If you’d smoothed your sideburns and donned your stovepipe hat ready for a night out back in the late 1800s, you probably had one of three destinations in mind: the theatre, the opera or the controversial third option, the freak show. Say what you want about dubious ethics, the sideshow was a seriously popular form of mass entertainment in its day, and the presence of stuff like the Bodyshock documentaries on TV is a lingering reminder of our fascination with people whose physical appearance defies that most vague and loathsome of words, “normal”.
Indeed, freaks, to seize on the pejorative term, are clearly of paramount interest to writer/director Frank Henenlotter, the man behind Frankenhooker, whose film Basket Case 3: the Progeny manages to outdo Troma with its literal busload of misshapen grotesques. Words alone can’t do this cast justice. Just give this vid a quick watch and join me below:
Before you ask, no, that wasn’t a hallucinatory dream sequence, that bus contains characters destined to remain with us throughout the entire film.
The uninitiated are probably wondering what Basket Case 3 might be about. Well, frankly, it’s difficult to say. I absolutely loathe the lazy cliché that describes anything left-field as being “on acid” but this film is about as out-there as it’s possible for a theatrically released movie to be – so whacked-out, in fact, that it really does bear out the well-worn phrase. It makes Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas look like Pretty Woman by comparison.
Basically the story is this: a chap named Duane Bradley was born conjoined to a homicidal Siamese twin called Belial, who most closely resembles an angry tumour with two arms. The two were separated against their will in the first film, which left Duane carrying his twin around in a wicker basket (hence the title) and communicating with him telepathically. Duane attempted to sew himself and Belial back together at the close of the second movie, but the two are separated again at the start of the third, and Duane is sectioned against his will.
Duane is released from the asylum by a benevolent old lady, Granny Ruth, who looks after a gaggle of otherworldly individuals, including Belial. Duane is taken on a bus ride to Peachtree County, to the house of a surgeon who plans to help Belial’s pregnant mutant girlfriend, Eve, to give birth to twelve mini-mutant babies.
Still with me?
Once there, Duane escapes and is imprisoned by a bunch of bigoted local cops, who discover the freaks hiding out and partying at the surgeon’s house, kill Eve – mistaking her for Belial – and end up incurring the violent little fella’s wrath. Belial then sets about killing the cops in an orgy of latex and stage blood before vanquishing the sheriff from the safety of an exoskeleton that looks like Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles crossed with the machine Ripley uses to fight the Queen Alien in Aliens.
I watched this with a friend, our jaws agape and our snacks uneaten, alternately revolted, amazed and amused by this towering monument to the bizarre. Some of the visuals in this film just have to be seen to be believed: for instance, a buff fellow in leopard-print Speedos being mauled to death by a mechanical claw while Duane eats cornflakes, staring out at the audience from the foreground of the shot, is just the tip of the iceberg.
And the dialogue! Oh, the dialogue. Everything from half-cocked philosophy to brilliant bits of witty alliteration, like the following, pepper the script:
Sheriff: “You boys have been through a lot tonight. Bailey, you book the Bradley boy. Baxter, take the bassinet of baby Belial’s in back and get Brody to come by! Where’s Brannon and Banner?”
Basket Case 3 is, as you might have guessed, a difficult film to pin down. It’s sickeningly violent but laugh-out-loud funny; it’s exploitative, yet full of heart; it’s utterly silly and surprisingly sincere. It’s a work of quite some contradiction. And to top it all, there’s a subtext at work, too: all the “normal” characters, barring Duane and Granny Ruth, are utter gits, while all the “freaks” are really rather lovable.
Why, if our Victorian ancestors could have seen Basket Case 3, they’d probably have kicked the carnies into touch and placed Joseph Merrick on a pedestal. See this and, if you’ll pardon the pun, freak out.
(By the by, the trailer below includes a wee bit of OTT comedy horror violence, so if you’re feeling a bit queasy or find that sort of thing offensive, you might want to give it a miss. Everyone else, enjoy.)