ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nate Roscoe has been writing about film since the age of six, quite literally: he recalls penning an appraisal of Beauty and the Beast for a school assignment way back in ’91. His mastery of critique has improved a fair bit since then, and he recently contributed essays to a couple of Blu-ray releases from 88 Films. Currently, he is in the process of writing his first book. Nate is the editor of Trash to Tarkovsky, a blog devoted to the esoteric crannies of cinema. Catch him on Twitter @nutellanate
Psychiatry and cinema have always had a tempestuous rapport. For every well-intentioned – though seldom discerning – probe into the subterrain of mental illness, there are dozens of tone-deaf endeavours that circumvent authenticity for the glamour of lurid sensationalism. The setting of an institution, especially, has long been a prosperous fount of cinematic hysteria: that timeworn 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 about it: Don’t Look in the Basement (1973) is neither shrewd nor particularly sensitive in its gauging of psychological impairment. But nor is it as trashy, violent, or exploitative as its moniker and marketing – or, indeed, its time spent back in the day on Britain’s notorious ‘video nasties’ hit list – would have you believe. The brainchild of Texan trash-master S. F. Brownrigg and screenwriter Tim Pope, the story follows beautiful Charlotte Beale (charismatic Playboy model Rosie Holotik) as she lands a new job at a privately-run hospital known for its subversive methods of treatment. Keen to make a good impression on both her employer (the formidable Annabelle Weenick) and those in her care, the young nurse does her level best to embrace the challenges that come with the role, but a sequence of alarming incidents in the workplace pushes her precariously close to the brink 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 it manages to cobble together from those illustrious scraps is a kind of psychotronic chamber piece, a late-night Southern Gothic soap opera comprised of oddball characters and the histrionic quintessence of golden age Douglas Sirk. As with the bulk of Brownrigg’s oeuvre, the visuals secrete a primitive austerity that could almost be certified as artless, yet there’s gumption to be found in the forthright technique; the stationary angles and invasive close-ups lending a docu-like immediacy to the picture’s stained, sweaty visage. Praise must also be bestowed upon the production design, the maze-like belly of the institution (a claustrophobic snarl of hallways, bedrooms, and staircases) 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 inconceivable 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 every waking hour warding off imaginary nemeses. 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 an expectedly berserk crescendo that sees the titular crypt (conspicuous by its absence thus far) come fleetingly into play, it is an unshakeable air of sadness, rather than one of revulsion, that lingers heaviest as the credits begin to roll. It’s impossible for us 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 (the original US release title, The Forgotten, feels so much more pertinent in this respect). The film 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 broken souls up there on the screen.