Uh... huh... he gives a sharpened axe to an axe murderer to treat the man.
The results are predictable.
Then, as if on cue, the sweet little old nurse due for retirement (Jessie Lee Fulton's Jane St. Claire) gets chopped up by another inmate. Now that's darned rude. I really liked that lady too! You see, part of the psychiatric treatment at this Texas Rubber Room is to let all the inmates run free like birds in a Lynyrd Skynyrd song! That's strange, yes. What's even stranger is that after they've recovered from this and another doctor named Geraldine S. Masters (Annabelle Weenick) takes over hospital administration, things remain largely the same.
Now, before you go thinking I've just given away some major plot point, let me assure you... all of the above takes place before the opening credits have even un-spooled in this... pretty good movie.
Yes, Don't Look in the Basement is actually a good movie. Better critics than me have pointed out the fact that this is a rare case of a low budget actually working well for a movie... potentially better than studio funding would have worked. This film is most certainly low budget with grainy film stock and some of the tell tale signs of the cheap dogs that you'll find written all over the Video Nasty List, such as color, lighting and sound issues, along with a somewhat (but not overpowering) amateur quality. It's also got more than its fair share of blood and legitimate shocks, which succeeded in its labeling as a Video Nasty by the DPP. However it hardly seems excessive, even compared to many of the titles that the BBFC passed.
On the other hand, the film is a lot of fun and much smarter than one would expect it to be. Sure there are some acting issues here, but there are also some very bright acting moments. Further, Don't look in the Basement is never boring and Director S.F. Brownrigg manages to pull some good frights out of Tim Pope's screenplay. The budget forces an improvisational and inventive creepiness here and the touch of amateur experimentation keeps things looking and feeling fresh. There are definitely shocks and starts, along with a number of uncomfortable close ups, but Brownrigg never forgets the real key to true horror: Suspense.
It starts just after Dr. Masters' tenure as administrator has begun. She's left many of Stephens' methods in place (in spite of the incidental lethality thereof) and the home is slowly settling back in to its routines. Enter Nurse Charlotte Beale (Rosie Holotik), whom Stephens hired (presumably as Nurse St. Claire's replacement) before his unfortunate fall. Masters is initially hesitant about honoring the Sanitarium's commitment to "Miss Charlotte", but reluctantly agrees. Charlotte's own eagerness to help with the unorthodox treatments in this place gives way to a good bit of hesitance on her part when she finds out that the patients are allowed free reign of the place (for a "family" atmosphere) and that none of the doors are locked (be they the doors of the patients or the doors of the live-in staff whom the patients surround). This is dangerous anyway (consider poor Doc Stephens and Saintly St. Claire), but with a nurse as lovely as Miss Charlotte is, it can be especially (dare I say it) nasty.
To be fair, it's not all bad, as the inmates certainly seem to be (on the whole) alright. Insane, yeah, but overall they're more "mad" than "bad". Patient Allyson King (Betty Chandler) has a propensity for throwing off her top and trying to have sex with what ever men she can get her hands on. This may be a bit of an annoyance for the staff, but is great for the audience. Judge Oliver W. Cameron (Ross) is still creepy, but if he doesn't have his axe on him, he seems alright, basically. Then there's Harryette Warren's Jennifer D., the silent girl who never grew up, Jessie Kirby's Danny, the prankster who is much more irritating than dangerous, Hugh Feagin's Sergeant Jaffee, constantly on the watch for invaders and Camilla Carr's Harriet, who spends most of her time cradling a doll she is convinced is a real baby. To be even more fair, Miss Charlotte is immediately and repeatedly warned to "get out" by the "crazy-and-it-shows" Mrs. Callingham [sic.] (Rhea MacAdams).
The real show-stealer here (when Chandler is clothed) is William Bill McGhee's Sam, a brain-damaged adult who lost his marbles due to an undisclosed accident, leaving him with the mind of a child. McGhee's performance here is that of a pro, completely immersing himself in the role of Sam and coming across as completely believable at every stage. There's an innocence to him that keeps the character likeable throughout the entire film, especially, but not exclusively, when he seems to be Miss Charlotte's only friend.
While it's true that this is no One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Don't look in the Basement isn't trying to be. There is a solid mystery with just about the right number of clues given to its solution ("just about", because most viewers will probably figure a good bit of it out before the final act). The film still manages to surprise the viewer here and there as it barrels toward its satisfying ending. At times Brownrigg and Pope's inventions seem to be as bohemian and challenging as Dr. Stephens' treatments. The question of who is and who is not sane, just which group is really running the Asylum and, most especially, whether or not each specific character realizes the answers to these questions is played with to a great degree, adding to the suspense and tension in this film.
With a name like Don't Look in the Basement, you can be sure that this one falls quite a lot on the exploitation clichÚs here and there, from rubber body doubles filled with fake blood to the occasional moment of extreme violence and splashing gore. Is it all necessary in a movie this smart? Maybe not, but considering the nature of exploitation... would it have gotten as many viewers without it?
Necessary or not, Don't Look in the Basement does have its viewer base well secured with its inclusion on the Video Nasty list. While certainly not a hit, this film has been released several times on VHS and DVD since its scrutiny in the mid-1980s. This is one movie that won't live up to the name The Forgotten! It seems that "If you ban it, they will come."
This may not be for everybody. Those turned off by horror (especially bloody horror) need not apply to this madhouse. But those with a good appreciation for low budget films with good suspense and satisfying mystery might just have a ball with Don't Look in the Basement. Two and One Half Stars out of Five for Don't Look in the Basement (AKA: The Forgotten). Exploitation flick or not, Video Nasty or not, Low Budget or not, title starting with "Don't" or not, this one is more than worth a look and is most certainly worthy of its small, yet supportive fan base. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go make an appointment with my Psychiatrist. He's still pissed that I hit him with that Axe. Oh, no, I don't mean I got violent with him, I just recommended he check out the movie Axe and he wasn't impressed. Maybe I'll see him in the next reel.
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Don't go in the Basement of the last FUNhouse on the left by the Cemetery at the edge of the park on Straw Hill... because it's a real madhouse!
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