Studio: Film Chest Media
Director: S.F. Brownrigg
Writer: Tim Pope
Producer: S.F. Brownrigg
Stars: William Bill McGhee, Jessie Lee Fulton, Robert Dracup, Harryette Warren, Michael Harvey, Jessie Kirby, Hugh Feagin, Betty Chandler, Camilla Carr, Gene Ross, Ann MacAdams, Rosie Holotik, Rhea MacAdams
Arriving after the death of the facility’s lead doctor, the new nurse at Stephens Sanitarium discovers that the inmates have their run of the asylum.
Arriving for her first day of work at Stephens Sanitarium, new nurse Charlotte Beale is shocked to learn that her employer is dead. New administrator Dr. Geraldine Masters is just as shocked to discover that Dr. Stephens brought a new RN aboard without giving her a head’s up first. But seeing as how the previous nurse was also murdered alongside Dr. Stephens by one of the resident lunatics, this privately-run rural asylum could use a plus one on its staff.
Dr. Masters reluctantly welcomes Charlotte to the now two-woman team and introduces her to the inmate roster of assorted creeps and crazies. What begins as puzzlement over the peculiar policy of letting patients roam as they please quickly turns to terror when Charlotte witnesses their habits of holding axes and knives, usually over her head. Something sinister is afoot in this strange sanitarium, and it might have something to do with whatever secret hides in the cellar.
Making the drive-in rounds in 1973 under an odd slew of titles including “The Forgotten,” “Beyond Help,“ “The Snake Pit,” and “Death Ward #13,” “Don’t Look in the Basement” ultimately settled on the title for which it is best known, even though it gives away a big hint regarding the film’s climax. Of course, with all the promotional materials hyping the story as “the day the insane took over the asylum,” the film might not be terribly concerned with keeping its “twist” in the shadows anyway.
Perhaps the inmates-running-the-asylum branding was still fresh in my mind. But when act one introduced each character by showing his/her particular fantasy personality, e.g. the sergeant wearing the soldier’s helmet, the “mother” cradling a plastic doll, and the man referred to as “judge,” I just assumed from the start that Dr. Masters was another inmate playing at being something she wasn’t. It’s probably important to mention this because “Don’t Look in the Basement” may work better as a suspense shocker when that reveal remains a surprise. For me, it was a laborious patience game waiting for Charlotte to catch on.
A better moment comes when it is suggested that nurse Charlotte may actually be an inmate playing make-believe, as well. If for no other reason than it is the first time the script makes some sort of sense in possibly explaining her dim-witted behavior.
One inmate comes at Charlotte with a knife while she innocently irons clothes in her bedroom. Another night, Charlotte wakes to find one inmate on top of her and one more holding an ax at her bedside. Any one of these near-fatal incidents is cause for concern over the facility’s “no locked doors” policy, let alone reason to point a taxi’s taillights at the building. But Charlotte has yet to even give a second thought to the phone line that has been cut since her arrival, despite repeated attempts at using the blasted thing.
Speaking of the phone line, the telephone repairman has a brain cracked worse than any asylum inmate’s. Given how befuddled he is by everyone’s bizarre behavior upon his arrival, it seems evident that he completely missed the huge “Stephens Sanitarium” sign while pulling into the driveway. He confirms his obliviousness by then asking, “how come you people didn’t call about your telephone? It can’t be working!” Doesn’t that answer your own question?
The acting is creepily cheesy enough to pass as moderately endearing, while the technical execution is as low-grade as low-budget comes. Dialogue sounds as if it was recorded with a microphone placed inside a soup can that the cast yelled into. The sound quality is so tinny that it took several scenes to discern that Jane and Jenny were two different characters because of garbled line delivery making their names sound alike.
The ending gets sadistically gruesome by ratcheting up the crazy to a delirious level of insanity. Until that point, a great deal of time is spent watching inmates prank each other to varying degrees of torment, except very little of it adds up to anything substantial. It’s like a madcap merry-go-round revolving in a time-advancing circuit without actually moving anywhere.
It’s somewhat strange that “Don’t Look in the Basement” was double-billed with “Last House on the Left” during its debut as it is missing that same sinister seventies tone that makes movies like “Last House” still effective today. “Don’t Look in the Basement” is an odd curiosity, but not in the gritty grindhouse way where weird wonders of that era can give off eerie vibes to 21st-century eyes. “Basement” is too goofy to be in the same league as its darker drive-in brethren, and too boring to ever warrant a second trip inside its not mysterious enough walls.
Review Score: 40