Don’t Look in the Basement (1973)

*. Low budget trash, reportedly shot in twelve days on a budget of under $100,000. So of course it looks like shit, but come on.
*. There are a couple of points worth mentioning. In the first place, it was released as part of a double-bill with Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Now I’m not the biggest fan of The Last House on the Left, but it’s instructive to watch this movie alongside it and see what you were being subjected to at the drive-in at the time, if only to get a sense of the broader cultural matrix that Craven came out of.
*. The other point is that it’s a variation on the Poe story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” The basic idea is that an innocent visitor arrives at an asylum to find the lunatics in charge. It’s been done several times (for example in The Mansion of Madness, which came out the same year, and more recently in Stonehearst Asylum), but it really needs to be put across with more sophistication than it is here.
*. That’s not to say this is a film without any sophistication. I actually thought the introduction of the character of Dr. Masters was quite well done. After the Judge has just sunk an axe into Dr. Stephens she’s an immediately calming influence, and her white coat invests her with authority. Also, at least compared to the other inmates, she seems to have her act together.
*. I also like the random chaos of the Stephen Sanitarium. There’s no sense that the patients are organized at all, or are working together toward the common goal of deceiving the new nurse. They’re all trapped in their own separate realities, and they clang like cymbals whenever they strike up against one another.

*. But this chaos is also the film’s undoing, as the story just wanders from one room and one patient to the next without tightening the screw of the plot. At the end I wasn’t even sure what was going on, or who had killed who.
*. Of course the one black guy is named Sam. He’s a “loveable child” due to a failed lobotomy. Old stereotypes die hard.
*. The biggest problem though is the basic lack of talent involved. The direction doesn’t even try to build suspense, even when it’s available (I’m thinking in particular of the scene where the Judge gets hold of the telephone repairman’s screwdriver). The acting is dreadful, with the lead, Rosie Holotik, being a pretty Playboy covergirl who was presumably cast for that reason. The gore effects just consist of some blood splashed on people’s faces.
*. There was a bit of talk a few years ago about a remake, and this is a rare case where I think that would actually be a good idea. The basic story and characters aren’t bad, and with better production values and just a bit of talent it has potential. I don’t think this movie is one many people will want to bother with though.

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