When you think about it, isn’t there something just a bit sinister about a powered exoskeleton? Doesn’t it call to mind the skeleton inside you? Remind you that your skeleton might one day want to try being on the outside? Tear itself from your meat and imprison you in its unyielding, externally powered bones?
“NOW,” it will rattle.
“NOW WE WILL SEE WHO IS THE SKELETON.”
Powered Exo–HELL–eton #5 – Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1991)
I’d never heard of the Basket Case trilogy until it was added to the list, so for me this just proves that powered exoskeletons are the gift that keeps on giving. If you’re in the mood for something gross and weird this Halloween, I can’t recommend these films enough. They are consistently baffling, and made – I think – with a surprising amount of care and affection.
The first film sets up a familiar premise. Faintly unsettling dweeb Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck, above) checks into a New York hotel carrying a basket. A basket containing his conjoined twin brother, from whom he was surgically removed as a child against his will. Also the brother is a murderous ball of sinew with arms and teeth named Belial. We are just getting started.
Anyway Duane helps Belial kill a bunch of people and there’s some weird creepy sex stuff. I don’t want to dance around this in any way: towards the end Basket Case (1982) features a fair bit of sexual violence, general camera-leeriness and then to top it all off there’s a rape scene. All solely for shock value, these elements could not be more tacked on to the end of the plot. It’s an ugly final note for what was until that point a pretty fun movie.
The second film felt kind of like an apology for these shortcomings, but then Basket Case 3 goes straight back to fan-service. The director of all three films – Frank Henenlotter – has situated them very much within the ‘exploitation’ genre, and they bring in the bad elements along with the good in that respect. If you’re a fan of horror/exploitation movies from that era I think you’ll probably manage, but yeah. Just wanted to flag that. It’s a shame, because if it weren’t for the trilogy’s treatment of women and people of colour, it would at times come close to perfect, I think.
Anyway in Basket Case 2 they move in with Granny Ruth (Annie Roth) who is delightful and completely steals the show for the rest of the series.
From that point on it’s Ruth and her family of ‘unique individuals’ – rendered in some spectacular prostheses, by the way – murdering their way through all the ‘normal’ people who want to exploit / exterminate them.
From Basket Case 2 onward, the series is two parts goofy comedic caper to every part ‘horror.’ We’re not here to be frightened, we’re here to marvel at the prosthetics, wince at the squishy sound effects, and enjoy Roth and Hentenryck’s performances. Granny Ruth is knowing and charismatic, occasionally pausing to chew some scenery, while Duane is… difficult to describe. There’s a whole range of Duanes.
Also there’s this one really amazing weird sex thing that is disgusting in all the right ways and completely subverts the expectations of the genre and it’s… yeah. Basket Case 2. Probably the one I’d recommend.
SO BASKET CASE 3 THE PROGENY, THEN:
I’m sorry this has become such an overview of the whole trilogy, but I do think these movies – particularly the 2nd and 3rd – demand to be read as one text. In Basket Case 3 we witness the birth of Belial’s children, who are the results of the aforementioned amazing sex thing. Henenlotter dives enthusiastically into the creation of some oozy pregnancy horror, and then the babies get stolen and we’re back to the traditional mutant revenge rampage.
Basket Case 3 suffers a bit from following Basket Case 2, and doesn’t do enough new things with the formula to really stand out. Mostly it seems concerned with wrapping up the story of 2, which ended on kind of a cliffhanger? I guess?
That said, while I wouldn’t say it’s the best Basket Case film, it’s still my personal favourite because a) there’s an exoskeleton, and b) it features my favourite scene in the entire trilogy. I don’t want to overhype it (it’s nothing mind-blowing, probably just something that caught me in the right mood) but I also don’t want to spoil what was for me a really great moment; so, if what you’ve seen so far has interested you, go watch Basket Case 3 and I’ll see you after the break.
OR you could just watch the first 20 minutes, because that’s when Basket Case 3 stops whatever else it was doing and decides it’s a musical now! I know we’ve seen some weird shit in this trilogy, but somehow Annie Roth singing Lloyd Price’s Personality is the one thing that really surprised me. And what a delightful surprise!
I feel like the comparison to American Horror Story is both obvious and apt. Both series trade in gore, comedy and outrage. They also share a penchant for terrible dialogue and a plot that nobody cares about. I will say that Basket Case has twice as much fun in about a fifth of the running time, and that while Jessica Lange and the Name Game sequence continue to be great… Basket Case 3 did it first. Just saying.
Anyway enough being contemporary. I laughed so hard at this scene I teared up a little. I love how every time you think the film’s going to cut away and get back to the story, the song just keeps going. This is what paracinema is all about. You get to the third movie in your low-budget cult exploitation franchise, no one’s pressuring you to take yourself seriously, and you make something that nobody else could make. Something stupid and insane and beautiful.
Unfortunately, nothing in the film’s second half can really match this scene, but at the same time… can you really blame it?
FINALLY, SOME ESCAPED SKELETONS:
Anyway it’s a long story but at some point Duane decides it’d be a good idea to get Belial a powered exoskeleton. It’s hard to capture in stills, so I’ll try to describe it a little bit.
Belial’s exoframe has a buzz-saw arm and a claw arm, two big lights for eyes, and two sets of jagged ‘teeth’ that can swing shut over his face to protect him from gunfire. It walks on two legs, and as you can see on the top there’s a fairly accurate model of Duane’s head mounted to the front. Maybe it’s a little on the nose, but I really appreciate that head. It makes the exoframe thematically appropriate. It’s a surrogate Duane! The Basket Case films and exoskeletal cinema are both about symbiosis, and Robo-Duane here really hits that point home.
There’s also a set of fuzzy dice in the cockpit, which I like to think suggests that for Belial there’s little distinction between Duane and a car. It’s just how he gets around!
Also of interest is the power source, which seems to be some kind of big gas-guzzling engine connected to Robo-Duane by a series of tubes. We see Meat Duane tending to it during the climactic fight scene, which gives a sense that Belial’s not entirely independent. The brothers are still umbilically linked… Maybe I’m over-thinking this.
That said, it’s just occurred to me that the square cockpit with interwoven chains and two little doors that swing shut over the opening bares some resemblance to a basket, Belial’s nesting place of choice. Maybe the basket was his original surrogate for Duane, and now the two of them are blending together in some kind of improvised, mechanical manifestation of Belial’s mental state. The internal becoming the external. The external skeleton.
God. It’s an ugly thing, but tell me it hasn’t got layers.
Eventually the police chief manages to break off the Exo-Basket’s buzz-saw arm, and proceeds to try and murder Belial with it. This is the first we’ve seen of this kind of behaviour – probably because none of the other exoskeletons were this fragile – and I like the idea of a character having their ‘limbs’ torn off and used against them. It also plays into the idea that exoskeletons can be dangerous in the wrong hands, which is actually a first for the subgenre because this movie predates The Wrong Trousers!
Truly, skele-cinema is a dynamic and ever-changing field of study.
I know I spent a lot of time fawning over the “cultural importance” of Aliens in the history of exoskeletal cinema (and I stand by that, it’s a really good movie) but having seen Basket Case 3, I find myself thinking… maybe the dumb cult shit is more important.
Like I’m sure Edge of Tomorrow is going to be great, I’m looking forward to it, but if this list wasn’t brimming with terrible spy comedies and mutant musical numbers and… whatever the hell Star Kid is… I wouldn’t be nearly as interested in the subgenre. As it stands, a journey into exoskeletal cinema is a journey into the weird, dark corners of film history, and that’s what makes it special. In other words, it’s got:
♫ PER-SON-AL-ITY ♬
♫ PER-SON-AL-ITY ♬
♫ PER-SON-AL-ITY ♬
Happy Halloween everybody.