he relationship between psychiatry and the movies has long been fraught with failure. For every well-intentioned cinematic dive into the catacombs of mental illness, there are countless stories that have bypassed authenticity for the glamour of tone-deaf sensationalism. The setting of an asylum, particularly, has proved time and again to be a prosperous fount of narrative hysteria: that trite motif of sterile corridors stretching down to padded white cells; a motley crew of blathering idiots, sexual deviants, and slobbering freakshows housed within.
Make no mistake, Don’t Look in the Basement (1973) is neither shrewd nor sensitive in its probing of psychological impairment—but nor is it as crummy, violent, or exploitative as its moniker and marketing (or its time spent on Britain’s notorious “video nasties” hit list) would have you believe. The brainchild of depreciated Texan trashmaster S.F. Brownrigg, Basement follows beautiful Charlotte Beale (charismatic Playboy pinup Rosie Holotik) as she lands a new job at a privately-run clinic known for its radical methods of treatment. Keen to make a good impression on both her employer (formidable Annabelle Weenick) and those in her care, the young nurse tries her best to embrace the challenges that come with the role, but a frightening sequence of work-related debacles push her slowly to the fringe of her own sanity.
Predating Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) by two years, one can surmise that sanatorium-based horrors such as Bedlam (1946) and Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963)—along with the more traditional genre trappings of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968)—were pivotal to the inception of Basement. What emerges from those illustrious scraps can only be described as a grungy, psychotronic chamber piece; a late-night Southern Gothic soap opera fuelled by flamboyant personalities and the histrionic temperament of golden-age Douglas Sirk. As with the bulk of SFB’s catalogue, the visuals excrete a primitive austerity that cynics would avow to be artless, yet there’s gumption at play in DoP Robert Alcott’s forthright approach, with stationary angles and rigid close-ups lending docu-like immediacy to the picture’s stained, sweaty visage. Praise must also be bestowed upon Lynda Pendleton’s production design, the maze-like belly of the institution—a claustrophobic snarl of bedrooms, hallways and stairwells—evoking a malicious ambience all its own; a would-be haunted house inhabited by drifting human spectres.
It is mostly in its allusion to the unfathomable terrors of Vietnam that Basement sets itself apart from the crud-laden crowd, pulling on the strings of post-war paranoia—so prevalent at the time—with a subplot involving Sgt. Jaffee (Hugh Feagin), an ex-military inpatient who spends his days warding off invisible ambushers. As metaphors go, this one’s about as subtle as an AK-47, though it does suggest Tim Pope’s script was shooting for something a little deeper than surface-level schlock—an ambition it best achieves when casting an affectionate spotlight on the quaint peculiarities of its subjects.
Whilst building to a berserk crescendo that finally brings the eponymous crypt (conspicuous by its absence thus far) into play, it is an unshakeable air of sadness, rather than one of revulsion, that lingers heaviest as the credits start to roll. It’s impossible not to feel pity for these condemned pariahs, these flesh-and-blood footnotes in an unforgiving world that has long since turned its back on them—original release title The Forgotten feels so much more pertinent in that respect. The pic overall could be described in much the same way: an anomalous footnote in the annals of Seventies drive-in cinema, as scrappily eccentric and singularly indefinable as those poor lost souls up there on the screen.