Nurse Charlotte Beale accepts a position at Stephens Sanitarium, a groundbreaking mental health facility treating its patients with an experimental technique known as Obsession Development Theory. When she arrives at the hospital, the lovely young lady discovers that the inmates are quite literally running the asylum.
A movie as cheap and amateurish as DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT (aka THE FORGOTTEN) should not be this enjoyable. The cinematography is static and unimaginative, the colors washed out and drab, and the cast is clearly comprised primarily of first-timers, community theater players and friends of the director. The film is talky and slow-paced, bogged down by very poorly staged gore effects and a fairly obvious climactic twist. Scrutinize the simplistic plot at all and you will find holes and logic lapses big enough to completely sink a far more professional production. The score by Robert Farrar (SCUM OF THE EARTH, DON’T OPEN THE DOOR!) is a forgettable combination of early 70s soap opera and bargain basement drive-in motifs. Everything about this movie looks and feels like it was shot in one day with a borrowed camera and leftover film stock, for less than it would cost to feed a family of four at your average fast food restaurant. Why, then, is DON’T LOOK so incredibly – indeed, perversely – fun to watch?
The opening moments of the film set the stage for the mayhem to come as we are introduced to a few of the “reality-challenged” people who inhabit Stephens Sanitarium. “Sarge” is a post-traumatic stress disorder victim who waits by his window in full combat gear for an enemy that never comes. Sam is a frontal lobotomy patient who appears downright normal next to poor Harriet, who believes the doll she looks after is a real baby. Danny is a manic geek who seems to delight in harassing the others, while Oliver, a former judge, works out his frustrated zeal for justice with an axe. Obsession Development Theory apparently consists of indulging the maniacal compulsions of the inmates, a practice which facilitates the introduction and quick, gruesome exit of Dr. Stephens (the director and namesake of the establishment) during a spirited “therapy” session with the schizoid adjudicator. The stern, severe Dr. Masters takes over the administrative duties, welcoming the newest staff member and introducing her to all the patients, including a few that make the ones listed above seem well-adjusted.
It is this ranting, raving, maniacal bunch that makes this film so riveting. Patients fight and argue and babble incoherently, leading to plenty of crazed melodrama and unnerving moments for our kindly heroine. Though not great actors, the players are having a ball with their wild characterizations, never allowing a single scene to become boring. In their zest to deliver the goods, many of the actors even manage to elicit a good deal of pathos from the viewer, while never losing their frightening unpredictability. The script (by Tim and Thomas Pope) also cleverly uses the many moments of unrestrained madness to steadily, deliberately feed clues and exposition to the audience, allowing us to become engrossed in a mystery that would otherwise be too obvious to be mysterious. Though the movie is never really scary, the psychotic characters and manic dialogue make it pretty damned unsettling. From love-starved Allison who tears off her top and throws herself at every man she meets to “quiet, withdrawn” Jennifer who lunges screaming out of Nurse Beale’s closet with a butcher knife, this is the liveliest, most whacked out gaggle of cinematic loonies ever assembled.
Rosie Holotik (THE TWISTED BRAIN) is the comely new nurse thrust into this world of insanity, and she does a decent job of earning our sympathy despite her limited acting range. Bill McGhee and Betty Chandler stand out among the inmates as Sam and Allison, respectively, while Gene Ross is very creepy as Judge Cameron. The most sympathetic patient is the geriatric Mrs. Callingham, (who is rewarded for trying to warn Nurse Beale to leave by having her tongue cut out!), played by Rhea MacAdams. The only real tour de force performance here, however, comes from Z-movie/TV veteran Annabelle Weenick as the cruel Dr. Masters. Having cut her acting teeth in some legendary white trash exploitation flicks (UNDER AGE, COMMON LAW WIFE, HIGH YELLOW) and several of Larry Buchanan’s most infamous clunkers (including CURSE OF THE SWAMP CREATURE, CREATURE OF DESTRUCTION and IT’S ALIVE!), Miss Weenick chews up the scenery here – especially after we learn that she isn’t really what she seems. Her performance foreshadows Betsy Palmer’s fantastic “Jason” speech in FRIDAY THE 13TH seven years later.
Speaking of FRIDAY THE 13TH, it is clear that the makers of PART V: THE NEW BEGINNING are fans of DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT. Vic’s murder of Joey in the opening moments of NEW BEGINNING is blatantly “borrowed” from Dr. Stephens’ death scene, while the dynamic inside the house – the way the characters interact with one another, the way they are introduced to the audience, the loose rules and freedoms they enjoy inside – is almost identical in both movies. There are even a couple FRIDAY THE 13TH-style murders in DON’T LOOK, though it would be hard to argue that these scenes had any real impact on the later, far more successful slasher franchise.
The disturbing atmosphere and unfettered lunacy culminate in a bloody, overwrought finale that is as unforgettable as it is ridiculous, a nice payoff in a film that really can’t be called “good” in any critical sense yet manages to maintain a death grip on the viewer’s attention throughout. It would be very difficult to recommend DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT to anyone who isn’t a fan of ultra-low-budget drive-in fare and “bad” movies, and virtually unthinkable to suggest it to someone who isn’t at very least a marginally open-minded horror enthusiast. It has some very clever ideas and an undeniable, twisted energy about it, but it’s just too cheap and unpolished to appeal to most members of the digital generation. This is the kind of film that really challenges a critic. On the one hand, it is so far from technical proficiency or artistic value that one feels compelled to write it off completely. On the other, it is immensely entertaining in spite of itself and strikes right at the heart of the macabre sense of humor which made many of us horror fans in the first place. Ultimately, it’s a trashy, no-budget treasure that I probably wouldn’t show to 95% of the people I know, but I know the other 5% will love just as much as I did.