Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Don't Look in the Basement (1973)

... aka: Beyond Help
... aka: Death Ward No. 13
... aka: Forgotten, The
... aka: No miréis en el sótano
... aka: Non guardare in cantina
... aka: Snake Pit, The

Directed by:
S.F. Brownrigg

Sherald 'S.F.' Brownrigg began as a combat photographer and director of army training films while still in the military. After finishing up his stint in the army, he then moved on to doing sound and sound mixing for such low-budget filmmakers as Irvin Berwick and Larry Buchanan, plus edited Buchanan's INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957) remake THE EYE CREATURES (1965). At some point in his film journeys, Brownrigg decided he wanted to start making his own movies. (Perhaps he actually watched the Berwick and Buchanan movies he'd worked on and figured there was no way he could do any worse!) Originally titled The Forgotten, Brownrigg's debut film was shot for less than 100,000 dollars over a 12 day period primarily in a plain white, sparsely furnished dorm house at Westminster College (now Trinity Institute) in Tehuacana, Texas. It was first released in a limited run by Cine Globe under its original title and put on a double bill with the cannibalism horror-comedy THE FOLKS AT RED WOLF INN (1972), but failed to gain much interest or attention that way. That all changed once the film was passed off to Hallmark Releasing.

Hallmark first issued the film under the new title of The Snake Pit on a double-bill with Mario Bava's proto slasher TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE (1971). They then tried it out under the titles Beyond Help and Death Ward No. 13 with the recycled “To avoid fainting, keep repeating, it's only a movie...” tag line from another of Hallmark's releases: Wes Craven's notorious The Last House on the Left (1972). Not only did they do that, but they also claimed Don't Look in the Basement (the fifth and final title given to this and the one that finally ended up sticking) was from the maker's of Last House and frequently paired the two films up together. The rest is history. Don't went on to become one of the biggest moneymakers on the mid 70s drive-in circuit, playing alongside a wide array of other genre films, including the sleazy Italian import SLAUGHTER HOTEL (1971), Paul Bartel's wonderfully bizarre PRIVATE PARTS (1972) and Joe Sarno's lesbian vampire skin flick Plaything of the Devil (1973). The film continued being a workhorse into the VHS and DVD eras, especially after falling into the public domain. Other genre films copying the popular “Don't” title later emerged throughout the 70s and 80s.

At the three-story Stephens Sanitarium, a remote insane asylum, a doctor (Michael Harvey) unwisely turns his back to his axe-wielding patient and ends up getting chopped to death. And then a nurse (Jessie Lee Fulton) who's threatening to leave is suffocated in her room. Now only one staff member – Dr. Geraldine Masters (“Anne MacAdams” / Annabelle Weenick) – remains behind to take care of the “family.” Thankfully, beautiful young nurse Charlotte Beale (Rosie Holotik, who'd previously appeared in and graced the cover of the April 1972 issue of Playboy Magazine) is on her way there to take up a position offered to her by the late Dr. Stephens. Charlotte has experience in psychiatric therapy and quit her big city hospital job to take this one, but she's hit with the bad news of the doctor's unfortunate death as soon as she arrives. Dr. Masters informs her that since she's now in charge of things, she plans on altering the doctor's original therapy techniques; techniques that involved pushing the patients' obsessions to the breaking point until they're forced to snap back into reality. That clearly hasn't been working out and, in fact, may have only worsened things. Reluctantly, Geraldine decides to keep her late colleague's promise of hiring Charlotte and she moves in the same evening. Now it's time to meet the patients...

There's Sam (Bill McGhee), a gentle, child-like black man with the mentality of an 8 year old (caused by a botched lobotomy performed by Dr. Stephens years earlier) who loves playing with toys and sucking on Popsicles and was the previous murdered nurse's favorite patient. But Sam's harmless, amiable personality turns out to be an anomaly at the sanitarium. Vietnam vet Sarge (Hugh Feagin) went crazy after accidentally causing the deaths of some of his comrades, still believes he's in the midst of a war and is paranoid that they're coming to get it. The senile, elderly Mrs. Callingham (Rhea MacAdams) suffers from hallucinations, likes to recite cryptic poems and believes that flowers are her children. Sweaty, delusional Judge Oliver W. Cameron (Gene Ross) runs around speaking gibberish legal lingo. Danny Bonaduce look-a-like Danny (Jessie Kirby) is a kleptomaniac who likes to taunt, annoy and pester pretty much everyone. Jennifer Downy (Harryette Warren) is severely withdrawn to the point of catatonia, but does manage to get an extra boost of energy whenever she's given the opportunity to spring out of closets brandishing cutlery.

There's also Harriet (Camilla Carr), a super-protective mother who goes into a rage any time anyone threatens to separate her from her baby (doll) and, rounding out the group of mixed nuts, is Allyson King (Betty Chandler), who has severe daddy issues because her pa died, her stepfather divorced her mom and then she went through a series of bad relationships culminating in marrying a guy who pimped her out and then left her for another woman. Now she's a love-starved nymphomaniac whose hobbies include whipping out her breasts whenever she's in the company of men and raping telephone repair guys in utility closets. Despite the erratic, unpredictable and often violent behavior of the patients, everyone is encouraged to live as a trusting family unit. That means, shared chores, living space and bathrooms between patients and staff, no locks on the doors and full access to pretty much everything there. This, of course, turns out not to be such a great idea.

A series of weird events transpire that soon have Charlotte wishing she'd kept her other job. She almost gets stabbed, the phone lines are cut and the talkative Mrs. Callingham is found with her tongue cut out; something Dr. Masters believes she did to herself. After we become well acquainted with all of the patients, one of them starts killing off the others and hiding their bodies. It takes over an hour for that to happen and none of it – not an eyeball skewered on one of those desktop paper spear things nor a glimpse of necro bedroom activity nor even a moment when one of the patients finally loses it and starts laying into the others with an axe – is all that shocking or shown in what one would consider gory detail. However, throwing all of these crazy and bizarre characters into a murder mystery format does lend a certain unpredictability to the proceedings. Pretty much anyone could be a killer. The amount of talk and the slow pace do eventually take their toll on the film, forcing the director to rush through and sort of fumble the finale, but the movie has another unexpected strength to help carry it through...

One of Brownrigg's strong points, one that most of his fellow regional filmmakers did not possess, was always employing talented local actors and getting good performances out of them. Regardless of how cheap his movie looks, how the location never changes and how there's little in the way of action or excitement, the actors themselves are good enough to keep the proceedings reasonably entertaining. There's not a single cast member here who's not at least somewhat effective in their part. The clear standouts here are the likable McGhee, Ross, who is brilliant at conveying madness using only his eyes (something the director also realizes considering the amount of eyeball close-ups he gives the actor) and, most especially, Weenick, who has the film's most challenging role and does an exceptional job playing it. Weenick; like the director, a veteran of Buchanan's awful movies, was also the production manager. Brownrigg wisely kept most of these people around for his subsequent forays into the genre: Don't Open the Door! (1974), Scum of the Earth aka Poor White Trash Part II (1974) and Keep My Grave Open (1976).

In 2008, a remake was announced and a poster and press materials followed, but the film was never actually made. In 2014, the late Brownrigg's son, Tony Brownrigg, decided to finally make the sequel that his father always wanted to make but never got around to. Titled Id: Don't Look in the Basement 2, the film is finished but still awaiting distribution.



kochillt said...

I've also seen Brownrigg's KEEP MY GRAVE OPEN, and believe him to be a better director than Larry Buchanan, and agree that the performers familiar from those Azalea titles come off better here. Bill McGhee was just an embarrassing stereotype in CURSE OF THE SWAMP CREATURE, while Hugh Feagin wasn't as menacing IN THE YEAR 2889 as Touch Connors in DAY THE WORLD ENDED. Rhea MacAdams was the mother of Annabelle MacAdams, an actress adept at going over the top, never more so than in Buchanan's lone war picture HELL RAIDERS. Alas, I have that 1972 PLAYBOY issue, and gorgeous Rosie Holotik only appears on the cover, not between the pages, what a disappointment! I especially loved her in HORROR HIGH aka TWISTED BRAIN, shot in Irving, Texas, by several current and former NFL players, including 'Mean' Joe Greene.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

"I've also seen Brownrigg's KEEP MY GRAVE OPEN, and believe him to be a better director than Larry Buchanan, and agree that the performers familiar from those Azalea titles come off better here."


"Annabelle MacAdams, an actress adept at going over the top, never more so than in Buchanan's lone war picture HELL RAIDERS."

I like her a lot. She was one of the saving graces of It's Alive for me and was great in this one, too. I was surprised to see her pop up in Wes Craven's Deadly Blessing as Ernest Borgnine's wife, but she wasn't given a thing to do there and I don't think even a single line of dialogue.

"Alas, I have that 1972 PLAYBOY issue, and gorgeous Rosie Holotik only appears on the cover, not between the pages, what a disappointment!"

I had no clue they ever put someone on the cover who WASN'T in the magazine. Odd and, yes, I'm sure extremely disappointing... not to mention misleading!

Cliff said...

Nice review. There definitely was something about Brownrigg that put him above your typical low-budget schlock meister (and definitely above poor Larry Buchanan).

Good to see a review as well that has good things to say about the actors. It's all a little over the top, of course, but I think they really make the movie.

It's a shame Holotik was only in just 4 movies. She reminds me a little of Claudia Jennings:


The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Yes, a shame we didn't see more of her. She filmed two movies in Texas and one in Arkansas in the early 70s and doesn't appear to have made the pilgrimage to Hollywood to try for a career. Based on what I found online, around the time she stopped acting she married Dallas Cowboys defensive back Charlie Waters and had a few kids.

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