Mill Creek Drive-In Classics: Don’t Look in the Basement (1973)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Vaught has worked in the entertainment industry for several years. Nick currently serves as an Associate Producer on the upcoming horror documentary In Search of Darkness: Part III. Nick also worked on the long-running CW series Supernatural. In 2019 he co-wrote the well-received episode “Don’t Go in the Woods.” In addition, Nick has written punch up jokes on multiple TV pilots and teamed with actor Jason Mewes to help write his biography.

No matter how much of a horror buff you think you are, no matter how many horror movies you think you’ve seen, there’s always a lot more out lurking in the shadows, or in this case the basement. I had never heard of Don’t Look in the Basement before signing up for this assignment. I chose it simply on its title alone. Why? For starters, it has a similar name of an episode of the show Supernatural I co-wrote called “Don’t Go in the Woods.” Beyond that, the title intrigued me because I was always scared of basements as a kid, well basements and attics. I think a lot of us are. They’re dark, dank, dirty; much like the worst corners of our brains where our most devious thoughts lurk. On top of that, they usually only have one way in or out, which makes those locations prime real estate for horror set pieces.

The movie’s set in a sanitarium in the middle of nowhere. The head doctor, “Dr. Stevens” (Michael Harvey), has an unusual way (isn’t that always the case) of dealing with his patients. He believes in letting his patients act out their realities in the hopes it will right them. Dr. Stevens also treats his patients like family; he doesn’t even lock their bedroom doors at night. 

This practice ultimately backfires when Dr. Stevens is working with a patient, “Judge Oliver W. Cameron” (Gene Ross), whose dialogue is mainly repeating his title over and over. Judge Cameron is chopping wood with an axe, which ends up in the back of Dr. Stevens. The head nurse, “Jane St. Claire” (Jessie Lee Fulton), is able to subdued Judge Cameron. This is however the last straw for Nurse St. Claire who herself was the subject of a violent attack from patient “Harriet” (Camilla Carr), who is obsessed with a plastic baby doll, that she believes is real. Harriet attacked Nurse St. Claire believing St. Claire was trying to steal the before mentioned baby. Harriet kills Nurse St. Claire by slamming her head in a suit case!

With Dr. Stevens and Nurse St. Claire dead, “Dr. Geraldine Masters” (Annabelle Weenick), is now the lone doctor. Soon after she takes over, she’s greeted by “Charlotte Beale” (Rosie Holotik), who informs Dr. Masters that Dr. Stevens hired her as a new nurse for the sanitorium last week. Dr. Masters had no knowledge of her hiring and is reluctant to uphold Dr. Stevens’ commitment. Finally, Dr. Masters relents and brings Nurse Beale on board. 

Nurse Beale soon meets the other patients: the brute of a man, “Sam” (Bill McGhee), who has the mentality of an eight-year-old after being lobotomized by Dr. Stephens, “Sgt. Jaffee” (Hugh Feagin), who suffers from PTSD after Vietnam, a nymphomaniac, “Allyson King” (Betty Chandler), a prankster, “Danny” (Jessie Kirby), who you know is crazy because of his loud and obnoxious laugh, and a couple others. 

As Nurse Beale gets to know the patients and watch Dr. Masters work, she begins to wonder if Dr. Masters isn’t a danger to the patients. Her suspicions are seemingly confirmed when it’s revealed that Dr. Masters is actually a patient and that Dr. Stevens let her pretend to be a doctor. But are the patients messing with Nurse Beale to get back at Dr. Masters? Who’s telling the truth? Who can be trusted? What’s in the damned basement? The truth perhaps, or a body or two? There’s a couple of fun turns that I won’t spoil for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie and wants to.

Don’t Look in the Basement was shot in 1972, on a shoe-string budget of $100,000 over twelve days. It came on the heels of The Last House on the Left and immediately gives off a similar feel. Written and directed by S.F. Brownrigg, who made a few decent horror films in the 70’s; Don’t Look in the Basement is dirty and grimy and has the look and feel of a documentary, just as a lot of horror movies of the era did. The movie is also infamous for ending up on the U.K.’s Video Nasties list.

The low budget movie actually benefits from the use of a single location. The staff and patients seemingly exist apart from the rest of the world, save for one outside character. The isolation raises the paranoia between the characters; not exactly knowing who or what information to trust, especially for Nurse Beale. 

The movie isn’t your traditional slasher fare. The violence is spread throughout the movie; it’s not one kill after another. And the majority of the gore is held back until the finale, when viewers are treated to a blood bath. The movie is more of a character study and the no-name actors do a very good job with their characters, especially Bill McGhee as the sympathetic, Sam. The characters are treated as humans with real ailments opposed to caricatures. 

Don’t Look in the Basement seems to have been buried by the countless other horror films in the 70’s, but it’s definitely worth a look. It’s sort of like if Session 9 was filmed in one small portion of the Danvers Mental Institute and we got to know the patients. This movie is a great reminder of why we used to be scared, and maybe still are, of the basement. 

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