Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1991)

Well, here we are again: it’s the continuing adventures of Belial and Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck)! Like its predecessor, Basket Case 3: The Progeny replays the final minutes of the preceding film, as we once again see Duane reattach his unwilling brother to his side following the untimely death of Susan. Unlike Basket Case 2, however, we don’t pick up moments later, but instead it’s been a couple of months. Duane and Belial were once again separated, although less traumatically this time, and Duane has spent the intervening time in a padded cell at Granny Ruth’s (Annie Ross) to ensure that he doesn’t exact any further violence on the small community of “unique individuals.” But there’s a new wrinkle in the tapestry of their lives: Eve, the female counterpart to the monstrous Belial, is pregnant, and Granny Ruth doesn’t feel she has the expertise to provide a safe birthing environment, so it’s time to take this (freak)show on the road! So all of Granny Ruth’s X-Men have to load up on a school bus with blacked out windows to travel from her estate in Staten Island to Georgia, where her physician friend (and perhaps former lover?) Hal (Dan Biggers, of In the Heat of the Night fame) will assist with Eve’s birth. Since Duane can’t be left alone, he’s along for the ride as well, straightjacketed and kept apart from Belial, who hasn’t forgiven him for the events that concluded Basket Case 2. Things seem to be going well, as Granny Ruth is reunited with her multi-armed son Little Hal (Jim O’Doherty), first mentioned in the previous film as the catalyst for Ruth’s interest in and defense of “unique individuals,” and Dr. Hal has an amicable relationship with local law enforcement, as evidenced by his friendly and jovial interactions with Sheriff Griffin (Gil Roper), who even knows about and appreciates the mechanical genius of Little Hal. Duane even has a positive interaction with Opal (Tina Louise Hilbert), the sheriff’s daughter. It seems like things have finally turned a corner for the Bradley twins.

That is, of course, until the sight of Dr. Hal in his surgical outfit triggers Belial’s memories of the doctors who originally separated him from Duane, and he attacks the doctor in the middle of Eve’s procedure, mortally wounding the doc and complicating the birthing process. And what a birth it is! Thirteen monstrous little baby Belials come out of the fleshy lump that represents Eve’s womb, one after the other on the same umbilical cord like a nauseating, pulsating string of teethed pearls. They are monstrous. Further complicating matters is Duane’s escape from Hal’s estate; he seeks out Opal so that they can run away together but is recognized as one half of the infamous Times Square Freak Twins, leading two deputies to head out to Dr. Hal’s, where they mistake Eve for Belial and ultimately are responsible for her death, leading Belial on a roaring rampage of revenge, one which involves a dominatrix outfit, an overly long bit involving the alliterative names of all the deputies, and a robotic exoskeleton. And a swarm of little baby Belials, which somehow manage to be kind of cute despite being as disgusting as their father (I think it’s their little animatronic mouths that won me over).

As I said before, Basket Case 2 is my favorite of this trilogy. The original is a classic, but the first sequel expands the number of unique individuals in a way that makes sense, while keeping the majority of the focus on the Bradleys, even when they spend much of the film apart, and shows Duane accepting himself as a unique individual in his own right, separate from Belial. A traumatic event at the end of the film leads him to make a bad decision, but it all holds together. Basket Case 3 is a different animal: neither Belial nor Duane is really the central character here, Granny Ruth is. Belial and Duane’s separation is more than just physical here, as they spend most of the film not talking to each other, although both of them cause trouble for themselves and everyone else by falling back on old patterns of behavior, first when Belial attacks the doctor because his native language is violence, and when Duane exposes Granny Ruth’s cabal because he falls in love with every woman who shows him a moment’s kindness. In each instance, it falls to Granny Ruth to try and rectify the situation, but even when she is the centerpiece, nothing that she does in this film approaches the same energy level as her “Our sanctuary has been violated!” speech from BC2. The closest that we come is the “Personality” musical number, which is delightfully weird, or perhaps Ruth’s final speech to the viewers of “Renaldo” about the importance of playing nice, but neither are as riotous or have the staying power of anything in the previous films.

If anything, the film is simply too unfocused, which may be the result of editorial changes. Supposedly, the producers instructed Frank Henenlotter to make this film less gory than either previous entry and the original script, resulting in the omission of 11 pages from the shooting draft. The excision of this material likely contributed to the more rambling nature of this narrative. For instance, there’s a scene in which the entire Ruth clan appears in a fast food restaurant, freaking out the customers and generally causing annoying havoc, but there’s never a moment of menace, and we see neither Belial or Duane in the whole set piece. Compare this to, for instance, the scene in BC2 where Susan is harassed by a local about how she never comes to his bar and always seems to be buying more food than two women alone in a house could eat: neither Bradley boy is in this scene, but it does set the tone for how others view Ruth and her activities, and creates a sense of tension. We could also compare this to the scene in the previous film where Duane confronts a P.I. at a seedy bar with his fellow freaks: like the fast food restaurant scene, the freaks are in public, but there’s a purpose and an intensity to the scene, despite it being in a ridiculous film.

Still, there’s a lot to love in The Progeny. It may not measure up to the accidental(?) genius of its predecessors, but it makes up for most of its weaknesses with another strong performance from Ross (Van Hentenryck is at the same level as always), and its sudden turn into a revenge flick at the midpoint is a pleasant surprise, even if the franchise’s hallmark gore is greatly reduced for this sequel. You may even end up wanting a little baby Belial of your very own. It’s unfortunate that this us the apparent end of the Basket Case series, as it’s been 18 years since the film, enough time for all those little monsters to start thinking about college and adulthood, which would make for an interesting follow up (then again . . . maybe not), but a man can still dream that we’ll meet the Bradleys again, one day.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Basket Case 2 (1990)

When we last saw Belial and Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck), they had fallen to their presumed deaths, but as Basket Case 2 opens, we learn that they survived their fall and are now semi-famous as the “Times Square Killer Twins.” After a brief interlude at the hospital to which the two were taken, they are collected by the kindly Granny Ruth (Annie Ross) and her lovely granddaughter Susan (Heather Rattray), who whisk the two back to Ruth’s home, a Staten Island mansion that the older woman has set up as a home for “unique individuals” like Belial, where they can live out their lives in peace, away from the prying eyes of society. These include such various freaks as Platehead, Half Moon (who looks a bit like Mac Tonight), Huge Arthur, and Frog Boy (played by none other than Tom Franco–yes, of those Francos). Belial takes to this new situation pretty quickly, even meeting a lady Belial named Eve (yes, they eventually hook up, and yes, we get to see every excruciatingly gross and hilarious moment of it), while Duane immediately falls for Susan, seeing in her the chance for a normal life that he could have now that he and Belial have finished exacting vengeance upon the doctors who originally separated them. It seems like the Bradley Brothers may have finally found peace… except that Marcie (Kathryn Meisle), a sleazy reporter for the tabloid Judge & Jury, is hot on their trail, with the backing of her editor Lou (Jason Evers) and the help of private gumshoe Phil (Ted Sorel). Before the boys can get their happily ever after, they have to make sure there are no more breadcrumbs that could lead the outside world to their new home.

Basket Case 2 is a very different animal from Basket Case, and not just because of the influx of funding, making for a movie that looks better, although its generally more balanced lighting and wider color palette also means that some of what made Basket Case the cult classic it is has been lost. There are still some pretty atmospheric moments, most notably in the bar where Phil meets Duane in an attempt to tempt him to turn in Belial or at the “freak show” where Granny Ruth lets Belial loose on a con artist, but this second film features a lot more daytime shooting than you would expect after the seemingly endless night in which the first movie seemed to take place. In general, the tone is more whimsical; Frank Henenlotter has said that he doesn’t think of himself as a horror filmmaker but as an exploitation director, and in this feature even more than Brain Damage that ethos comes through. The freaks are often horrible (although none of them reach the nauseating, pulsating grotesqueness of Belial), but they’re also pretty non-threatening, especially when they spend much of the film’s runtime comically skittering about in a state of nervous anxiety. They’re simply not scary, which is fine, actually, as it allows for Belial to continue to be a monster and gives Duane the opportunity to explore his dark side. His previous reluctant involvement in Belial’s revenge scheme evaporates, as he finds there’s a deep well of darkness within that he can tap to take action against all those who would seek to do harm to his new family. For all of its cheap thrills and corny gore, Basket Case could never be accused of having a character arc, which Basket Case 2 actually does. The extent to which Belial could be developed is pretty limited, but Duane moves from being merely Belial’s enabler/assistant to committing his own crimes and even self-identifying as a freak despite being the most normal (looking) person in the house other than Ruth and her granddaughter. This comes to a head, however, when he realizes that Susan is hiding her own freakishness and reacts… poorly, he attempts to correct his error by going way overboard, but I’ll leave the details of his overcorrection for you to discover on your own, dear viewer.

Of the Basket Case trilogy, BC2 is my favorite. Despite the eight year production gap, Van Hentenryck slides back into the role of Duane pretty easily (even if it’s impossible to ignore that he went from a young-looking 28/29 during the production of the first film to a youthful-but-obviously-older 37 by the time of BC2, despite the second film picking up moments after the end of the first), and Belial is still Belial. Duane gets some great stuff to do here, even if he’ll be completely supplanted as the star by Ross’s Granny in the final Basket Case (for better and for worse). You can see why Henenlotter chose to take that direction in this film, where Duane’s restrained madness is great, but not nearly as delightful as Ross’s utter commitment to the role, as perhaps best evinced in the scene where she counsels Belial, which contains the immortal line “I understand your pain, Belial, but ripping the faces off people may not be in your best interest.” There’s a great expansion of new freaks that also puts BC2 at the top, and it’s more restrained than BC3 will be; that film will add even more “unique individuals” but lose some of the best ones from here (alas, Frog Boy, I wish we could have known you better). Ultimately, this film also has the best individual sequence in the whole trilogy in the scene in which Marcie finds herself cornered in her own home, only to realize that there might be something unexpected in one of her own baskets . . . .

I’m proud to say it’s one of the best looking films in my VHS collection (I’m guessing it wasn’t a very popular rental, given that it plays like it’s the first time every time), but for those of you without this kind of access, Basket Case 2 is available for rent for the low, low price of $1.99 on YouTube.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond