Starring Bill McGhee, Rosie Holotik, Annabelle Weenick, Susan Bracken, Gene Ross
Directed by S.F. Brownrigg
Distributed by VCI Entertainment
I first watched Don’t Look in the Basement (1973) when I was marathoning one of those 50 movie packs from Mill Creek that you see at Walmart and the like. A friend of mine once said that he imagined some mad scientist curated those collections of public domain and cheaply licensed films, and I tend to agree. Written by Tim Pope, S.F. Brownrigg’s film is quite a strange one, but it was nicely paced and fun, so I dug it a lot. Now Don’t Look in the Basement is available with Brownrigg’s follow-up, Don’t open the Door (1974), on Blu-ray. Both films have been remastered by VCI.
Don’t Look in the Basement isn’t likely to be endorsed by the National Institute of Mental Health any time soon, unless our ideas on mental illness somehow radically change. Here, the mentally ill are played as delusional, their trauma becoming the whole of their personality. Not exactly a sensitive or realistic portrait of people dealing with trauma, but it does the job and makes the film that much more weird. There’s a nympho who only ever thinks about sex. Got to have one of those. You’ve got a former judge who, well, judges people. He has my favorite line in the film. When the nympho exposes her breasts to him, he reacts by shouting, “Shroud your nakedness!” I don’t know if anyone’s ever spoken quite like this, which is why I find it so amusing.
Then there’s the woman whose baby died. Naturally, she thinks her doll is an actual child. As one does. And let’s not forget about the cringy childlike black man, perpetually eight years old (as the result of a lobotomy!) who enjoys popsicles and playing with his toy boat. And naturally, he has a heart of gold. Yikes!
The film begins as nurse Charlotte Beale (Rosie Holotik) arrives at an isolated mental institution (read: a three-story house in the middle of nowhere in Texas), prepared to start her new job under Dr. Stephens (Michael Harvey), who isn’t there at the moment. Unbeknownst to Nurse Beal, the good doctor had just the day before gotten an ax to his back courtesy of Judge Oliver W. Cameron (Gene Ross). Dr. Masters (Annabelle Weenick) is in charge now, but something’s not quite right about her. Nurse Beal’s next few days are going to be interesting, to say the least.
The acting isn’t as bad as you might at first suspect. It is all over the place, however. A few of the actors are quite good, like Gene Ross. Along with Annabelle Weenick, the two of them have quite extensive IMDB resumes. Rosie Holotik is pretty terrible, though she certainly seems to be trying. This was only her second acting gig and, before that, she was a model, most famous for an appearance in Playboy. I’ll give her this, though — she’s certainly a legitimate scream queen. She has the kind of shriek that could bust windows. Definitely an advantage for this kind of movie.
There’s some, and I do mean some, consideration given to shot composition and lighting. Not a whole lot, but Brownrigg is certainly trying. We get some POV shots and a lot of close-ups. Some of the shots are just plain weird, and I can’t tell if Brownrigg was just fucking with the audience, or whether he thought that having a woman in the background and a closeup of a baby bottle on top of a dresser in the foreground, making the bottle look as big as the woman’s head, was a good idea. Well, anyway, here we are.
Brownrigg definitely knew what kind of movie he was making. Cartoonish, over-the-top, and with a bit of gore for the ever-important trailer. Having said all that, the movie comes oddly close to being competently made. And, as a bonus, Don’t Look in the Basement contains a scene where an adult human gets hysterically upset over a stolen toy boat.
An interesting historical note: Don’t Look in the Basement played drive-ins on a double bill with Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left. Now that would have made for a pretty incredible night of entertainment! It also reminds me of how disposable this stuff was considered. I think nobody would be as surprised as Brownrigg to find out that people not only hold his film in great esteem, but they’re restoring it to near-pristine condition.
Brownrigg’s follow-up, Don’t Open the Door, has all of Basement’s flaws without any of the charm. And it’s the worst kind of exploitation film: a boring one. Oh, it has its eccentric characters (Gene Ross is back playing another judge, if you can believe that), but it comes off as an attempt to replicate the success of Basement and, as a result, ends up looking like a cheap knockoff of a cheap knockoff.
If you thought Brownrigg went crazy with the close-ups in Don’t Look in the Basement, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Most of the movie consists of a quick establishing shot and then close-ups and extreme close-ups. I hope you enjoy eyebrows because if you watch this film, you’ll become intimately familiar with the shape and density of each actor’s face caterpillars.
Possibly the film’s only saving grace is the unintentional comedy, though there isn’t a ton of it. There’s a “creepy” dude on the phone trying to scare main character Amanda Post (Susan Bracken), but his whispered tones sound so cheesy that you wonder how Amanda even thought the guy was a threat at all.
Yawn. Really, there’s not a lot in this movie that you haven’t seen before and done much better. It’s quite a generic film, best watched as a historical curiosity.
Really, it’s not surprising that the only movie with commentary is Don’t Look in the Basement, though there’s production notes and (unrestored) deleted scenes from Don’t Open the Door. A bunch of grindhouse horror trailers are also included, and those are always entertaining, very often much more than the actual movies.
Both of these films are available in all sorts of places since they’re in the public domain, but VCI has restored them. You won’t find a better looking version. I think what makes this Blu-ray / DVD combo really worth it is the commentary from David Del Valle and David DeCoteau. Del Valle is, of course, one of the leading genre film historians, and DeCoteau has directed a literal ton of genre films. These two have a great rapport, and you really learn a lot about Basement specifically and exploitation filmmaking in general. Very good stuff.
- New 2K Restoration on “DOTD”
- New 1080p Restoration on “DLITB”
- 2018 Commentary Track On “DLITB” From Film Historian & Journalist, David Del Valle & Genre Director, David Decoteau ( Peppet Master III, Toulon’s Revenge)
- Original Theatrical Trailers
- Assorted Other Grindhouse Trailers
A great introduction to exploitation director S.F. Brownrigg’s work, though Don’t Look in the Basement is the only film of the two really worth watching.