco. As sadistic as they come, Chaco is like a gun slinging Charles Manson, one who manipulates and violates with the aid of peyote.
What I absolutely loved about Four of the Apocalypse is that it really seemed to be playing by its own set of rules. The final confrontation between Stubby and Chaco is subtle and minimal yet strangely poignant and satisfying. You’ll also find yourself hanging on the hope and tragedy that blossoms out of Stubby and Bunny’s arrival in the town of outlaws, all of whom melt over the arrival of Bunny’s child. You will find yourself wishing that Fulci had paced his film better and that he would have pulled the distracting folk score from the film and replaced it with a jangly Ennio Morricone track. Over the years, Four of the Apocalypse has become sort of a midnight movie for some of the violence peppered throughout, but the film never seems overly interested in exploiting the bloodier moments, something that is very rare for Fulci. Overall, Four of the Apocalypse is an absorbing and emotional journey across a bleak and hopeless landscape. There are a few dry spots to be found but end result is a wildly disturbing character study that allows the film to set itself apart from the other films of this subgenre.
Four of the Apocalypse is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If you want a prime example of guerilla filmmaking at its most bizarre, then you need to get your hot little hands on a 1982 film called Basket Case. Shot on a shoestring budget (director Frank Henenlotter actually shows his film’s budget in one specific scene of the film) in the grimy streets of early 80s New York City (it appears that 42nd Street is shown in the opening of the film), Basket Case is a seriously wrapped exploitation horror comedy. There is plenty of blood, guts, gore, and ear splitting groaning and screaming from our deformed Siamese twin Belial, sleazy settings to make you want to shower after watching it, and the most outrageous rape/sex scene you are ever likely to see. There is also plenty of black humor to keep you snickering to yourself, especially when Belial goes on one of his noisy rampages. Yet even at a scant hour and a half, the weird comic charms begin to wear themselves out and Basket Case just settles down in just plain weird and seedy territory with a particularly dark climax. The film has quite the passionate cult following and many even consider it a horror classic, which I think is going a bit far, due to the film’s reluctance to fully commit itself fully to serious scares. Every tense moment is broken up by a wink when it should have played itself straight to really creep you out.
Basket Case introduces us to the socially awkward Duane Bradley (Played by Kevin Van Hentenryck), who arrives in New York City with a handful of cash, some clothing, and a wicker basket under his arm. Duane checks in to the seedy Hotel Broslin, where he locks himself away in one of the rooms and studies over a mysterious file of medical papers. It turns out that that Duane was born with a grotesque Simaese twin named Belial growing out of his. When Duane was just a boy, his father was repulsed by Belial and recruited a few doctors to remove and discard Belial. When Duane woke up from his operation, he rescued Belial and vowed revenge on the doctors that separated them. All grown up and out for blood, Duane unleashes Belial, a deformed monster with claws and fangs, from his wicker basket to tear the doctors limb from limb. Their plot hits a snag when Duane meets a pretty receptionist named Sharon (Played by Terri Susan Smith), who he begins falling in love with him. Naturally, Duane’s feelings for Sharon enrage Belial and begin tearing the brothers apart. Meanwhile, the nosy guests of Hotel Broslin begin to suspect there is something strange about Duane and his wicker basket and they begin snooping around.
Even though Basket Case was not made with much, there is still plenty of dedication from the tiny cast and crew. The film itself is about as grainy as they come, giving it an almost documentary-like sense of realism even if the subject matter is the epitome of silly. Some of the early scenes of New York City are pretty interesting; especially the opening sequence that finds Duane wandering one of the neon strips of grindhouses, adult video stores, rundown bars, and twitchy junkies. Even the hotel that Duane calls temporary home was a real hotel, but certainly not one you would ever want to stay in. Your skin crawls at the very thought of what pests might be crawling all over you when you turned off the lights. Then there is the nightmare sequence, which finds a nude Duane running through the seemingly deserted streets of a city that claims to never sleep. Even though the film was made in the late 70s/early 80s, you still get nervous for the cast and crew, fearing that a junkie or mugger may leap out of the shadows that are claiming the streets. This nightmare scene is probably the scariest moment of the entire film, the only one that doesn’t seem to be chuckling at itself.
Then we have the acting, both from the cast of unknowns and from the little puppet Belial. Van Hentenryck does a fine job at being both a clueless sweetheart and a deranged psychopath. He shares some great moments with Smith’s Sharon, who genuine falls for his oddball charms, and Josephine (Played by Dorothy Storngin), a prostitute with a heart of gold who picks him up when he is at his lowest. Smith isn’t really given too much to do as the love interest, but she gets a memorable moment at the end when she finally comes face to face with Belial in the most discomfited way possible. Storngin is great as Josephine, barely flinching when Duane shares his dark past with her. Another standout is Robert Vogel as Anthony, the sweaty, no-nonsense manager of Hotel Broslin who is constantly scratching his head over the strange noises that ring out from Duane’s room. Then we have Belial, the blob-like monster that crawls around and claws his victims to shreds. For a puppet, he has plenty of personality and he can sometimes be weirdly cute when he throws his temper tantrums or hides in the toilet. Even though he is the bloodthirsty monster, he may be the most likable and sympathetic character in the entire film. When his relationship with Duane becomes strained in the final stretch, you wouldn’t mind giving the little guy a hug even if he may bite your face off.
While there are plenty of moments in Basket Case that are a good deal of fun, there are some moments that the viewer is left wishing the film would stop winking at them and keep a straight face. It doesn’t completely ruin the film, but I felt that it was definitely holding the film back from reaching its full potential. You do have to give Henenlotter credit for the way he slowly builds up Belial’s reveal, giving us little hints at what may be in that wicker basket until finally springing him on us. Just wait for the hilarious opening scene where Duane feeds Belial a bag of hamburgers. For you gorehounds out there, Basket Case has plenty of the red stuff to keep you happy, but don’t expect anything too elaborate. Overall, Basket Case is another shining example of less-is-more horror, something that Hollywood and the mainstream just doesn’t seem to understand these days. It does stand head and shoulders above most of the horror films you see today and it is a great film to show to your friends simply to see their reactions. You also have to admire the touching and tragic relationship between the brothers at the core of the film. While I don’t consider it the classic some horror and exploitation fans do, Basket Case is still a solid midnight movie.
Basket Case is available on Blu-ray and DVD.