CB’s Exclusive Interview with Frank Henenlotter

Basket Case… What a film. One of the quintessential sleaze horror epics of the early 80s that no self-respecting, oversized VHS case-sporting video outlet could once do without. And along with the two hair-raising sequels it spawned, Basket Case is back, back, back – this time lovingly packaged by Second Sight films into a DVD/Blu Ray box set, teeming with interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and loads more.

With the release of this sumptuous cinematic snackbox right around the corner, CB’s Stateside correspondent, Ed Zed, managed to catch up with creator/director Frank Henenlotter and the star of the films, Kevin Van Hentenryck for a bit of a chinwag about it all…

CB: Before we discuss the new DVD release, I’d like to travel back to the initial conception of the Basket Case saga. What was the inspiration for the Basket Case storyline, and did the finished movie fulfil your expectations?

FH: When I met producer Edgar Ievans he suggested we do a feature film, as I was only making shorts at that time. He said ‘let’s do a horror movie, because I would really like to make one of those – they’re very commercial.’ So I got thinking: ‘paranoid – that’s been done. Psycho – been done. Basket case – ohhh!

I immediately had the image of a monster in a basket, and it was so preposterous an idea, so funny, I just loved the idea of a malignant jack-in-the-box. Trouble was that I couldn’t work out why a normal guy would walk around with a monster in a basket – it didn’t make sense!

Then one night, there I was hanging out in Times Square eating hot dogs and it just came to me – ‘what if they’re brothers?’ Suddenly I had a plot, and the movie just wrote itself!

I wrote the initial screenplay with it in mind that we’d get some money from it, so it was very different from how Basket Case ended up. I wanted it to look like a real movie, and I didn’t know it was going to be made on zero dollars. But I still wanted to make it, and I thought, hell, we can always sell it to some bottom-of-the-barrel company, it’ll play on 42nd St and no one will ever see it, so I’m not gonna be embarrassed by it!

We had to adjust to having no money, no film equipment, no crew. Some days people showed up, other days no one showed up. When I wanted to do a dolly shot I was in a wheelchair being pushed by somebody, y’know? There was originally an elaborate ending scripted where Belial crawls round the streets of New York but we ended up with so little money we were barely able to make him move at all!

Frank and the beast

CB: The movie features some very interesting and unusual special effects, notably the stop motion animation of Belial. Can you talk a little bit about your approach to the effects in Basket Case?

 FH: We had two Belial puppets – one was basically a hand puppet, that’s all. So I took a glove, painted it red, and stuck my hand in so I could open and close it. Most of the time, that’s me making Belial move and roar and so forth. At one point when he’s on the stretcher in the hotel room and his hand comes up – that’s actually me stuffed inside the dresser (I was a lot thinner in those days). We had a mirror set up across the way so I could at least see if my hand was out enough or too much.

We also did stop motion, but unfortunately I don’t have the patience for this so after a few minutes of moving him carefully, filming two frames, and repeating this process I end up moving him with my foot, well, kicking him really. When I eventually saw the footage I thought it was all unusable – a disaster.

But then, looking at it some more, I thought, hey, I can turn this into comedy. The film was already over the top in making no sense, so I just thought ‘go there!’

The second time I saw Basket Case in a theater and the stop motion sequence started somebody shouted ‘Gumby on acid!!’ and I thought ‘that’s exactly it!’

CB: Basket Case, in my opinion, is one of the few movies to truly successfully marry elements of horror and comedy. Did you write the storyline with comedic elements in mind or is that something which developed later on?

FH: My original concept was to play it a lot more seriously, but the idea of a guy with a monster in a basket was so ridiculous to me I thought it’d be better to totally confuse people. I thought ‘god knows I have nothing else going for me, so let’s have the characters go over the top’, so it ended up being funnier than I had originally intended, but I don’t think this hurt it. The violence was so excessive and funny, but a lot of people at the time didn’t think it was an intentional comedy!

I sometimes see it described online as ‘unintentionally funny’. Whaddyakiddinme?!

I once went to the Waverly to see Basket Case (unusual as I don’t like to watch my own films), and after the movie was over a guy got up and started pontificating about it, a speech which began in the theater and eventually moved outside. A small group of people followed him (myself included, though he obviously had no idea who I was) and he concluded his ‘lecture’ by saying that this was ‘a wonderful film, a hilarious film, but of course… the director had no idea he was making a comedy!’ (laughs uproariously)

The more I thought about it, I thought ‘that ain’t bad’! And I adapted that idea with my other movies, because if you think the director doesn’t know what he’s doing that creates an additional element of anarchy. You think ‘I’m in the middle of a film and no one’s in control? I kinda like that!’

The guy at the theater was obviously very wrong, but the effect that it had, I agree with – I’m glad.

CB: Moving on to the new DVD/Blu Ray release, with a bit of a nerdy question to begin with. The box set contains a tantalizing array of extras – can you tell me a little bit about the new things Basket Case fans can expect to see from the new release?

FH: There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes footage, as I always kept all of that stuff – for example a whole reel of people not in the movie making faces at the camera. I visit some of the locations, the Hotel Broslin etc. and I also do a commentary with Beverly Bonner. I think the best thing is an 80 minute feature on all three of the films by director David Gregory – he interviews key members of the cast, makeup people – a whole variety of folks.

When he was in NY interviewing me we went to a nightclub where Annie Ross sings every Tuesday and here she is at 81, and she’s still belting it out, so he filmed part of that. Also, part of Beverly Bonner’s play that she wrote about the character of Casey the hooker, 30 years on, is featured – not a sequel, but a spin-off. Casey is pretty much out of her mind at this point, but it’s very funny – she runs a brothel for senior citizens! So there’s a lot of tangential stuff – it’s pretty rich.

CB: In revisiting the trilogy, did you find that your opinion about any of the movies overall had changed in any way? You’ve mentioned in the past that you’re not hugely fond of the third Basket Case movie for example.

FH: No, I’m not, and I’m still not! And I was never happy with how Basket Case looked, in fact I hated how it looked. The blow-up from 16mm, which is what we shot it in, to 35mm was done so cheaply  that it came out much too dark and grainy – the composition was wrong – I hate the look of the film that was on the initial prints and the VHS release, so I was happy last summer to get an HD master of it.

It looks better by degrees – nothing is gonna make that film look beautiful, but I was able to make it look like the original 16mm print and the lab worked very hard from the 35mm, using the 16mm negative constantly for reference. I still have one of the original prints but it’s turned completely beet red, whereas the negative was in great shape, so at least now it looks like what I originally shot.

CB: Basket Case, as well as being a terrific exploitation film is also an extremely compelling snapshot of New York City back when it was a far grittier place than it is now. How do you feel about the various aspects of ‘sanitization’ of New York in more recent years?

FH: I hate it so much it’s heartbreaking. I grew up on 42nd St, y’know? I used to cut high school when I was 15 and take the train from Long Island to Manhattan to go the movies. I knew it was a cesspool but I felt comfortable there. I never was attacked – nothing ever happened to me. All these stories you hear of the incredible violence of the street – how come I never saw any of that? And when I was 15 I looked like I was 12! I had a wonderful time there and I was there all the time. It was a pleasure chest for me – there was so much to do! It wasn’t a question of ‘is there something I want to see?’ it was a question of ‘how many do I want to see?!’

CB: I do envy you, Frank…

FH: Well, this should give you an idea of how much time I spent there and how predictable I was.

A friend of mine from Canada was passing through NY one afternoon on his way to Florida and thought he stop in to try and find me. He buzzes my apartment and I’m not there, so he thinks, ok, I know where he is – he’s on 42nd St. So he goes to 42nd St, looks at the marquees and thinks ‘hmm, yeah, maybe… oh, wait! Vampire Hookers? That’s where he is.’ Minutes later he climbs over the row behind and sits in the seat right next to me as if this were perfectly normal!

But you know, by the 70s, Times Square had gotten completely out of hand because the law hadn’t yet caught up with the sex industry. In between every theater was a porno store, but that was part of its charm, and as a young man, are you kiddin’?! ‘Well, I have ten minutes before the movie starts – I’ll just have a little look…’

When we filmed Basket Case in 1980 it was still completely out of hand. There’s a scene where Duane is walking down 42nd St holding the basket and he walks past a porno store that you can see all the way into. That is take 2. On take 1, the owner comes running out, leaps into our van and threatens to kill us. He thought he were CBS making a documentary – when he found out we were making a horror movie he recoils going ‘Sorry! Sorry! Sorry! You can shoot the scene again – no problem!’

CB: In recent years movies such as Grindhouse and Hobo with a Shotgun have attempted to recreate the style of 70s & 80s exploitation – what are you views on these types of movies and do you think it’s possible to successfully capture the essence of exploitation cinema in the present day?

I don’t think it’s possible – everything is of its special time, and the beauty of exploitation films back in the day is that they weren’t self-conscious. Yes, they knew they were exploitation but they weren’t ‘wink, wink, nudge, nudge – look at us’. They were also done dirt cheap. How can you recreate a 70s exploitation film when you have a million bucks? (laughing) It just doesn’t make sense! This was a very charming era of women in prison films, blaxploitation, all that kind of stuff. How many of them cost even a hundred grand to make?

They can’t make ’em like they used to.

CB: And they’re great for that…

Absolutely! Sets, if they had sets, were tacky (like Basket Case) or they were shot in the street which gave them such legitimacy. So the hearts of people trying to recreate those movies now may be in the right place, but all you’re going get is a copy – it won’t be an original piece. Despite that, I liked Hobo with a Shotgun – I laughed throughout the whole thing and I’m not putting it down, I’m just saying this in general.

CB: Would you ever consider making a movie outside out of the exploitation/horror genres, and if so, what sort of movie would it be?

Yeah! I’m starting one in November. It’s not even an exploitation film – in fact I don’t get to throw blood on anybody! It’s a true story about these young men who decide to steal a very valuable piece of street art from the side of a building. While they were doing this they called me from the city they were in to tell me about it. I’m friends with all three of them, but one in particular was gushing about it and at point remarks ‘it’s almost like pages from a script, isn’t it?’ and I said ‘well, we’re gonna write that script!’

So we finally got the funding for it, well allegedly, and I’m kind of excited to be doing something I’ve never done before, plus I can’t fall back on my usual bag of tricks this time.

CB: Well Frank, it looks as though time has caught up with us. Thank you so much for speaking to me this morning, and I wish you all the very best for the Basket Case release and the new art theft film.

My pleasure!

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