Also known as The Forgotten, Don’t Look in the Basement was originally released in 1973, when it often played at drive-in theaters as a double-bill with Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Both films shared the following tagline: “To avoid fainting, keep repeating to yourself, ‘It’s only a movie. . . .”
Filmed at Westminster College in Tehuacana Texas, this low-budget flick centers on an insane asylum run by a progressive doctor by the name of Dr. Stephens (Michael Harvey), who treats all the patients as if they are members of a large family. The story opens with the head nurse breaking down after interacting with some of the patients. She can no longer handle the insanity of the inmates and elects to tell Stephens that she is quitting her position. Before she can tell the good doctor, one of his patients (“Judge,” who at one time was a member of the judiciary) during some experimental therapy (which involves chopping wood with an ax) loses it and instead elects to chop on the doctor. The nurse flees, only to be murdered by another patient, Harriet, who believes that the nurse has stolen her infant (a plastic doll).
The only party left alive is one Dr. Geraldine Masters (Ann MacAdams), but fortunately a new employee arrives just in the nick of time. This new employee, Nurse Charlotte Beale (Rosie Holotik), is anxious to start her new position, but Masters proves hesitant at first. Lacking any other manpower, Masters agrees to keep Beale on.
As Beale begins working with Masters, she slowly learns that Dr. Stephens’ experimental therapies are not very effective. However, she also begins to understand the doctor’s benevolence when she meets Sam (William McGee), a lobotomized man (the last Stephens swore ever to do) who has the intelligence and reasoning of an eight-year-old child. There are variety of other patients, including Sarge (former military who lost his squad during a conflict), Mrs. Callingham (who believes flowers are really her own children and recites little pieces of bizarre poetry), and Jennifer, who only wants people to love her (she is a nympho with other issues).
“Up the airy mountain/Down the rushing glen/You never can go hunting/For fear of little men.”
As the story unfolds, Beale learns that Masters is a former doctor who is now a patient at the asylum. Far worse, she realizes that she is the only sane person in the place, although even the patients now believe that Beale is herself is a patient. Doubting her own sanity, Beale begins to unravel some the crimes committed in the place, like the ripping out of tongue from poor Mrs. Callingham so that Masters can continue to maintain her secret (she was actually a doctor, but now she is criminally insane).
The final reel of the film is pure dementia, as the patients run amok, inflicting harm on each other and on unwary visitors, such as a telephone man dispatched from the company to fix some downed lines. During the movie, Sam keeps insisting that Stephens is alive, and during the film’s climax Beale learns that he is indeed still alive (in the basement, natch), but not for long. The inmates attempt to kill Beale, but Sam rescues her, only to turn back himself and witness the death of Masters at the hands of the inmates, who are now armed with hideous implements such as axes and blades. Once the deed is done, Sam turns the tables, killing all the inmates with his bare hands.
The story’s coda has poor Beale standing in the rain, looking in the distance, much of herself emotionally shattered.
Directed by independent filmmaker S.F. Brownrigg, Don’t Look in the Basement is an intense, weird, and unrelenting experiment in psychological terror. The cliché inmates running the asylum pays off here, given that the story centers on the nature of insanity, as all the inmates have issues related more to what we believe is sane behavior. Thus, war destroys Sarge’s psyche, physical sex and emotional love tear at Jennifer’s need to be wanted, and societal mores and laws have turned Judge into a moral murderer. The only enigma is Sam, who despite his lobotomy believes he has set things right by murdering the inmates.
The script by Tim Pope, in conjunction with Brownrigg’s direction, makes Don’t Look in the Basement a solid piece of demented filmmaking. From the opening shot to the closing credits, this movie never lets up, dropping the viewing into a nest of vipers who repeatedly strike without warning. The performances are uniformly uncanny, except for Holitik, who is a little too wooden during the more intense sequences.
Don’t Look in the Basement is not for the faint of heart. There are some bloody sequences, but for importantly there is plenty of psychological terror on display, as well as some hard-to-watch torture scenes. Expect some nudity, but even this is in keeping with the psychological horror. The film’s title implies more than it says, for even though there is someone physically in the basement, the reference also hints as the mind being the basement. The film’s mood can be summed up with the following snippet of dialogue:
Beale: “Do you get out much, Mrs. Callingham?”
Mrs. Callingham: “You’re the one who needs to get out!”