Schlock Junkie #1: Don’t Look in the Basement

Don’t Look in the Basement (aka The Forgotten and Death Ward #13) (Color, 1973) 95 min.
Directed by S. F. Brownrigg
Executive Producer: Walter L. Krusz
Produced by S. F. Brownrigg
Written by Tim Pope and Thomas Pope
Cinematography by Robert B. Alcott
Original Music by Robert Farrar
Format: Full Frame (1.33:1)

Cast: Bill McGhee, Rosie Holotik, Annabelle Weenick, Betty Chandler, Gene Ross, Rhea MacAdams, Camilla Carr, Robert Dracup, Hugh Feagin, Jessie Kirby, Jesse Lee Fulton, Harryette Warren, Michael Harvey

Much to the delight of many thrill-seeking theater patrons in the early ’70s, Hallmark Distribution deluged American drive-ins with a memorable montage of morbid masterpieces culled from both sides of the Atlantic. Lurking among the outfit’s eerie emissions (an impressive roster including Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (aka Twitch of the Death Nerve), Jorge Grau’s Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, and Eloy de la Iglesia’s Cannibal Man), two-bit Texas filmmaker S. F. Brownrigg’s first stint in the director’s chair, Don’t Look in the Basement (ironically released as part of a double bill with Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, a film from which it appropriated its cautionary, “To avoid fainting, keep repeating, ‘It’s only a movie…” tagline), cruised the drive-in circuit for years, eventually amassing a loyal following due to a near-constant barrage of broadcasts on New York City’s WPIX and New Jersey’s WWOR TV. While generally shunned by elitist horror aficionados due to its poorhouse production values, Basement succeeds despite its meager origins, a large part of its appeal derived from the above-average cast’s frenzied array of magnificently maniacal performances and a creepy, clingy ambiance enveloping the viewer like a sodden straitjacket.

While plying his radical approach to curing the ails of the mentally infirm, a cutting-edge regimen that includes the use of an axe to extinguish a patient’s aggressive tendencies, chief psychiatrist, Dr. Stephens (Michael Harvey) is mortally wounded by the fiercely forthright Judge Oliver W. Cameron (Brownrigg regular, Gene Ross). Assuming leadership of the institution upon the passing of her predecessor, Dr. Geraldine Masters (the spectacular Annabelle Weenick), smooths over the unfortunate incident with the help of hulking man-child, Sam (Bill McGhee), recipient of the good doctor’s last lobotomy. The untimely arrival of nurse Charlotte Beale (drop-dead gorgeous Rosie Holotik, Playboy cover girl for April, 1972, who later turned up in Larry N. Stouffer’s tantalizing Twisted Brain), throws a wrench into Masters’ well-oiled machine, forcing the dowdy doctor to reluctantly add the lovely lass to the institute’s staff in light of a previously unknown commitment from Dr. Stephens. Shortly after settling in, Charlotte is besieged by the establishment’s delusional denizens, a motley assortment of borderline maniacs whose ranks include shell-shocked war veteran, Sergeant Jaffee (In the Year 2889‘s Hugh Feagin); comely, attention-starved nymphomaniac, Allyson (Betty Chandler); withdrawn drug addict, Jennifer (Harryette Warren); eloquent yet ultimately addled old crone, Mrs. Callingham (Rhea MacAdams); Harriet (Camilla Carr), loving mother to a grimy, plastic doll and her raving, baby-stealing rival, Danny (Jessie Kirby), all of which roam the institution unfettered thanks to the departed doctor’s revolutionary “open door” approach to healing. When Mrs. Callingham wakes up one morning soaked in blood, her tongue cut out by an unknown assailant, Charlotte begins to question Dr. Masters’ harsh approach to administration, her fears compounded after being attacked by a knife-wielding Jennifer and receiving a nocturnal visit from an axe-toting Judge Cameron. Sam’s startling revelation that he has the ability to communicate with the dear departed Dr. Stephens becomes the push Charlotte needs to free herself from her calamitous confines, a disclosure that, as expected, arrives too late to do the maligned medic much good…

Don’t Look in the Basement is somewhat of a nexus point in the annals of sleazoid cinema, the end result in a long line of psychotronic gems instigated by S. F. Brownrigg’s fruitful association with yet another Texas terror, schlock film king, Larry Buchanan. After breaking into the business as a sound technician on Irvin Berwick’s The Seventh Commandment (1960), Brownrigg went on to perform similar chores on Buchanan’s notorious The Naked Witch (1961). Four years later, Brownrigg, recruited to edit Buchanan’s vastly underrated The Eye Creatures, struck up a relationship with the film’s dialogue director, Annabelle Weenick, an extremely talented actress who would eventually steal the show as Basement‘s lurking lunatic, Geraldine Masters. While on the set of Buchanan’s next feature, Zontar the Thing From Venus (1966), Brownrigg, in addition to reuniting with Weenick, would cross paths with future Basement cinematographer, Robert B. Alcott, and art director cum actor, Robert Dracup, Basement‘s phone man with an attitude. Buchanan’s next film, Curse of the Swamp Creature (1966), which also boasted the involvement of Weenick and Dracup, would provide Brownrigg with the most crucial piece in Basement‘s puzzle: Bill McGhee. An extremely loyal filmmaker, Brownrigg would later take most of Basement‘s tightly-knit family of creeps with him on his subsequent efforts — Scum of the Earth (1974, aka Poor White Trash 2), Keep My Grave Open (1980), and Don’t Open the Door (1980) — none of which, it could be argued, would have been possible had it not been for Larry Buchanan! Far more than a guilty pleasure, Basement marks one of those rare instances, like Clark and Ormsby’s Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, where a film’s bottom-of-the-barrel budget actually works to its favor. A serendipitous string of happy accidents that would have been impossible to intentionally reproduce, Brownrigg’s reliance on low-grade film stock, unorthodox lighting techniques, mishandled dialogue recording, and Robert Farrar’s sparse, barely-there score, congeal to form one of the most bone-chillingly cold, unrelentingly claustrophobic, and unforgivingly coarse cinematic landscapes ever captured.