Don't Go in the Lightning Bug's Lair #8: Don't Look in the Basement (1973)

Unlike Number 12 on the countdown, Don't Scream, Doris Mays, I didn't have to resort to an alternate title to get this film on the list. Neatly, it did it for me. Made under the title The Forgotten, the film was retitled Don't Look in the Basement when it came to prominence paired with Last House on the Left as a drive-in double feature. It even shared the tag line "It's Only a Movie" on some iterations of the film's poster. The problem is looking in the basement is paired with looking like it was filmed and developed in a basement, but it also shares another quality with a subterranean layer. Quite often you find something interesting, odd and forgotten down there yearning to see the light of day. So join me for a stroll down the stairs of madness, when I throw caution to the wind and ignore all my instincts that tell me Don't Look in the Basement.  

Doctor Stephens (Michael Harvey) had some radical therapies for psychological disorders. He allowed his patients to act out their desires, and, that was all well and good, until a patient called The Judge (Gene Ross) acted his out by putting an axe in the good doctor's head and chopping up the head nurse as well. The next day, Nurse Charlotte Beale (Rosie Holotik) arrives to start her new job and meets the only medical professional still alive at the asylum, Dr. Geraldine Masters (Annabelle Weenick). Charlotte begins her job by meeting all the patients, the lobotomized Sam (Bill McGhee), shell-shocked war vet Jaffe (Hugh Feagin), prankster Danny (Jessie Kirby), nymphomaniac Allison (Betty Chandler), and the aged Mrs. Callingham (Rhea MacAdams) who suffers from dementia, but she soon suspects that all is still not well at the hospital. Unfortunately, she is very right as Dr. Masters is herself a patient, with a delusion that she is a doctor, and the inmates have truly taken over the madhouse.

As I referred to earlier, Don’t Look in the Basement is not a pretty looking film. It has a gritty low budget 70s quality which both adds to the proceedings and makes some moments too murky to discern what is going on in them. However, it adds to the general creepy vibe that the film has in spades. While watching Don’t Look in the Basement (the alternate title derived from a short scene in which our main character has a harrowing confrontation in the asylum’s lowest level), there were a couple of films that ran though my mind over and over, and they couldn't be more different. The first one is Tod Browining’s Freaks. While the film’s plot shares nothing in common with that film classic, the portrayal of these mentally ill patients is sometimes so real feeling that it made me wonder if, like Browning cast physical oddities in his film, Don’t Look’s director, S.F. Brownrigg, cast crazies in the role. While that certainly isn't true, Brownrigg did desire to make a sequel to Browning’s Freaks, but it never came to fruition. I would argue that in a way it did as a film about mental freaks, and it’s a testament to how the no name cast that the performances are strong enough to maintain this feeling. 

The second film is Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor. Again, Don’t Look shares little in common outside of the mental ward setting with the Sam Fuller classic, but at times I could imagine  Don’t Look in the Basement as the low budget, grind house take on similar fare. While it lacked the symbolism of Fuller’s film, it also includes one hundred percent more tongue ripping and necrophilia than Sam’s picture. Don’t Look in the Basement and Last House on the Left would have been a hell of a double feature. Between the unsettling mental patients of Don’t Look and the unsettling rapists of Last House, I imagine quite a few people left that double bill feeling like they needed a shower. Don’t Look is certainly not as good a film as Craven’s debut, but it is a singular experience.  

While Don’t Look in the Basement has a predictable plot and shoddy film making from the first time director (who we may even see again on this countdown), the performers are what keeps the film on the rails for the entirety of the ninety minute running time. The least interesting character is Rosie Holotik’s Nurse Charlotte, but she does what she can with a role that essentially fades into the background as compared to the over the top turns by her cast mates. Betty Chandler is particularly wonderful and heart breaking as the nymphomaniac. While most would equate her condition with sex, her most interesting scenes come when she begs for “someone to love her” but her pleading falls of the deaf ears of the Judge who is too far gone to show tenderness or desire. She is also quite in love with the telephone repairman, and when his body is found, she throws herself on it and disturbingly take it back to her room with the intentions of having sex with him anyway. Speaking of The Judge, character actor Gene Ross is all flop sweat and crazy eyes as the self ordained executioner, and it is easy to see why Brownrigg used him in several of his later films.

Bill McGhee also makes a great impression as Sam. The Dallas born stage actor, and one of the first black actors in Texas to become a member of SAG, gives a nuanced turn full of pathos to the part of the lobotomized innocent. Annabelle Weenick provides a solid presence as the doctor who is not a doctor, and Hugh Feagin, another Brownrigg regular, plays PTSD without resorting to stock paranoia. The last actor I have to mention is Rhea MacAdams. While she has the least lines, she gets the last word on the proceedings as she appears post credits to intone to the audience, “Get out! Get out! And never, ever, come back.” It certainly seems like advice well taken in the moment, and as a last image before Last House on the Left would roll, it would have been chilling.

I mentioned earlier that while Don’t Look in the Basement was the film’s alternate¸ though better known, title, The Forgotten might have been a better fit for the film. After all, mental illness is still not an accepted societal norm even now, some forty years after the making of Don’t Look in the Basement. The film’s patients were indeed forgotten, isolated, and left in the care of a doctor whose crackpot theories lead to his own demise. Their plights left them on the fringes of society, and once locked up, beyond the reach of average life. While the film is certainly aimed at the exploitation dollar and not trying to make a statement about sufferers of mental maladies, it is impossible to wonder if the advances in modern psychology or political correctness would allow such a film to be made today. That about wrap it up for today’s “Don’t”, and so, until next time, I think the lesson learned here is when you take a new job, don’t forget to check the credentials of the person doing the hiring. They may just be a crazy person looking to do what you don’t want them to, namely try and kill you.

Bugg Rating

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