With all the modern glitz of high-end special effects, dark, moody storytelling, and a grounded sense of realism dominating the horror genre, a large portion of this new generation of horror fans don’t have that memory of the old, exploitative grindhouse days of yesteryear, where names like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Roger Corman, Lucio Fulci, and others filled the screens with blood, boobs, and insanity. While films of this style might have been light in plot or coherence, they made up for it with sheer chaos, often delivering a kind of pseudo-reality that not only entertained, but thrived. Even the more ambitious efforts of the era such as Craven and Cunningham’s Last House On The Left and Fulci’s The Beyond still contain their share of this over-the-top visual and thematic madness that was the hallmark of the exploitation era. Now don’t misinterpret me here, folks — I’m certainly not saying that the modern horror film is inferior (well, at least not always) — I’m not that crazy. I’m just a bit of a nostalgic old codger, and when I talk to those bright-eyed horror fans that have either never heard of the above-mentioned flicks (or many others of their ilk), I feel an obligation of sorts to at least shed a little light on that particular chapter of our favorite genre.
One of my personal favorites from that bygone era is the first feature of filmmaker S.F. Brownrigg from back in 1973, The Forgotten — known more popularly as Don’t Look In The Basement.
At Stephens Sanitarium, the good doctor for whom the facility is named is very progressive in the treatment of his mentally ill charges — perhaps too progressive. Because of a botched lobotomy he performed years before (resulting in the imposing yet sympathetic patient Sam’s eight-year-old mentality), he’s turned to the more revolutionary idea of a sort of immersion therapy. The idea is to get the patients to indulge so deeply into their psychoses, they eventually break through the illness on their own. This proves to be an even worse idea than you’re probably thinking — when Stephens turns his back on the patient known as the Judge, working out his “frustrations” by hacking away at a woodpile with an ax, the ol’ Judge decides that the doc’s spine would work out a lot more of his angst than that pile o’ wood. Dr. Geraldine Masters quickly steps up to defuse the bloody situation, and after dealing with the corpse of the good doctor, assumes directorship of the institution and returns to the business of taking care of the rest of the “family”, as they consider themselves. Besides the childlike Sam and homicidal Judge, there’s poor Allison, who’s cravings for affection push her far out of the loop of sanity; the Sergeant, who’s still fighting a faraway war; Jennifer, who’s manic depressive behavior runs the gamut from near-catatonic to violently homicidal; Danny, whose child-like antics give way to more sinister acts; Harriet, who has projected the life of her lost child onto an old doll which she steadfastly protects; and finally old, dotty Mrs. Callingham, with her penchant for obscure poetry and a whole different spin on “flower children”.
Shortly after Dr. Stephen’s untimely demise, bright, enthusiastic nurse Charlotte Beale arrives at the sanitarium, looking for the job Stephens had promised her. Dr. Masters is at first very much opposed to the idea, not sure if the pretty young nurse can adjust to the revolutionary methodology used here, as well as worried about how well she would fit into the “family” — finally, however, she relents, citing wanting to honor Dr. Stephens’ promise as her primary reasoning. It doesn’t take long, however, before the non-working phones, unlockable doors, and open atmosphere of the place begins to alarm Beale — waking up with slobbering patients in her room and dealing with things like an old woman allegedly removing her own tongue in her sleep isn’t exactly what she signed on for. As tensions mount and the line between those who are the patients and those who are the sane becomes blurred, Charlotte Beale will find herself trapped in a hellish nightmare of human madness, desperation, and depravity, questioning her own sanity before all is said and done.
I first saw this flick on video sometime back in the early ’80s — as a kid of around eleven or twelve, I recall it scared the hell out of me. Later that night, I was certain all manner of psychos were wandering around my backyard, just outside my window, and I tried my parents’ patience over the next day or two with questions about how close the nearest mental institution was, how good was their security, etc. Watching the movie several more times over the years, I have to say that as a more mature viewer, it isn’t really what you would call scary; there’s nothing about it that’s going to keep a reasonably sane (note I didn’t say normal ) horror fan up at night.
There’s only a little bit of that renowned 1970s bright red blood flowing, and that’s really at the very end (but when you get there, it’s pretty apeshit) — this film’s rep as a “video nasty” is pretty questionable.
What impresses me even today is that this film is a lot better than it has any right to be. The story, along with Brownrigg’s direction (straightforward though it may be) presents a aura of sadness and loneliness, outlining some downright sympathy for the cast of mixed nuts — even with their pathetic and often annoying tirades to their sometimes dangerously violent episodes. The acting goes hand-in-hand with this philosophy, with each member of the ensemble cast breathing plausible life into their respective characters; I didn’t find any of the acting to be sorely lacking. Of course, you’ll hear how over-the-top and “out there” these performances were — but these are supposed to be dangerous psychotics, right? Personally, I enjoyed the characterizations, and by and large, that’s what keeps the flick moving — honestly, the plot is where the shortcomings of the film are most apparent. With little reasoning behind it, the narrative is pretty thin, really just trying to give you something to chew on as a support track to lead you to the “big twist” — and that is telegraphed pretty early on. In the final summation, it’s the development of the motley cast of characters that really make it worth the watch, with standouts for me being Betty Chandler as the nymphomaniac Allison, Camilla Carr as dedicated doll-mom Harriet, the late Bill McGhee as the tragic, gentle-giant Sam, and finally the lovely Rosie Holotik, in one of her few film appearances as nurse Beale, serving as the anchor for we the audience.
As for me? Well, I find the movie entertaining, having that “70s feel” that despite some really good efforts, just can’t be duplicated — it’s a wild and wooly ride back to those drive-in days of yesteryear, and I can’t help but enjoy that from time to time. Can I recommend it? To a certain crowd, absolutely. If you dig true-blue exploitation/grindhouse flicks, I think this one is a stand-out for it’s performances and overall vibe. If that sort of thing doesn’t rock your boat (and I know it really doesn’t for a lot of Fellow Fans), hey, I can respect that. For folks like me, little flicks like Don’t Look In The Basement keep us reminded of where we came from as fans, and why we are fans — but I totally get it if the modern crop doesn’t feel the same way.
In some cases, I guess you just had to be there.
My two cents.
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