Written by: Tim Pope
Directed by: S.F. Brownrigg
Starring: Rosie Holotik, Rhea MacAdams, and Bill McGhee
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Do you get out much, Mrs. Callingham?"
"You're the one who needs to get out!"
"You're the one who needs to get out!"
With the democratization of film came an explosion of new, distinctive voices, especially on the drive-in and exploitation circuit, where regional filmmakers of varying talent suddenly had a platform to conjure up all sorts of weird, demented, and largely unfiltered shit (so long as it was profitably weird shit). Some would argue that the word “shit” aptly describes the quality as well, which is a fair concession in some cases; less fair is dismissively applying that label across the board and ignoring how wonderfully bizarre this scene was.
Consider the curious case of S.F. Brownrigg, a resourceful independent filmmaker who’s become something of an enigmatic auteur of this era, having cut an odd little trail during a three-year span that saw him release a handful of horror oddities before retreating to further obscurity. Each of these films is a singularly strange and idiosyncratic experience teeming with grime, oddballs, and outlandish plots delivered with a hint of Texas twang. However, one truly rises above the gore-soaked din as his definitive dispatch: Don’t Look in the Basement (aka The Forgotten), a delirious 1973 treasure trove that introduced audiences to Brownrigg’s signature blend of slack-jawed dopiness and frenetic insanity.
Set at a rural sanitarium that just lost its head doctor to an axe murder (a scene I’m convinced stuck with Danny Steinmann when he directed Friday the 13th V), Don’t finds a young nurse (Rosie Holotik) summoned to oversee the care of its peculiar inmates. As is typically the case with many exploitation films, the opening fit of violence is a short-lived moment of excitement that might fool you into expecting a breathless descent into savagery; hell, you might even expect stuff to actually happen. Instead, Brownrigg spends a good chunk of the film allowing the setting to marinate, as the eccentric tenants mill about until the film finally reveals that something homicidal is afoot.
Making it to that point feels like it should be a chore, what with the film’s generally lethargic and draggy energy—it’s certainly in no real hurry to get anywhere. Brownrigg’s sort of lulling you to sleep here, though, and he’s scattering oddities throughout in the form of off-kilter camera angles and subtle hints that something just isn’t right about this place—after all, what kind of institution for the mentally ill can operate without a working phone? When a technician arrives to sort out that problem, the answer is swift and deadly revelation that sends the film hurtling down a psychotronic path lined with blood, necrophilia, and popsicles. Waiting out the sluggish setup is more than worthwhile because few films end with a more inexplicably tone-deaf final shot—and this is not to mention the final credits sequence where some of the cast is represented by their characters’ blood-spattered corpses. Too Many Cooks doesn’t have anything on that shit.
Once Brownrigg’s delirium takes hold, Don’t Look in the Basement is really something else, but I’m not even sure it works in spite of the deliberate pacing. Rather, it works because of it—at some point, you come to realize you sort of love this wild bunch of patients. Predictably, they’re all broadly-sketched portraits of various delusions and psychoses that haven’t aged well in the slightest. Some even border on being offensive, even. Then again, you don’t hit the exploitation trail looking for nuanced examinations or faithful translations of the DSM. You almost feel cheated if you don’t find something to be gloriously inappropriate or scuzzy. Don’t Look on the Basement doesn’t disappoint in this respect: from the innocent, lobotomized manchild (Bill McGhee) to the shell-shocked vet (Hugh Feagin) to the ravenous nymphomaniac (Betty Chandler), there’s plenty of crazy on display with an oddly eclectic cast that’s up for going completely unhinged.
At the center is the incongruously sweet Holotik, an interesting and sadly underused screen presence. A former Playboy model with only a few credits to her name, she looked to be well on her way to becoming a B-movie starlet before bowing out of the spotlight. She’s actually quite decent in her debut here, in so far as you can consider anything to be decent given the subject matter. As an audience surrogate, she’s a grounded tether amidst a wailing tempest, there to clash with the increasingly hostile nurse (Rhea McAdams) left in charge of the loony bin. Imagine One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest if it had a bourbon-fuelled one-night-stand with Herschell Gordon Lewis. (Now weep that there so few films that can be described as such.)
It’s all batshit insane of course, even in at a time when that descriptor has been overused to the point of diminishing its meaning. Don’t Look in the Basement completely earns the label by way of the usual suspects: a crude, scummy aesthetic, questionable acting choices, and a total commitment to not giving a fuck about much of anything, especially logic or taste. It’s a frenzied howl that only seems inept on the surface; dig deeper, though, and you’ll discover a film that’s been perfectly pitched to an audience craving sex and violence—it’s almost comical how it hits all of the exploitation film bullet points, right down to a title that doesn’t mean a goddamn thing within the context of the film. There’s a reason Edgar Wright found humor in the horde of similarly titled Don’t movies from this era; hell, Brownrigg himself also supplied the mystifyingly named Don’t Open the Door a year later.
Don’t assume this to mean the film is anything approaching generic, though—there’s far too much weirdness and delightful cornball antics to even consider that. I can only imagine how audiences’ brains must have felt deep fried after experiencing it as the bottom half of a double bill where it was billed with The Last House on a Left. Both films shared the now infamous “it’s only a movie” tagline, which must have been downright amusing when applied to Don’t Look in the Basement. I doubt many folks needed such reassurance for a film that’s content to be a hoot; it says a lot about either it or Craven’s film that Brownrigg’s effort somehow feels lighthearted in comparison—this despite a slew of corpses, one of which is defiled. Usually no laughing matter, but, as you’ll see, popsicles make it easier to swallow.
Since its debut 40 years ago, Don’t Look in the Basement has become a staple of various public domain collections. These releases usually feature sub-par presentations just a step above VHS, a fate that might seem apt since it’s the sort of film that practically begs for a fuzzy, disheveled treatment; however, VCI’s release from 2007 proved to be a bit of a revelation with its restored anamorphic widescreen transfer. Seven years later, Film Chest has taken their shot with what is touted as a further restored update, a somewhat dubious claim considering the generally poor transfer. Not only is it full frame, but it’s indistinguishable from a public domain release plagued by artifacts and poor shadow detail (there aren’t many black levels to be found here—just splotches of grey). This label has impressed with previous releases (such as their Blu-ray for the incredibly deranged Poor Pretty Eddie), but this one’s a bit of a disappointment. Stick with the VCI release until further notice, which may be sooner rather than later since Brownrigg’s son, Tony, has inexplicably helmed a decades-late sequel to his father’s masterwork. Maybe its eventual release will spark a revival and a special edition release for Don’t Look in the Basement, which endures as a grizzled, sweaty gladiator from the drive-in circuit. Buy it!
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