Exclusive: Interview with 'Basket Case' Director Frank Henenlotter

Basket Case Blu-rayby Colleen Wanglund, MoreHorror.com

On September 27, 2011, the cult film classic BASKET CASE (1982) (review here), about the weird relationship between two brothers, finally comes to Blu-ray.  Lovingly restored and supervised by Director Frank Henenlotter himself, the new Blu-ray boasts the film’s best version since it was first filmed. 

I recently had the chance to talk with Frank, who tried to avoid a film career and yet is one of the most popular independent grindhouse filmmakers since Herschell Gordon Lewis

Colleen: How did you get your start making films?

Frank Henenlotter: I just made them.  I took my father’s 8mm camera and I graduated to a 16mm camera.  I just loved making movies.  I never intended them to be commercial.  In fact I never intended them to be seen, I just enjoyed making movies.  I never intended to have a career out of it and I still don’t think I want one out of it.  I don’t think I’ve had a career I’m just a guy who’s made a couple of movies.

Colleen: Who or what were some of your early influences?

Frank: The biggest influence on me was 42nd St. (Times Square, NYC) in the 1970s and 80s.   You could see everything there…you could see just everything and it wasn’t just about the exploitation stuff….horror one day, sexploitation another, an action film this day, a cult film over here, women in prison films—oh God I love those!—it was everything.  It was the perfect film school. 

Colleen: Yeah I miss the old Times Square.

Frank: Miss it, it’s criminal what they’ve done.  It looks like a shopping mall now.  It has none of the flavor it used to.  I felt totally at home there.  I used to cut high school when I was 15 years old and I would go there and for all those years I never saw any problems.  I didn’t see the crime, I didn’t see anything, I didn’t have any trouble…I loved it.  I just loved it.  When I finally moved into Manhattan I would be there six nights a week.  It was my element.  I also enjoyed the seediness of it all….the fact that between the theaters were porno stores.  What started at first as just adult book stores and eventually mutated into something else.  I loved it and I always had an excuse to go into the shops, “well the film doesn’t start for another ten minutes so maybe I can just, oh, wander around this bookstore for a minute?”  And you stare at as many covers as you can, you feel good and then you go see a horror movie.  I mean, what’s more enjoyable than that?  Now, because I loved film so much I would also occasionally sneak off to the repertory houses to see a bunch of old Hollywood classics.  You need that yin and yang, you need both to keep your stomach from getting upset.  But it was mostly the exploitation stuff that I just reveled in. 

Colleen: I’ve heard about a movie you made called SLASH OF THE KNIFE.  Can you tell me a bit about it?

Frank: SLASH OF THE KNIFE was just one of many oddball movies I had made.  It was twenty minutes long.  It was the first time I had done 16mm with sound and I just thought it would be fun to do a phony documentary that looked like it was made in 1952 like one of those sex hygiene movies.  So I did a phony sex hygiene documentary on the joys of circumcision.  I just thought it was the stupidest thing to make a movie about and we played it absolutely serious and everyone was just shaking their heads because I don’t think anybody but I got the joke but everybody liked the fact that it was crackpot and ridiculous. 

Colleen: I hope we get to see it eventually.

Frank: Probably not but it’s okay because I recycled the two best jokes from that in BAD BIOLOGY (2008).

Colleen: Where did the idea for BASKET CASE (1982) come from?  What was the inspiration for the story?

Frank: The title and nothing more than that.  When I was making SLASH OF THE KNIFE I met Edgar Ievins who was making a plasticine baby at the time for a scene at the end of it and he was just watching and said “you ever think about doing one commercially?” and I said “yeah, I mean, we could, it’s not a big deal.”  Edgar said he could get the money and he did get some money and that’s what we did it on.  We also thought if we shoot a horror film we have to show it on 42nd St. and I was very comfortable with that.  When I was making BASKET CASE I thought I was making a film that would never be seen, except being shown on 42nd St.  I thought we’d make it real fast and make our money back.  I didn’t think I was making a film I’d have to live with the rest of my life!

Colleen: And yet there are so many fans of it, it’s a huge cult classic…

Frank: I know but that was not in my mind.  You don’t set out saying “I think I’m gonna make a cult movie that’ll last 40 years.”  My concern was just finishing the damn thing.  We wanted to do a horror film but I didn’t have any ideas.  I was playing with horror movie titles in my head.  I was doing, like, “Lunatic”, “Crazy House”, this or that.  And then I came up with BASKET CASE and immediately got this ridiculous visual of a young man walking around with basically a malignant jack-in-the-box and I thought the idea was so funny.  And I thought “wow, it could be at a skid row hotel and this and that. “ What I didn’t know was, and I couldn’t lick this for the longest time, why would anyone walk around with a monster in a basket?  I was just about at the point where I was thinking “well, I don’t know, maybe this isn’t that good an idea.”  I was sitting in Nathan’s in Times Square eating a hot dog and it just occurred to me “what if it’s his brother in the basket?  That’s a great idea.”  And then the whole thing just flowed from there, you know what I mean?  The script just suddenly wrote itself and it was like, boom, done.  And I thought it would come and go and that was fine with me.  I was so caught off guard that the distribution company who bought the film, Analysis Films, didn’t sell it on 42nd St. but instead opened it as a midnight movie, which back then in the 80s was for crackpot, underground, demented films.  Not like what’s seen at midnight today.  That’s how they sold it and that’s what happened.   For two and a half years it was playing midnights at the Waverly Theater (now the IFC Center), which is only a couple blocks away from where I live and I’d see the people lining up for BASKET CASE and shake my head in wonder because I couldn’t understand why these people would go to see it. 

Colleen: They liked it!

Frank: I know they liked it but I still don’t know why.  I mean I’m not complaining, far from it, but I don’t have an explanation for its popularity.

Colleen: Well as a fan I can tell you it’s funny, it’s gory, and it’s just a great movie to watch.

If that’s what it is, I’ll take it. That’s all a film needs to be actually, entertainment.

Colleen: How long did it take to go from first draft on the script to completed film?

Frank HenenlotterFrank:
Well shooting the film was dragged out over a year because we didn’t have the money.  It was horrible. There were weeks when the film I shot was still in the lab because we didn’t have any money to pull it out.  We couldn’t look at it, so it was pretty terrible.  Whenever we’d get a little bit of money we’d see who was around and see if we could keep going.  My goal under those circumstances was just completing the thing.  That became the issue—how many more shots do I need before I can sign off on this?  So it was not a fun way of making it.  The filmmaking was fun to do but just not having the money wasn’t.

Colleen: How did you find Kevin Van Hentenryck? 

Kevin and the entire cast were found by Ilze Balodis.  Remember the scene where there’s a social worker with glasses and high hair—puffed up hair?  By the way she did that hairdo just to make me laugh because she knew every time I’d look at her I couldn’t stop laughing.  That was Ilze and she did all the casting for the film.  She worked for the Brooklyn Academy of Dramatic Arts and that’s where she knew Kevin and virtually everyone else in the film.  She was the one who got me the entire cast of the movie.  That’s why they were good and they got the joke.  They knew what they were doing.  We shot it for $35,000.00 so not only didn’t they get paid but we could barely afford the lab costs to get the stuff developed so they knew what they were in for.  But they didn’t care they were just there having a good time with it all.

Colleen: ….for the love of film…..

Yeah, and hoping to God that maybe the asshole director knew what he was doing.  That they could start a resume, you know?

Colleen: Well it turns out the director knew what he was doing!

Well, I don’t know about that.  I’m sure some of them have very good resumes and BASKET CASE is probably not on there.

Colleen: What is different about this new release of BASKET CASE compared to Something Weird’s previous DVD release in 2001? (Note: the first DVD release was by Image Entertainment in 1998 and is currently out of print)

A couple of things.  First of all, just doing it in high definition makes a hell of a difference because it’s the closest we could do to having a 35mm image in your home.  It’s that stunning.  But in this case, this is the first time I actually sat in on the transfer of a film and babied it.  Also I had all the elements.  Since I did the DVD I found the original 16mm negative.  It wasn’t complete but we had enough….about 80% of it.  We also found the 16mm release print. It was missing only one reel but we have it, so when I brought it to the lab I also had the 35mm interpositive (an orange-based film with a positive image made from the edited camera negative) print.  We did a comparison on everything.  We compared the 16mm to the IP.  They were virtually identical which was good because it was easier to work from the 35mm IP but we kept the 16mm reels there for reference.  Anytime there was a question about how a scene should look, we’d go back to the 16mm.  What I tried to do, and because of HD was able to, was make the film look like the 16mm movie that I shot.  Not the film which was theatrically released, which was a disaster in terms of how it turned out.  When it was theatrically released the 35mm prints had a very bad duplicate negative made and they were all way too dark, all flat color, they just looked awful.  And I remember when I was shooting the film I always thought BASKET CASE was bright and colorful, which are two words you would not use to describe seeing it in the theater.  So I wanted to restore it to the version the public never saw but the distributors did because we had two 16mm prints that we would show distributors and they looked bright and colorful and looked wonderful.  I remember at the end of editing it I wished I had done something a little different for the night scenes so I asked the lab if we could add a very subtle blue tint to most of the night scenes and oh I loved it, it looked great.  It came out looking really good.  But it was lost when we did the blow-ups because it wasn’t built into the negative.  So all of that I was able to go back and put into this.  Compared to the DVD it’s cleaner, brighter, nighttime has the right tint, I just think it looks great.  Like I’ve said, if you keep polishing that turd one of these days it’ll glow.  It’ll still be a turd but it’ll glow fine.   And I think we finally have that little turd glowing now. 

Colleen: What was the process like to transfer the 16mm negative to high definition?  How long did it take?

The actual work on it only took about two weeks but getting there took a while.  It was finding the lab, looking at the material and getting them to agree to do it with me there and it was quite lengthy.  It was funny, too, because one of the guys at the lab looked it up online and all of a sudden was like “oh, this film’s got a good reputation, we’re going to do this one right!” And I’m thinking “thank you!  Thank you!”  I was very happy with it…it all worked out.  Right now I don’t know how I could improve on the film even more, and I still left a lot of it alone.  I left everything that was in the negative there.  If there was a hair in the gate (during projection) I left it.  I didn’t care it was there from day one.  I just cleaned up all the problems that were accumulated on top of it all. 

Colleen: So it still has that gritty look to it.

Oh it always will.  I just don’t want it to be dark and ugly.  It’ll be a little brighter.  The DVD was brighter than the VHS and I never heard anybody complain.  I never heard anybody say to me “oh I wish it was darker and depressing like the VHS.”

Colleen: With both BASKET CASE and BRAIN DAMAGE (1988) you managed to do horror/comedy and yet both Duane and Brian are tragic figures.  How difficult is it to write such tragedy without taking the story in too dark and somber direction?

I don’t know, that’s a balancing act that’s fun.  Part of what I enjoy is not being one or the other.  I’m not a big fan of straight horror movies.  I think they’re kind of boring.  But to give you a horror film that has a twist or something interesting or a little perverse dark humor, I’m there.  I love that stuff.  And I’m talking about films like the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974).  There are scenes in that film that are hysterically funny and they were meant to be.  So that’s what I’m talking about; and the original PSYCHO (1960).  Once you know Norman’s story, you watch that film and realize “oh my God they’re doing jokes!”  So I found that balancing act fun.  You know, comedy is in everything.  I just like that mix of it, that’s all. The only one I didn’t do that with was FRANKENHOOKER (1990).  I really wanted that to be a straight-out comedy.  That’s why I didn’t put any blood or gore in that one. 

Colleen: …..I laughed my ass off during that one……

Well there you go.  I don’t think you would have laughed as much if there was blood and gore in it.  I think if those hookers had blown up spurting blood it wouldn’t be funny.  Now it’s like fireworks and it’s one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever done. It’s my favorite scene out of all my movies.   I see it now and I just go hysterical laughing over it.  I can watch hookers explode all day long. 

Colleen: As far as the two sequels, BASKET CASE 2 (1990) is a good movie but BASKET CASE 3: THE PROGENY (1992) is a train wreck.  What happened?

Well, it’s a long story.  Part three is a disaster and it’s all my fault, I can’t blame anybody else.  It shouldn’t have been made, it’s as simple as that.  BC2 I’m very happy with because I was able to come up with something different.  I didn’t want to do a sequel that was a rehash of the first one.  I didn’t want them going to another flea-bag hotel...”oh you forgot to kill additional doctors”…. I didn’t want that.  So I thought the idea of having a community of freaks was pretty exciting.  What I really shouldn’t have done….I shouldn’t have done part three until I had a radical new idea.  So that’s that, you know?  It’s a film that I will be embarrassed about my whole life because I actually made that one (laughing). 

Colleen: I guess shit happens, right?

Yeah and you know, having said that, I loved the experience of making it, no problem with it.  I’m thankful I had the chance to make it.  It didn’t come out the way I wanted, so what. 

Colleen: BRAIN DAMAGE has a sort of Trojan horse message about how bad drug use is.  Was it done intentionally?

Oh absolutely.  One of my problems in that one was “okay I take the Basket Case idea of a monster leaping out at you but instead of leaping out of a basket it leaps off a guy’s body.  Okay, why would anyone intentionally want a parasite living on their body?”  It’s been done a thousand times in science fiction films where they’re bitten and lose will power.  So I thought “well, I don’t know, what if it’s something a little more complex than that?”  And I immediately thought of Elmer injecting him (Brian) with drugs and I thought “oh wow that’s great let him be the voice of cocaine” which is a drug I understood back then that damn near killed me.   Every time I wrote Elmer that was like my old bottles of cocaine calling to me, you know what I mean?  So I thought that made sense.  I think it was a great metaphor for the movie; it’s a little unusual, you know?  Yeah, I’m very happy with that one. 

Colleen:  You have avoided Hollywood throughout your career…why is that?

I avoided a career!  I would have never fit in, in Hollywood.  I just would not have fit in.  I’m just not interested in those kinds of movies.  I would have to clean up my act so much.  I would have to compromise so much.  There’s no Hollywood studio that would have said yes to the scripts I did.  Simple as that.  Why go there and pretend to be something else?  Yeah, for the money but eh, I don’t know, I just didn’t want to make movies bad enough, especially after BC3, to start making movies I really didn’t want to make.  Nothing more than that.  And then for 16 years I didn’t even want to make movies.

Colleen: Now that leads me to another point.  I read in a previous interview where you say with movies, mainstream and commercial are two different things.  How so?

was very commercial but not mainstream because it made money.  All commercial has to be is a hook that makes money for the theater so it gets sold.  Look at how many mainstream movies have been made since 1981that are forgotten about now.  And this wretched little movie of mine is still selling.  That was my point.  And the reason is maybe because those movies were too much like other mainstream movies—safe and predictable.  What separates them from thousands of other ones, really nothing.   On the other hand, there are not too many like BASKET CASE and thank God for that (laughing).  You know, you say “what the hell is wrong with this film?”  No, what’s right with this film—it still makes money. 

Colleen: With the apparent lack of imagination in Hollywood right now and all the remakes it’s cranking out, how would you feel if someone wanted to do a big budget remake of any of your films?

Oh I stopped seeing Hollywood movies years ago.  It’s the same movie over and over and over again.  That’s not what the genre is.  They already have come to me about it.  The only way I’m going to do it is if they pay me so much money that I have to go along with it.  But that hasn’t happened yet.  I wouldn’t mind selling out, honest to God, I’d be happy to sell out.  I mean I have a price tag like everybody else does.  I wouldn’t participate in the remake but, you know, I have a price tag.  I’ve recently had people flirt with a remake of BASKET CASE but I haven’t liked the deal.  I’m not anxious for a remake, I think that’s the ultimate sell-out.   I also think it isn’t an easy film for them to remake because it doesn’t fit into the slasher category.  They’d have to probably make Belial legs, you know?  And then he carries a machete and wears a mask. 

The BASKET CASE Blu-ray is being released through Something Weird Video and contains a new two-minute intro by Frank Henenlotter, audio commentary, outtakes, a photo gallery, and some original promotional stuff.  It also contains the 2001 documentary In Search of the Hotel Broslin, in which Frank and underground rapper R. A. The Rugged Man tour the original locations of the film’s shoot.  What an appropriate choice for Something Weird’s very first Blu-ray release.  This is a must-get for any collection.


Submitted by KAREN (not verified) on Mon, 09/26/2011 - 23:52

KAREN's picture

awesome interview !!! Well done !

Submitted by Nick Cato (not verified) on Tue, 09/27/2011 - 00:50

Nick Cato's picture

been Henenlotter fan since basket Case was released---very nice interview here!

Submitted by L.L. Soares (not verified) on Tue, 09/27/2011 - 03:09

L.L. Soares's picture

Terrific interview!

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