An Interview with Kevin Van Hentenryck: Star of Basket Case!
by Lee Sobel
Kevin Van Hentenryck was an actor attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City when he began working with film director Frank Henenlotter in the 1970s. Initially appearing in an unreleased Henenlotter Super 8mm film called Slash of the Knife, Van Hentenryck then starred in the director's 1982 landmark 16mm horror comedy feature film, Basket Case, as Duane Bradley, who carries a mysterious basket with him wherever he goes. What is in that basket? If you haven't ever seen Basket Case, then I won't ruin it for you, but trust me, you want to know what is in that basket! If you like your horror bloody and mixed with humor that is offbeat and quirky (dare I say campy) Basket Case is for you!
Shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm, Basket Case was produced for a mere $35,000 and went on to find great success both theatrically and as one of the first sell-through VHS tapes. This success led to Kevin Van Hentenryck appearing in three more Henenlotter movies, including an interesting cameo in the movie Brain Damage (1988) and two sequels to Basket Case in 1990 and 1991. In 2018, Basket Case was added to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Kevin is also a renowned sculptor and his website is https://www.kevinvanh.com/
Lee Sobel: How do you feel about the ongoing success of Basket Case which is almost 40 years old now?
Kevin Van Hentenryck: It is a surprise that it’s had this kind of legs.
Beyond the fact that Frank is just an incredible filmmaker, with a very unique vision. I mean, he’s created these characters who embody this feeling of being an outsider. Everyone identifies with Duane because Duane is that half of everyone who doesn’t feel comfortable, who never gets it right. We all feel like that a little bit. In Basket Case, you have the two halves of human nature. It was the battle in all of us. I was going out with Ilze Balodis, who was also in the film. She plays the social worker with the glasses.
Lee Sobel: And she cast the film too, right?
Kevin Van Hentenryck: Yup. She was kind of Frank’s right hand person. Anyway, we were going out and she said to me, “I know this guy who’s making movies. You should come to meet him.” So, I met him. He was using friends and acquaintances, who would
be doing lights and playing parts and stuff. He liked the results working with me. I was always on his case about using acting students, because he’d get better results. And we would do it just for the fun of it, for the exposure and for a print of the film. I did three parts in a film he was working on that was never released, called Slash From the Knife. Robert Vogel, who played the hotel manager, was also in that. And it was a fun experience. Apparently Frank liked the way I work. Some months later, he called me and said he had this idea for a film. He described it to me and that was Basket Case. It was a little different at that point. And it sounded really cool. I had given up acting at that time for the sculpture, but it was way too good to pass up. And I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.”
Lee Sobel: Tell me about Slash of the Knife.
Kevin Van Hentenryck: It was kind of like the educational films of the fifties. It’s the horrors of not being circumcised. This one guy descended into madness. My memory of it was that Frank was not completely satisfied with the way it turned out. (Note: Slash of the Knife is now available on one of the Basket Case blu ray's.)
Lee Sobel: Have you seen his film Bad Biology?
Kevin Van Hentenryck: Oh, yeah.
Lee Sobel: He’s certainly been consistent.
Kevin Van Hentenryck: Well if you put on the radio, you hear Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin and you immediately know what band that is. It’s not surprising a filmmaker would be that way as well.
Lee Sobel: One of the myths of film-making is that it’s fairly glamorous. Do you want to shed some light on that with Basket Case? Because I imagine it was fairly grueling hard work.
Kevin Van Hentenryck: Yeah, it was hard. But it was good, fun hard work, you know. It was made on a shoestring budget, that dribbled in a little bit at a time. The hallways and rooms were built in a loft and if you look closely, Casey’s room is the same as Duane’s room.
Lee Sobel: Frank Henenlotter talks about that in the commentary track for the movie. He says that you just moved things around and turned into somebody else’s room.
Kevin Van Hentenryck: Yeah. And I remember there was one evening they were doing something with the set and they needed a door or a toilet or whatever it was. We jumped in a van and drove around the Lower East Side until we found what we were looking for and went back and put it in the set. We could only shoot on weekends, because that was the only day everyone was available. And there were days where we could only shoot for half a day on Saturday because there was no money for lunch for the crew. They would shoot until they ran out of film and that was it. Do it until you get a rough cut. Show it to more people and get more money.
Lee Sobel: Was there either time or the budget for retakes?
Kevin Van Hentenryck: No. That was one of the things that I really appreciated about the whole process. Frank would say, “We only have enough for one take, so we’re going to rehearse it.” Which is kind of rare in a lot of films. I mean, I’ve done films where there was no rehearsal. The actors run through it and that’s the take and they’ll cut it however they can. And actors who are trained like rehearsal. It helps us, and it adds to the overall quality. It was absolutely helpful to run through the given scene three, four, five times, whatever it was, to the point where everybody, actors, sound, camera, got it right to Frank’s satisfaction.
Lee Sobel: What is your memory of New York at that time?
Kevin Van Hentenryck: New York in the mid-seventies was gritty. It was rough. It was the bottom of a cycle for the city, economically. I had no idea what I was moving into when I came to Manhattan from the suburbs of Detroit. I remember, I was learning to play the bass at one point. A bass player from The Senders was helping me out.They rehearsed in a space that they shared with Johnny Thunders. It was way over east, by Avenue D or something. And I walked there and he said “Did you walk here?” And I said yeah and he said “And you made it alive? And you still have your bass?” I wasn’t quite tuned into that neighborhood, yet. I had a studio in Tribeca. That was 1978 when I moved down there. It was an amazing time to be in Tribeca because they were just starting to talk about Soho. Nobody even knew where Tribeca was. I had an amazing space that I could work the band as well as do sculpture. That Tribeca is gone forever now.
Lee Sobel: What band were you in?
Kevin Van Hentenryck: Oh, a lot of bands. I often called the band I put together Naive. There was a band called Scales.
Lee Sobel: What were some of the clubs you played?
Kevin Van Hentenryck: Oh you know all the places down there. CBGB’s, Max’s. A lot of places that aren’t even around anymore.
Lee Sobel: When Basket Case was completed, were you surprised at its reception? The movie played at midnight shows at The Waverly. Did you ever go to any of those?
Kevin Van Hentenryck: Yeah, I did actually. I had cut my hair and had a mustache, like a Buffalo Bill thing. I went with my girlfriend and we were standing in line. There were people in costumes and make-up and carrying baskets. It was really amazing. They were dressed up as doctors covered in blood and stuff like that. There were these guys ahead of us on line, and at one point the guy turned around to look at something and did this really exaggerated triple take at me, then whispered to his friend. So out of all the people there, only one guy recognized me. Because, like I said, I looked different. But the audiences for those showings were incredible. There was this constant dialogue between the audience and the screen. People had these great lines made up for the whole film. It was very interesting to see it like that.
Lee Sobel: Another interesting thing about the movie is that it came out at the time of a big boom with home video cassettes.
Kevin Van Hentenryck: The timing worked out in our favor.
Lee Sobel: After Basket Case, you worked with Frank a bunch of times. How much fun was that, to work with the monsters on the sequels to Basket Case?
Kevin Van Hentenryck: [laughs] We made the first film on, I guess it would be called, “no budget.” I was told that we had a million dollars to do Basket Case 2, which seemed like a monstrous amount of money. Gabe Bartalos working with all these freaks and every freak had a freak handler. It was amazing to see that happen.
Lee Sobel: Have you had some dealing with any Hollywood producers? Did you have an agent? Did you go out to L.A.?
Kevin Van Hentenryck: No, I never made the trek to the West Coast. I do recall when Basket Case 2 was playing, it was in like thirteen theaters in Manhattan. Primetime, not midnight showings. I had my name up on the marquee. And I was calling agents and they would say “Thanks for your resume. If we can use it, we’ll call you.” And it was a very tough nut to crack.
Lee Sobel: Is it because you think there’s a stigma against low-budget horror?
Kevin Van Hentenryck: I think any enterprise where large amounts of money are involved, is a pretty closed shop. To get into it has to be your prime focus and it’s never been my prime focus. These sculptures have always been my main focus.
Lee Sobel: Do you like horror movies?
Kevin Van Hentenryck: I do. I tend more towards science fiction than like the flesh or gross-out stuff. Zombies and vampires don't interest me that much. But I did really like The Walking Dead series. That was really well done.
Lee Sobel: What else can you tell me about working with Frank Henenlotter?
Kevin Van Hentenryck: Frank is a walking encyclopedia of film and film genre. That wealth of information that he has, from being a fan of the genre, it really enables him to have this really immense wealth of language available to him. People are scared by zombies, so they make zombie movies. It takes vision and determination not to do dumb stuff, to hold out. He had refused for years to do another Basket Case film because the ideas he got were “Well, there was a third twin.” Or “there was a fifth doctor.” Stuff like that, which is just silliness. So, it’s a personal vision that he didn't feel the need to compromise.
Lee Sobel: Have you had a lot of interest from horror conventions over the years?
Kevin Van Hentenryck: I’ve done Fangoria, on the West Coast. I played some of my music there, at that one. About a week and a half beforehand, I was working on a wood carving commission. And I sliced open one of my fingers on my left hand, right where you hold the string. I was devastated. I did what I could to heal it up. I had this little bandage on it but I did not play very well. You know, stuff happens sometimes, right? At that convention, I was sitting next to Kenneth Tobey
who played the captain in the original version of the The Thing. There were a lot of people at that convention. Someone came up to him with a jacket that they found at a church yard sale Turned out to be part of the wardrobe that James Arness wore as The Thing. But at that same convention a couple came up to me. And I look at their kids who were like five, six years old. And they were completely punked out to the max. And the guy buys a picture and has me sign it, and he says, “You changed my life” to me and walked away. It’s just like...wow! Film, it’s a very powerful medium.
Lee Sobel: Any other thoughts? For example, I heard you had to wear a wig for your cameo on the subway in Brain Damage.
Kevin Van Hentenryck: [laughs] Well, I had short hair then and they wanted to match. The original idea for that film was that both paths would cross. In other words, I would be in Brain Damage, and the main character from Brain Damage would appear in Basket Case 2, because we filmed it back to back. Now there’s some union rule that once you start someone that you have to pay them continuously until they wrapped. That prevented the other side of the cross over, but I thought was a very cool idea of Frank’s. And the moment they meet they both recognize, in each other, what they are.