S. F. Brownrigg started his career working for ultra-low budget sci-fi/horror film-maker Larry Buchanan. By 1973 he’d graduated to making his own very low budget movies, starting with a movie that has had many titles (including The Forgotten), although it’s probably best known these days as Don’t Look in the Basement. It’s a movie that combines the do-it-yourself film-making ethos of people like Ed Wood with 1970s gore.
Charlotte Beale arrives at a small and very remote psychiatric clinic somewhere in Texas. The director of this institution, Dr Stephens, has developed some very individual theories about mental illness. He believes that obsessions and delusions should be encouraged, and that when they become extreme enough they’ll burn themselves out and the patient will be cured. He also believes in breaking down the barriers in the doctor/patient relationship, so there are no locks on the doors of any of the rooms. On the morning of Charlotte’s arrival Dr Stephens’ theories have started to go a little awry. One of the patients, who is either a former judge or thinks he is a judge, has just murdered the good doctor with an axe. This leaves Dr Geraldine Masters in charge, and she is determined to carry on her predecessor’s good work.
Nurse Beale finds the patients to be quite a challenge. Apart from the axe-wielding judge there’s Sam, who has the mind of a ten-year-old after a lobotomy. There’s Allyson, who desperately wants to be loved, right now, by anybody at all. There’s Harriet, who is struggling to care for her baby (the baby is in fact a doll). There’s Sergeant Jaffee, who cracked up after getting his whole patrol killed in action. Every night he waits for the arrival of the enemy. There’s a dementia patient, and there’s the disturbingly giggly Danny.
Unfortunately Dr Stephens’ murder was just the first in a series of violent incidents, and after discovering several bodies Nurse Beale decides it might be a good time to quit this job and move on. But first she has to get out of the clinic.
The acting is uniformly atrocious, the make-up and gore effects are unconvincing, the camerawork is unimaginative and the look of the movie is very flat. But Don’t Look in the Basement has some real strengths which just about make up for these deficiencies. There are a couple of very neat plot twists, and there’s an atmosphere of complete out-of-control insanity.
It was an era that saw the George Romero-style of horror film-making becoming increasingly predominant among low-budget American film-makers, with a very heavy reliance on buckets of blood and gore and a moving away from supernatural horror. This movie is to some extent part of that trend, but it lacks the disturbing misogyny and sadistic glee in violence that mark many such movies. And it’s a much more interesting movie than, for instance, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
It’s in the public domain so the good news is that it’s not going to cost you much, and you can even download it legally for free. The bad news is that the print I saw was pretty rough, with very poor sound. It’s definitely worth a look though. The very bad news is that apparently a remake is on the way.