Don’t Look in the Basement (1973)

It really can’t be a good sign if the movie poster has to reference a much better film to try and drum up an audience. No, this film has absolutely nothing to do with The Last House on the Left. In fact, the only real connection is being distributed by American International Pictures, and while I do love a lot of AIP’s output, this…this ain’t it. The trailer even go so far as to reuse footage lifted directly from The Last House on the Left along with stating the so-called ‘reminder’ that this is only a movie, thus showing AIP’s advertising tactics at their most cynical. While the poster is a bad sign, to see this in the trailer means the folks trying to sell me on it thought it was a total dumpster fire. Hope you like the smell of trash infernos, folks, because you’re getting the very best odor blaze that Texas has to offer.

I must admit, I watched this purely out of loyalty to the idea of finally tracking down all of the Video Nasties. Yes, this movie was banned in Britain for its moral depravity, shocking violence, and general threat to society. While all of that is crap to attack and vilify a genre in what is most certainly a cynical protectionist stunt (only one Video Nasty was a British film) in the same nation that produced both Hammer Studios and Amicus Productions, it certainly adds a certain scuzzy gloss to these films. As I am happy to have delighted in some horrendously scuzzy films over the years, it seemed only natural that I would want to track this one down. While most of the Video Nasties aren’t exactly movies I’d consider “pleasant,” many offer an artistry within their low-budget depravity. Sadly, that artistry is lacking here.

In Don’t Look in the Basement, a psychiatrist is trying a new form of treatment on the mentally ill in an attempt to try and understand insanity. This extreme technique involves treating the inmates as a family as opposed to criminals or sick people. You know, humanizing them. Bizarre, I know. This being the kind of movie it is, the crazies go and prove their level of crazy through violence and murder.

While the approach doesn’t work out, I have to admit it is an almost understandable response to a doctor performing a lobotomy and then being horrified with the result of what was considered modern medical science, so I’m not all that surprised he did a complete 180 with a radical new approach. He probably shouldn’t have given that one murderous guy an ax though… Probably should have thought that through better. It doesn’t end well.

What you get with this picture is 90 minutes of a bunch of people acting crazy, and one poor psychiatric nurse trying to do her job only to realize that the new doctor in charge of the asylum is in actuality also a patient who took over after the previous doctor got himself murdered by his patients. The nurse is only saved in the end by one of the mentally ill recognizing that she doesn’t deserve to be trapped there, and then the movie ends with a murder spree.

If there is a high point in the plot, the main character is a newly hired nurse played by former Playboy playmate Rosie Holotik. No, it’s not as sexy as you think, but she does display empathy and compassion for those under her care. She also serves as the audience’s proxy and is completely unaware of how the inmates have taken over the asylum. As we see events unfold, we see them through her eyes, and we are rooting for her survival by the end. In a film I found bland and frankly not that shocking, Holotik gives one of the best performances, matched only by William McGhee, who plays the infantilized gentle giant, Sam. Yeah, our one black guy has literally been reduced to a child’s mental state. That’s…not a good look, movie.

The best part of the entire film is the end credits. While I realize that might be interpreted as a joke, I actually mean it. A visual quirk of the end credits is that characters are shown whenever the actors are credited, including the dead ones in their state of death. It’s a morbid touch that manages to stick with the audience despite the film often falling into forgettable stereotypes concerning the mentally ill. While I can’t say Don’t Look in the Basement ever approaches greatness, it definitely tried something interesting here and then follows it up with the classic slasher-type prophet of doom giving her pronouncement. Considering it’s 1973, this one ends up qualifying as a proto-slasher.

If you are at all curious about looking this film up, be aware that it is sometimes known by alternate titles The Forgotten and Death Ward #13. No, none of these names are any good. However, director Sherald Fergus Brownrigg would also go on to direct the likes of Don’t Open the Door!, thus helping to give us the title trope that director Edgar Wright so gleefully parodied in his faux trailer for the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez double feature Grindhouse. For the record, Brownrigg’s second film, Poor White Trash Part II, managed to get itself labeled “the worst movie of all time” by the University of Michigan student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Now that’s the kind of pedigree we like around here!

Don’t Look in the Basement is pretty simple to sum up, folk: it’s cheap, it’s sleazy, it’s often boring, and at times it’s frustrating. Meh, they can’t all be winners. Still, I am not deterred and continue to look forward to future Video Nasties. Also, there are enough fans that remakes have been talked about for years. We’ll see if that ever actually happens. However, a sequel was made to the movie, this time directed by Anthony Brownrigg, S.F. Brownrigg’s son. It’s kind of cool knowing that Id: Don’t Look in the Basement 2 is a product of legacy.

And if you do find yourself suffering through this one day, just remember to keep telling yourself that it’s only a movie… only a movie… only a movie… only a movie… and it will eventually end, thank God.

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