"It put me at just
the right height allowing me to bolt myself onto the sign. Then they drove away."
~ Kevin VanHentenryck ~
Every once in a very blue moon, a low-budget B-grade horror film slips through the cracks and rises above its expectations. "Basket Case" takes one left-field Louie of an idea, throws in some blood and horror and sprinkles it with some humor (intentional and unintentional), and delivers up a movie with such an earnest ploy, one would have to be a scrooge to dismiss it. None of this film would work if we didn't care for the charmingly sweet and goofy protagonist played by the actor...Kevin VanHentenryck...and, of course, his handsome brother Belial.
VanHentenryck, now a professional sculptor and designer, plays his character with such a good nature, we forgive all the quirks and just enjoy the bloody and horrific paybacks...one after another. It's a cheaply made film, sure, but the film ain't cheap. The movie has a real heart and spirit. An intangible that is never a given and perhaps one of the reasons "Basket Case"...which will soon be celebrating its 40th anniversary...has become a holder of cult film status. Directed by Frank Henenlotter, the entire cast led by Kevin VanHentenryck appear to be all in. The film is silly and horrific. Bloody and goofy. And because of the surprising fandom for this twisted tale of revenge...two sequels have since followed. Kevin VanHentenryck has had a pretty good run holding the basket. There's just no true measurement for brotherly love.
Kevin VanHentenryck...Go get you some.
Kevin VanHentenryck Interview -- October 2021
Casey Chambers: "Basket Case" is one of those rare horror films where it is absolutely imperative that audiences like your character or the movie wouldn't work. And audiences do. "Basket Case" has been a cult favorite for nearly 40 years. How did your involvement in that picture come about?
Kevin VanHentenryck: Ilze was responsible. Ilze Balodis. In the film, Ilze plays the social worker with the glasses who comes to check the boys out. So while I was studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, Ilze was the assistant registrar there. And Ruth Neuman, who played the aunt...well, she was the registrar at the academy.
Anyway, Ilze said, 'I know this guy that makes films. You should meet him.' So I went and met Frank Henenlotter and we hung out for an evening. He seemed to like me, I guess, 'cause he put me in his film called "Slash of the Knife" which was just before "Basket Case." I played an inmate at a mental institution, and let's see...there was something to do with railroad tracks and a tall woman in the back at a wedding. Something like that. I had three parts in the film. I believe Frank has finally released that film in one of the last compilations. But he liked the way I worked.
I was always on his case to use student actors because we needed the practice and exposure and all that. And about six months later maybe, he called me up with this idea for a film. And on the phone, he talked me through it. He did the pitch of the whole film. (laughs) He was doing the parts himself and explaining all the effects and when he asked if I'd be interested, I said, 'Of course. Of course.' And that was it.
Casey Chambers: Were there any particular scenes that stood out for you when you were shooting?
Kevin VanHentenryck: Well, I always liked the scenes with Beverly Bonner. The bar scene was a lot of fun. And the scenes with Terri Susan Smith...the love interest in the film. The scene in the room where I cover Terri with blankets and throw her in the hall I thought was hysterical. (laughs) And there's a great story about me having to run naked through the street which was not in the original script. Originally, that was supposed to be Belial. But when we finally got to the effects, we realized that was just not going to be even remotely possible. And Frank was so depressed about that. After a while, he called me up and he said, 'I have an idea for that.' (laughs) I'm not a fan of being nude in February in lower Manhattan. (laughs) But it was the right choice. It was perfect and probably more eloquent than the original scripted idea.
Casey Chambers: "February made me shiver..." (laughs) Sometimes cold is cold!
Kevin VanHentenryck: It was! It was very cold. (laughs) We went over the route and swept the streets. Swept the glass and chunks of metal off of the streets. And we had a heated car at each end. This took place in Tribeca, which in those days was a completely abandoned derelict neighborhood. There were a few artists like myself living down there and that was about it. So it was pretty deserted and a pretty easy shot to get...except for the cold. (laughs)
Casey Chambers: So when "Basket Case" was released, what happened?
"Basket Case" Trailer (1982)
Kevin VanHentenryck: It was tanking. It was dying because the original distributors cut it. And they cut it very badly. Stupidly. And it just wasn't doing very well. We were all presuming it would have its weekend on Times Square and that would be it. But Joe Bob Briggs...I'm sure you've heard of him.
Casey Chambers: Yeah, the movie critic.
Kevin VanHentenryck: Yeah. Well, Frank had shown Joe Bob Briggs the uncut "Basket Case" and he loved the film. He wanted it for his...I think it was a drive-in show at the time. But he only wanted the uncut version. And after the showing...people loved it. So the distributor very quietly and without any fanfare, just started replacing the cut versions with the uncut versions and the movie took off.
Casey Chambers: Why were they cutting up the film?
Kevin VanHentenryck: I think it was about the rating. They didn't want the X rating. It's almost 40 years ago now, so that's probably a Frank question. But Frank often talks about what a nightmare he had with the rating's board. Just a lot of stupid things you could and couldn't do.
Casey Chambers: But when the "official" uncut version finally did get out, "Basket Case" started creating a surprising groundswell of fans. And now the film is considered a midnight movie staple to this day. Do you remember seeing it on the big screen?
Kevin VanHentenryck: Oh, yeah. I was in New York City at the time and the Waverly Theater did these midnight shows. The record is held by "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," of course, but we come in second. "Basket Case" ran for over a year and three months. Something like that. Right behind "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" as the longest-running midnight movie. By the time I went to see it, my hair was shorter and I had a mustache...so most of the people, I don't think, recognized me. Although the group standing in line right in front of me, I'm pretty sure they did. And people were coming in costumes...dressed up as doctors and carrying baskets and covered with blood and they were saying lines in response to what they were seeing on the screen. It was fantastic. The Waverly was the big midnight theater in New York City. And seeing the film there...yeah, that was really cool.
Casey Chambers: I was pretty young when I saw "Basket Case." The way it mixes horror and quirky together is just gold. And I never forgot it. Like "Halloween" and the mask. "The Exorcist" with its devil shit. And "Texas Chainsaw..." with its grossness. They were all really memorable for me. What are a few horror movies that made an impression when you were younger?
Kevin VanHentenryck: Well, of course, "Frankenstein." The original one with Boris Karloff was a real big one for me. With the primitive techniques and effects that they were using. The fact that he was able to create sympathy for that creature just blew me away. And also "The Day The Earth Stood Still." And the original version of "The Thing." Those films...that's what I grew up on.
Casey Chambers: That's not the John Carpenter one, right?
Kevin VanHentenryck: No. No. The original had James Arness playing the creature. In fact, I did a Con out in L.A. once and I sat next to Kenneth Tobey, the red-headed guy who played the captain. Anyway, I'm sitting next to the guy that played the captain in the original version when this crew came up to our table. And this guy says, 'I found this jacket at a church yard sale. I bought it for five bucks and it says that it's from part of the "The Thing" wardrobe. Would you take a look at it?' So out of this bag, he pulls out this kind of puke green, vaguely military-looking jacket. And inside was this label sewn to the jacket...'Arness wardrobe. 3B' or something. And it was part of the actual uniform that the creature wore in the original version of "The Thing." They also had films and stills of him signing it. It was just some guy who found it at a church yard sale.
Casey Chambers: I never find squat, that lucky baastid! (laughs) I know "Basket Case" was made with a small crew and an even smaller budget. But how does that actually transcend when making the movie?
Kevin VanHentenryck: Oh, yeah. It was almost like a family project. Ilze would cook lunch. And on days that we didn't have enough money for lunch, we'd only shoot for half a day. Our producer, Edgar (Ievins) was always saying, 'We've got to find this. We've got to find that. We need to find a door. We need to find a toilet.' (laughs) And we'd all pile in his van and drive around the East Village until we found whatever it was we needed. So yeah, it was very much an 'everybody pitch in' kind of film.
We spent almost a year making it. We'd shoot a few scenes and then Frank would put together a kind of rough cut of what we had so far and show it to people. And we'd get some more money. Do a few more scenes. And then repeat the whole cycle. We'd shoot on weekends and evenings when we had a location or when we had film. It was shot on 16, so we were buying what's called 'short ends.' In the old days, people would buy leftover film. The 'ends' of unused film. It came on big spools and the parts that didn't get used would get spliced together as a short end. And they sold that at a discount. That's what we used.
Casey Chambers: It sounds like a "one for all, all for one" kind of spirit was going on. And you guys did it! Was it difficult filming in the...grittier parts of the City? Where were some of the filming locations?
Kevin VanHentenryck: Well, the Hotel Broslin ended up being an amalgamation of different locations. We had originally tried to shoot at a hotel catty-corner from Madison Square Garden. And it was a rough neighborhood in those days. We had started to set up there, but we were having bums come up to us... 'If you give me '$50 bucks, I won't steal your cables.' (laughs) So the manager's office...the check-in desk...was shot in an actual freight elevator that was decorated up. And whenever you see a shot of the sign for the Hotel Broslin...that was hung off of the fire escape of my sculpting studio in Tribeca. In those days, Tribeca was an abandoned derelict factory neighborhood. It is not that way today.
Rip Van Winkle Sculpture by Kevin VanHentenryck
located in Hunter Mountain, NY
And for the end scene, we had to build a platform on top of Edgar's van and drive the van under the fire escape. Edgar figured out all the mechanics for the sign. I was wearing a harness under my clothes and when I stood on top of the platform, it put me at just the right height allowing me to bolt myself onto the sign. Then they drove away. That scene was shot at the corner of Hudson and Hubert street. And people can still go and see the fire escape and my old studio.
Casey Chambers: Next year will be the 40th anniversary of this cult classic. I mean, so many movies come and go. Yet "Basket Case" has remained a staple in the cult movie realm. Does that just blow your mind or what?
Kevin VanHentenryck: It's been amazing. I don't think any of us expected it to be received like this. As a matter of fact, The Museum Of Modern Art in New York City did a state-of-the-art restoration and it's now part of their permanent collection. What an honor. And when I do conventions, at least half of the fans that come up to my table weren't even born yet when we made the film. So yeah, it's very cool, and I thank everyone.
Casey Chambers: Switching gears...how about recommending a few albums or bands that have left a mark on you?
"Radio Ethiopia" - Patti Smith Group (1976)
Kevin VanHentenryck: Oh, man, my influences are fairly wide-ranging. I love Patti Smith. "Radio Ethiopia" is a big favorite of mine. It's fantastic. I used to go see them in the city, The Patti Smith Group when it was Ivan Kral and Lenny Kaye. They were a spectacular live band. And I think David Bowie's..."Life On Mars" is one of the most amazing songs ever. It's been done in a lot of different ways over the years, but the way it was originally recorded on "Hunky Dory" was just astounding. I also love the early Stones when Brian Jones was still with them. I think he had a substantial impact when he was in the band. I play guitar myself, so I've always gravitated towards the sound of a loud guitar. Guitar-based bands.
And here's another one for ya. I think it was '82 or '81, maybe. I went up to a place on the Upper West Side and I saw a band called The Bloodless Pharaohs who was a really cool, almost psychedelic rock band. They were amazing. And the guitars...phenomenal! And do you know...the very next year, that same guitarist was back with another band called...The Stray Cats. It was Brian Setzer. It was the biggest transformation this side of Bowie that I've ever seen. (laughs) So check that out. The Bloodless Pharaohs.
Casey Chambers: Excellent! Will do. Thank you so much for hanging out with me this evening. It's been a lot of fun.
Kevin VanHentenryck: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.
"Perry Mason" - Bloodless Pharaohs / Live at Max's Kansas City (1979)