Don’t Look in the Basement is a 1972 [released 1973] Texas-shot American horror feature film written and directed by S.F. Brownrigg. It is also known as The Snake Pit, Death Ward No.13, Beyond Help and The Forgotten.
The movie stars Rosie Holotik, Anne MacAdams, Gene Ross, Hugh Feagin, Camilla Carr, William Bill McGhee, and Rhea MacAdams.
On August 14, 2018, VCI Entertainment released the film was part of an S.F. Brownrigg double feature Blu-ray and DVD combo.
- Original theatrical trailers on both features
- New 2018 commentary track on Don’t Look in the Basement from film historian and journalist, David Del Valle and genre director, David Decoteau (Puppet Master III: Toulons Revenge)
- Assorted other Grindhouse trailers
When an attractive nurse named Charlotte Beale arrives at a privately run sanatorium to begin her new job, she discovers to her dismay that the patients, many of them violent, are allowed to mix indiscriminately with the staff.
As Charlotte tries to settle into her challenging new role a succession of disturbing events take place, leading the increasingly fragile young woman closer and closer to a complete mental breakdown.
Despite having made four excellent horror films in the early 1970s, Sherald ‘S.F.’ Brownrigg has received only small-scale attention from genre fans, perhaps because his work generally lacks the extravagant gore offered by America’s better-known auteurs of the period.
A persistently downbeat approach may also have barred him from wider appreciation. None of his movies have much in the way of overt humour, except for what’s to be had from observing his sleazier characters, and due to the talent of his skilful repertory cast there are few of the usual cheap laughs at the expense of bad actors.
Instead, he offers compassionate characterisation, a strong sense of place, and a melancholic moodiness that may be his most significant contribution to the grindhouse/drive-in circuit where his movies routinely played.
Brownrigg’s earliest work in the industry was as sound-man for low-budget directors like Irvin Berwick and fellow Texan Larry Buchanan (It’s Alive; Zontar; Mars Needs Woman). This, plus his wartime experience as a cameraman on Army training films, prepared the way for Don’t Look in the Basement, his first directorial venture.
Initially called The Forgotten (you can see why that title had to go), it was shot in just twelve days in 1972 and looks to have been made on half the usual shoestring. The only location is a grim, sparsely furnished three-storey concrete building (actually the dorm block of a Texas religious college) standing on a dismal plot of land, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
The plot concerns frightful goings-on at a privately run insane asylum presided over by Doctor Stephens (Michael Harvey), a ‘progressive’ psychiatrist who “doesn’t believe in the doctor/patient relationship.” It isn’t long before one of the patients is demonstrating his lack of faith in the doctor/patient relationship – by whacking Stephens in the head with an axe.
Coincidentally, new nurse Charlotte Beale (Rosie Holotik) arrives the next day, to be greeted by Doctor Masters (Anne MacAdams), an imposing older woman who informs her of Stephens’s violent death and seems very anxious to be rid of her.
There’s a paranoid soldier (Hugh Feagin) awaiting enemy attack, a deranged woman (Camilla Carr) mothering a baby doll, a guilt-ridden ex-judge (Gene Ross) obsessed with his past hypocrisies, a hulking lobotomised black man called Sam (William Bill McGhee) reduced to a state of childish passivity, and a weird old lady called Mrs. Callingham (Rhea MacAdams) who, according to Masters, “has a number of interesting worlds.” She also has some of the best lines, particularly her habit of quoting from The Fairies, by 19th century poet William Allingham (whence the old lady’s name): “Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen, We daren’t go a-hunting, For fear of little men.” Off with the faeries she may be, but she’s the only patient who really grasps what’s going on, gurgling cryptic warnings to the asylum’s nervous new arrival.
It isn’t long before Nurse Beale starts to suspect that all is not as it should be: for instance, Doctor Masters’ understanding of professional protocol seems crude at best. “I’m the doctor and you’re the nurse, and what I do decides what you will do!” she yells.
Violence escalates, paranoia takes hold, and Nurse Beale really starts to crack when Mrs Callingham is found bleeding from the mouth with her tongue cut out.
The film showcases the talents of Brownrigg’s cast, many of whom would go on to appear in the rest of his films (Ross, Weenick, Fulton, Feagin and Carr were already known to Brownrigg, having appeared in his friend and mentor Larry Buchanan’s A Bullet for Pretty Boy in 1970).
Annabelle Weenick, who assisted behind the camera, also excels in front of it (working under the name of Anne MacAdams). She gives the role of ‘Doctor Masters’ a dauntingly hard edge, reminiscent of late period Bette Davis or Shelley Winters.
Of the male cast, Gene Ross is particularly compelling in this, his first of four great Brownrigg roles. Ross is always convincingly villainous, bringing to the screen a seamy, insinuating menace the equal of better known Southern actors like M. Emmet Walsh, whom he also resembles physically.
The climax has Nurse Beale rescued and set free by Sam, and the chief culprit (see if you can guess) savagely murdered by the remaining inmates. Sam returns to the bloodbath upstairs to commit a violent act of his own, and the film ends with this abused innocent, alone and drenched in blood, finally comprehending his bleak reality.
It’s typical of ‘the S.F. Brownrigg experience’ that despite the abundant gore we are left with feelings more of sadness than of horror. Compassionate without being sentimental, Brownrigg films skew towards territory not immediately associated with drive-in exploitation movies, and it’s this, his concern for the feelings of his characters, that distinguishes him from, say, the grand-guignol black humour of H.G. Lewis or the seething nihilism of Andy Milligan.
Don’t Look in the Basement is rough around the edges and somewhat limited in sophistication, but it’s an engagingly sombre little movie well worth seeing, as are the other three horror movies (Poor White Trash Part 2; Don’t Open the Door; Keep My Grave Open) by this sorely neglected director.
After a small scale release in Texas cinemas under its original title The Forgotten, the film was picked up for nationwide distribution in 1973 by Hallmark Releasing Corp, who tried the film out as The Snake Pit before hitting on a new title that would resonate throughout the horror genre for years to come.
Don’t Look in the Basement (taking a cue from the place where Nurse Beale finds the bloody corpse of Doctor Stephens) helped initiate the persistent trend for ‘Don’t’ titles which later gave us Don’t Open the Window (actually Jorge Grau’s Let Sleeping Corpses Lie), Don’t Open the Door (Brownrigg’s third film), Don’t Go in the House, Don’t Answer the Phone!, and eventually, Edgar Wright’s comic trailer for a non-existent movie called Don’t, as seen in Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse (2007).
Brownrigg’s film was also the beneficiary of the first ever recycling of The Last House on the Left‘s famous ad’ campaign, with posters proclaiming “To avoid fainting, keep repeating, it’s only a movie… only a movie… only a movie…”
This promotional artwork also claimed that Don’t Look in the Basement came “from the makers of Last House on the Left” when in fact the only connection between the two films was Hallmark, the distribution company.
Stephen Thrower, MOVIES & MANIA
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