June 16, 2016
Horror movie titles can be so commanding, especially when they’re telling the viewer not to do something. The word “Don’t” has appeared at the beginning of so many movie titles that silly director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Attack the Block) spoofed the trend in his hilarious contribution to the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez collaboration Grindhouse. The “Don’t” movies can be subliminally cautionary, like Don’t Look Now. They can be sagely advisive, like Don’t Open Till Christmas. They can even be wide-eyed and optimistic, like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. But, most of the time, they’re exploitatively demanding, like Don’t Go Near the Park, Don’t Go in the House, or Don’t Answer the Phone! Way back in 1973, one of the first movies to warn its viewers to “Don’t” do something was the proto-slasher Don’t Look in the Basement.
Don’t Look in the Basement takes place at a mental hospital called Stephens Sanitarium where a new nurse named Charlotte Beale (Horror High’s Rosie Holotik) shows up to work her first shift the day after Dr. Stephens (Michael Harvey, a regular on “Death Valley Days”) and one of his nurses, Nurse Jane St. Claire (Jessie Lee Fulton from Paper Moon), are unceremoniously killed by two different inmates. After a bit of convincing, the remaining doctor, Dr. Geraldine Masters (Anne MacAdams from Deadly Blessing), allows Charlotte to begin work anyway, and introduces her to the patients. Unfortunately, the deaths of Dr. Stephens and Nurse St. Claire are not the end of the killing, and bodies continue to pile up around the hospital. Charlotte has to figure out who she can trust, if anyone, because it appears that not even her colleague, Dr. Masters, is who she claims to be.
Like many other movies from its time period, Don’t Look in the Basement is known by a slew of other names, including The Forgotten, The Snake Pit, Beyond Help, and Death Ward #13 – and that’s just in the U.S. Although the movie posters and promotional trailers boast that it was made by the same people who were behind The Last House on the Left, the truth is that the only common component between the two productions is the distributor; Wes Craven and company had nothing to do with Don’t Look in the Basement. The movie was in fact directed by S.F. Brownrigg (Keep My Grave Open, Scum of the Earth) from a script that was written by music video director Tim Pope, and although it has the melodrama of a British Hammer production, it’s as red-blooded as a pre-Halloween American slasher can be.
An asylum movie is only as good as its inmates, and luckily, Don’t Look in the Basement’s sanitarium has a colorful cast of characters. There’s Sam (Bill McGhee from On Valentine’s Day), a big friendly black fellow who has been lobotomized and, therefore, has a childlike demeanor. There’s Mrs. Callingham (Rhea MacAdams from Don’t Hang Up), a delusional old woman who tries to warn Charlotte away from the place. The resident schizophrenic nymphomaniac is a young woman named Allyson King (Betty Chandler in her only screen appearance). There’s a young woman named Harriet (Camilla Carr, who would return forty years later for the sequel, Don’t Look in the Basement 2) who constantly cradles a toy doll, thinking it is real. Another patient named Jennifer D. (Harryette Warren, whose only other credit is as a Saleslady on “Rhoda”) is the emotionally dependent basket-case of the group. The hospital’s prankster is a young man named Danny (Jessie Kirby, who also only has one other credit – as a Confused City Dweller in Logan’s Run) who becomes infatuated with Charlotte. There’s a man who calls himself Judge Oliver W. Cameron (The Legend of Boggy Creek’s Gene Ross) who only speaks in courtroom clichés and legal speak. Finally, the troop of loonies is rounded out by Sergeant Jaffee (Hugh Feagin from In the Year 2889), a Vietnam veteran who was pushed over the edge when he accidentally killed his own men during the war. There are plenty of suspects to choose from amongst the potential killers at Stephens Sanitarium.
At its basest, Don’t Look in the Basement is a slasher, and the visual effects reflect that sensibility. The special effects, designed by Jack Bennett (The Evictors, The Initiation), include plenty of slashing, hacking, slicing, and chopping, but the blood doesn’t flow nearly as plentifully as one would expect. The gore is used sparsely, but it’s effective when it is there. The effects are pretty meek by today’s standards, but in its day, the shocking violence was enough to land the movie on the British Video Nasties list of banned films – remember, this was pre-Halloween, which was before all of the buckets of blood that would hit screens during the golden age of the slasher movie in the early eighties. For its time and budget, Don’t Look in the Basement’s effects are passable.
There’s a fun musical arc that occurs throughout Don’t Look in the Basement. The score, composed by Robert Farrar (Play Dead, Terror at Tenkiller), starts out as traditional film music with small orchestral pieces, but turns into spooky harpsichord plucking when things get really creepy. Finally, by the conclusion of the movie when everything is going completely bonkers, the music devolves into percussive chaos. The musical score for Don’t Look in the Basement matches the dramatic curve of the narrative plot very nicely.
The trend of horror movies bossing their audiences into not doing something continues with movies like Don’t Go in the Woods, Don’t Let Him In, and Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! But before you don’t do any of that, make sure you Don’t Look in the Basement.