The 1982 film Basket Case is a mystifying, paradoxical little bugger. It is undeniably cheap and amateurish and held together more by hope and prayer than anything; for writer-director-editor Frank Henenlotter, in the making of his debut film, was obliged to settle for a budget almost comically low for the scope of his imagination. The acting is uniformly terrible, the sets all look uncommonly like re-dressed apartments, you can literally see the seams in the effects - in the first scene there's a very obvious line on the foam prosthetic where it came out of the mold. It's the sort of movie where one longs to credit the filmmakers for their competence, if nothing else, and yet doing so would seem to do untoward abuse to the meaning of the word "competent".

Despite this, the film has a devoted cult following and a strong reputation (among those who would be inclined to speak favorably about any over-the-top gore movie), and once the shock of its barbarically low production value wore off, I didn't have the slightest problem understanding why. There's something magic in it. It is one of the finest examples I've ever seen of the principal I hold dear to my heart that cheap-ass horror is obliged to capture the reality of a place more than any other kind of movie, simply because there wasn't enough money to make the place look any different than it really was; and Basket Case presents a vision of a certain grimy corner of New York City like I've never seen. Not that I can vouch for its accuracy, mind you, but being Real is different than being Accurate, and Basket Case is a kind of hyper-real that comes all the way back around and turns into impressionism. And that's not even touching the way that Henenlotter mixed and matched whatever scraps of the many horror subgenres that caught his eye, with the result being a sort of horror casserole that is bold and magnetic and unlike any other movie that I have ever seen or heard of: unless you can point me to another black comedy that marries body horror to a slasher film narrative skeleton, bases its primary conflict in psychological terror, and manages to turn the inhuman monster into a sympathetic figure by the end.

It starts off as a mystery: an individual we'll learn later on is named Dr. Lifflander (Bill Freeman) is being stalked by a Something. Incidentally, Dr. Lifflander is also speaking in an uncomfortable stentorian way and bearing his body as though he's not entirely sure how or where he could be walking, but these observations will tend to apply to almost all the characters in Basket Case, except for the ones who are not speaking in a stentorian manner but in a wildly enthusiastic one, where they are prone to mis-emphasise words. So let's assume that I describe every actor hereafter in similar terms.

Dr. Lifflander is accosted in his office by an inhuman hand (the aforementioned sublimely fake prosthetic, although it's also inhuman in the sense of not belonging to a human being), and dies in a messy way. With that, we are swept to the bustling excitement of New York, specifically some hideous quadrant where the painfully naïve Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) finds himself accosted almost immediately by a singularly pushy drug dealer. But Duane is so very out of his element in the urban jungle that he doesn't even seem to register the dealer, or anyone or anything else, until he walks into the Hotel Broslin and pays the dubious manager (Robert Vogel) with a couple of $20 bills peeled off of a huge damn roll of cash. Later on, Duane will admit to the friendly hooker Casey (Beverly Bonner) that the biggest appeal of staying at the Broslin was that it was the very first hotel he laid eyes on, which tells us just about everything we need to know about his mental state right now.

Duane, we should note, is carrying a big wicker basket with a padlock around through all of this, and as soon as he gets set up in the room, he starts feeding it hamburgers at an alarming clip. By this point, we've started to see the outline of what's happening, and in very short order we've got all we need to know to get by, after Duane and the basket visit Dr. Needleman (Lloyd Pace), Duane lying about his name and his hometown to the pretty receptionist Sharon (Terri Susan Smith), and scaring the crap out of the doctor merely by pulling up his shirt to reveal a huge scar covering his right side. For a reason that we'll learn in due course, Duane has a ravenous Thing in his basket, and he's using it to target the three doctors who performed An Illicit Operation that resulted in his gruesome scar. All the rest is just coloring in the lines that we have established right here, as far as mystery & revenge fantasy & slasher movie tropes go.

This, then, is where Basket Case transcends its shoddy trappings and the genres that birthed it: for the crayons that Henenlotter uses to color in those lines come in hues only seen by most people after ingesting a healthy quantity of a strong hallucinogen. The world of the movie is about as close to surrealism as you can get without being in any particular way surrealist at all, and I am aware the longer that I stare at that sentence, trying to fix it, that it actually has no meaning whatsoever. Which is how I know that the movie has bested me.

Anyway, that's just how very off-kilter the whole thing is: realistic, squalid locations jarring against the erratic, dreamlike behavior of people acting like non-people, and I'll admit finally that for all the acting is absolutely wretched, it works in the film's favor so much that I can't imagine Henenlotter wasn't doing it on purpose. Certainly, Van Hentenryck's glassy-eyed wandering about as Duane is a positive boon, particularly once we know the nature the relationship between him and the creature in his basket - which is basically a toothy mouth with beady black eyes and thick, trollish hands jutting out the side - and we find out just how much the young man who, as far as we can tell, has been ruthlessly executing a vendetta all his own is actually the pawn of people all around him: his hateful dad, his doting aunt, and his massively deformed conjoined twin Belial, which is what the thing turns out to be. That's kind of a spoiler, but it's also a detail that crops up in even the simplest plot synopsis, so I can't feel bad about it. Besides, it's only with that detail that the full disgusting glory of Basket Case blooms into flower.

By which I mean, Jesus, is this a messed-up movie: the third act (skip ahead if you don't want to know what happens in the third act) centers on a foot-tall blob of tissue lashing out in unbridled jealously because his brother is having sexual thoughts. There's a sex scene involved that is one of the most quietly disturbing things I have ever seen in, all the more so because Henenlotter's budget and talent mean that it has to be presented in a fairly straightforward way, without the pounding explosions of psychosexual terror that accompanies, say, the birth scene in Cronenberg's The Fly.

It's even more unnerving because the film as a whole is so unapologetically loopy: more than once, Henenlotter walks the line between "a horror film that is a comedy" and "a comedy that is full of horror" so thinly that it's hard to say which side the bulk of the thing rests on (note: it is perverse, enthusiastically misanthropic black comedy, not e.g. Restoration farce. So please don't blame me if you ever give it look expecting a barrel of laffs). And when it's not toeing that line, it's often as not drifting into a kind of absurdist fantasy enforced by its cheapness but turned into a virtue by means of Henenlotter's unexpected sense of poetic timing: and I am here thinking mostly of the few scenes where we see Belial moving about in stop-motion animation that doesn't cut together with the rest of the footage well at all, though the disorienting staging of the kill scenes does the same thing in a smaller way.

And with so much of the movie occupying this kind of borderline-ethereal state of random violence, the interruptions of deep dark perversity are all the more shocking, because while we've been ready since the first moments for perversion, we're expecting the robust nastiness of an exploitation film, not the thick dollops of incestuous body horror that the film plays with by the end. Make no mistake, the film is exploitation after a fashion - Duane visits a grind house in one scene, a neat meta-moment acknowledging that this grimy, tawdry film is in every inch of frame destined for the exploitation circuit - but even exploitation films rarely have this degree of crazed invention that borders on dangerousness. Henenlotter's grotesquerie is something else entirely, and its singularity makes it far more valuable than any number of movies made at an ostensibly higher level of quality.

Body Count: 8, ranging in specificity from the shocking and implied to the painfully drawn-out to a faceful of scalpels that suggests a desperate (but not half-bad) attempt to do Argento on a shoestring.