he relationship between psychiatry and the movies has long been fraught with failure. For every well-meaning–though seldom sophisticated–cinematic dive into the catacombs of mental illness, there are countless endeavours that have bypassed authenticity for the glamour of lurid, 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 in the 1980s) would have you believe. The brainchild of Texan trash-master S. F. Brownrigg and screenwriter Tim Pope, 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 series of work-related mishaps steadily pushes her 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. Emerging from those illustrious scraps is some kind of 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 Brownrigg’s catalogue, the visuals here secrete a primitive austerity that could almost be described as artless, yet there’s gumption to be found in DoP Robert Alcott’s forthright technique, with stationary angles and invasive close-ups lending a 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 hallways, bedrooms and stairwells—evoking a malevolent 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 imaginary ambushers. As metaphors go, this one’s about as subtle as an AK-47, though it does suggest that Pope’s script was shooting for something a little deeper than surface-level schlock—an ambition it best achieves when it’s casting an affectionate spotlight on the quaint peculiarities of its subjects.
Whilst building to a berserk crescendo that brings the titular 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 is 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 U.S. 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.