With horror industry heavy hitters already in place from the 1970s, the 1980s built upon that with the rise of brilliant minds in makeup and effects artists, as well as advances in technology. Artists like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and countless other artists that delivered groundbreaking, mind-blowing practical effects that ushered in the pre-CGI Golden Age of Cinema. Which meant a glorious glut of creatures in horror. More than just a technical marvel, the creatures on display in ‘80s horror meant tangible texture that still holds up decades later. Grotesque slimy skin to brutal transformation sequences, there wasn’t anything the artists couldn’t create. It Came From the ‘80s is a series that will pay homage to the monstrous, deadly, and often slimy creatures that made the ‘80s such a fantastic decade in horror.
Writer/Director Frank Henenlotter’s feature debut, Basket Case, showcased how even with a meager budget, creature effects could still be impressive. An underseen gem that follows Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) as he arrives in seedy New York City with not much more than a large wicker basket. It turns out that what’s inside is his very deformed Siamese twin brother, Belial, who was surgically separated from Duane against their will during childhood. Despite Duane’s plucky demeanor, the brothers are in New York to unleash vengeance upon the doctors that separated them. Their quest is complicated by Duane’s budding friendship and romance with nurse Sharon.
There’s a scene in the film where Duane retrieves a wad of cash when checking into the hotel, and Henenlotter has later said that this wad was pretty much the film’s entire budget. Basket Case was the definition of guerilla-style filmmaking, with the cast and crew rushing through scenes to avoid run-ins with the police because they couldn’t afford the required permits to shoot. Which meant that they had to get creative with Belial, too. Hentenryck provided a face cast for the Belial puppet, as well as voice effects for his deformed twin, and scenes where Belial’s hand attacked victims was really just a glove worn by Henenlotter. A full-sized puppet was used in scenes where Belial’s eyes glowed red or when he shared a scene with another actor. It wasn’t the puppetry that transcended the minuscule budget, though Belial’s design is pretty cool, but the stop-motion animation. During a production under the pressure of no money and limited time, stop motion is a lengthy process. Belial’s rampaging was made all the more impressive for the effort, too.
John Caglione Jr. (Amityville II: The Possession, The Hunter, C.H.U.D.), Ken Clark, Kevin Haney, and Ugis Nigals, made Belial both frightening in primal slaughtering and heartbreaking with the expressive design. Trapped forever in a deformed body while his seemingly normal brother could fit right into society and find love meant that Belial was the type of monster that invoked both fear and sympathy.
Released theatrically in 1982, Belial’s story became a midnight movie hit for years after, and it wasn’t until 1990 that Henenlotter picked right up where he left off. Basket Case 2 and Basket Case 3: The Progeny were released a year apart, and really felt most like two parts to a single story. If it wasn’t clear before that Henenlotter viewed Belial as the hero, and humans as the monstrous villains, well, he hammered that home as Belial became a full-blown protagonist. Henenlotter didn’t even plan to have Hentenryck factor much into the sequels, save for maybe a couple of scenes, until distributor Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment insisted otherwise.
Whereas Basket Case was a more grounded horror-comedy set against the sleazy underbelly of New York, Henenlotter dialed up the wackiness to eleven in Basket Case 2, with a plot that lovingly lampooned 1932’s Freaks. With a much higher budget, the sequel brought in a whole new group of monstrous freaks for Belial to call family and even a love interest. Lead by special effects artist Gabriel Bartalos (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Dolls), Belial got an updated makeover. Admittedly, I prefer Belial’s original, cheaper look, but at least the sequel gives me a lot of distraction with the fun character designs behind Granny Ruth’s entourage of misfits.
The jarring tonal shift between Basket Case and Basket Case 2 means that Belial’s story arch can become quite polarizing. You’re either going to love or hate that Belial essentially becomes a family man with a love of his own (don’t worry, he’s still a vicious killer), but the deformed, basket dwelling monster unleashed on unsuspecting audiences in 1982 is one worth adding to your viewing repertoire if you haven’t already. I’ll always have a soft spot for this creature from the ‘80s, and I think you might too.