The phrase ‘basket case’ in common with a lot of western culture has its roots firmly in our military past, originating from the British soldiers who returned from the First World War quadruple amputees literally transported in baskets. It develops from there into common parlance to denote those in a completely useless condition generally through mental health, a degraded subject no longer productive either within or to the smoothed flows of capital. The exhaust of the system.
Basket Case the 1982 horror debut of Frank Henenlotter, who later went on to make such classics of the genre as Frankenhooker and Brain Damage, tells the story of siamese twins separated by uncaring doctors who paid no attention to their cries to remain together. One Duane a handsome young man, the other Bellial a mutant mass, a physical manifestation of the abject, who post separation is carried round by his twin in a basket (subtlety in titling never the strong point of horror in the 80’s). The twins maintain a strong bond despite or maybe because of the originating trauma. As the film progresses they seek increasingly violent and gory revenge on those who inflicted the original separation.
In the establishing scene the separated twins appear at the seedy downtown NY hotel Broslin, Duane claims to be alone, whilst carrying Bellial in his basket, so as not to arouse suspicion as to their intentions. A drunk mockingly states, ‘alone in this cold cruel world’. This sarcastic jibe sets the tone for the film’s articulation of the conflicts inherent to the attempts and societal pressures to perform as a genuinely sovereign subject denying the contradictions of a lived life, which will only ever lead to crisis or exhaustion.
In a replay of many myths surrounding twins and their mutual empathies Duane has to cut his first ever date short from the pain he feels whilst Bellial is attacking one of the doctors responsible for the separation. The attempts at becoming singular are always ultimately bought back to the essentially multiple nature of being a self. Throughout the film Duane, the comprehensible twin, slips between refering to himself as singular or plural always having to correct himself between me and we, I and us.
Basket Case sits with the long established genre of the evil twin story, but is far more ambiguous, and I would argue more interesting, in its application of this genre. As instead of the twin being identical – aside from the one identifying quirk that denotes a wrongness – here the ‘incorrect’ twin acts as an wholly embodied evil that had to be excised from his brother, to purify him and make him fit for purpose once again. Tellingly in a drunken flashback to the originating trauma we encounter the father uttering the line, ‘as if I had two sons instead of one freak’, knowing full well that the cut is not a cure.
The evil twin has seen a significant diminution in its position within popular culture over the past 20 years, correlative to the comfortable drift into the current impasse of whatever populism and its accompanying embrace of a post-ideological landscape. As Mark Fisher, following the work of the psychiatrist David Smail has persuasively argued, recently we have undergone a mass privatisation of stress and with this an interiorisation of the contradictory nature of being in the world.
In other words, … the human body and not the steam engine, and not even the clock, was the first machine developed by capitalism.
– Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch
Beyond the overall campy effects at play Basket Case addresses some important questions about the position of the human within capital. Capital as a system does not have the capabilities to parse the errant and when these glitches in the machine appear instead it seeks to hygienise them either through an aggressive act of co-optation or by simple act of eradication. In the film as in life we see violence ultimately begets violence. In their search for revenge Duane and Bellial with a grim inevitability encounter their own end as Bellial becomes jealous of Duane finding another. The destructive desire to return to the foreign country of the past destroys them both and the system continues on unscathed. The house always wins.