Everybody’s Into Weirdness: DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT (1973)

The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.

The twenty-third entry into this disreputable canon is SF Brownrigg’s regional slice of melodramatic insanity, Don’t Look in the Basement...

Year: 1973

Trailers: Don’t Answer the Phone; Don’t Go in the House

Alternate Title: The Forgotten

There’s a joy to regional filmmaking that’s rather unique – idiosyncrasies that feel all the more personal to a picture thanks to its homegrown nature. Sherald “S.F.” Brownrigg is one of the best examples of a local boy doing right by his Southern creative comrades, churning out Texan cheapies that are fascinating mostly due to their utter outlandishness. The first of five feature directorial credits (which would also include previous Weird Wednesday program Scum of the Earth), Don’t Look in the Basement is a smirking, sweaty, “inmates have taken over the asylum” riff on unqualified lunacy. Composed almost entirely of leering close-ups that place the audience within the intimate bubble of copious mental patients, Brownrigg commits to creating a trash art melodrama that is quite literally screamed at full pitch so that those in the cheap seats don’t miss a single, harsh moment of histrionics.

Unsurprisingly, the plot of Don’t Look in the Basement is quite simple. Though marketed as a Last House on the Left knockoff (complete with a black and white poster containing explicit instructions on how to keep from fainting during its scant runtime), Brownrigg’s picture couldn’t be more tonally distanced from Wes Craven’s angst-ridden primordial howl. When cute young nurse, Charlotte (Rosie Holotik), is hired by Dr. Stephens (Michael Harvey) to work at a tiny sanitarium he manages using experimental methods, her new gig unexpectedly becomes a nightmare of the Southern Fried variety. It seems Stephens keeps a very literal “open door policy” in force, allowing the crazies to roam free and socialize with the staff and one another. Upon arrival at the rundown facility, Charlotte learns that Stephens has died under shadowy circumstances, and that she'll be taking orders from new head physician, Dr. Masters (Anne MacAdams). After a terse onboarding process (Masters’ bedside manner leaves much to be desired), the new arrival can't help but sense that something is rotten in West Texas. She’s right, but things escalate to catastrophic levels of madness and murder before she even has a chance to gain her bearings.

Brownrigg honed what limited cinematic chops he possessed as a sound-man for low-budget exploitation directors Irvin Berwick (Hitch Hike to Hell) and Larry Buchanan (Mars Needs Women). When combined with his experience filming wartime Army training films, it’s rather apparent how the director’s shoddily charming visual aesthetic came to be. Shot fast and loose over the course of twelve days in 1972 (under the appropriately rethought title The Forgotten), Brownrigg milked the production for every tarnished penny he could. Confined to a single location – an industrial, meagerly furnished three-story dorm block of a Texas religious college – and isolated on a dilapidated plot of land, the director alienates the viewer from frame one. To further unsettle his audience, Brownrigg has no problem graphically depicting the violent death of Dr. Stephens, who takes a thwack to the head from an inmate’s hatchet. There is no escaping this funhouse ward of freak shows, unless they ship you out in a body bag. For the next thirty minutes, Brownrigg then allows us to feel right at home with the ward’s grotesques, letting his movie meander and drift, becoming almost formless as we hang out amongst the shrieking throng.

However, the horde is what keeps Don’t Look in the Basement irrefutably interesting, even as it threatens to become completely aimless. Whether it’s a hulking man constantly sucking on a popsicle, a deranged girl clutching her hideous plaything, or a borderline nymphomaniac attempting to seduce the telephone man (in what transforms into a subplot all its own), Brownrigg’s descent into this livid world is never less than overwhelmingly colorful. What he lacks in formal composition, the filmmaker more than makes up for in reckless performance direction. At times, his camera becomes akin to a pinball, bouncing back and forth between mad-people, completely denying the notion that forward narrative motion is necessary for the audience to remain engaged. And for the most part it works; bombarding us with absurdity until remembering to right its course and head into the final stretch. To be frank, it’s debatable whether the plot of Don’t Look in the Basement matters at all (the central “reveal” will be obvious to anyone who has watched even a handful of horror films during their lifetime). Instead, it may be best to view the movie as something more along the lines of an amusement attraction, inviting the viewer to fall down the rabbit hole with this Medicinal Alice.

There’s a reason Brownrigg’s work has only received minor note from even the most hardcore genre fans: it doesn’t fit into any one specific category and refuses to satisfy the primal urges most seek to indulge when sitting down with a horror picture. There’s no extravagant gore or overly flowery direction; no graphic sex and only fleeting violence. Instead, everything is presented with a blunt matter-of-factness that feels tame when even compared to 70s horror eccentrics such as George Romero or Tobe Hooper. Nonetheless, Brownrigg’s tirelessly unpretentious approach is also what made his movies perfect for the drive-ins and dives they played throughout the decade. He offers up incredibly defined characters, all brought to lumpy life by a troupe of performers who are completely committed to the blatantly over-the-top style of acting. The term “regional” suddenly takes on a very literal meaning when talking about his movies; as they possess a distinct sense of people and place. Never overtly sleazy, they’re instead microcosmic representations of the director’s idiosyncratic fascinations, brimming with the fervor of solid community theater on a Thursday night, the stink of Lone Star beer saturating the floorboards as this assortment of mutants invite you into their perverse corner playhouse.

This Week at Weird Wednesday: Revenge of the Zombies

Previous WW Features: Penitentiary; Skatetown USA; Blood Games; The Last Match; Invasion of the Bee Girls; Julie Darling; Shanty Tramp; Coffy; Lady Terminator; Day of the Dead; The Kentucky Fried Movie; Gone With the Pope; Fright Night; Aliens; Future-Kill; Ladies and Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains; Pieces; Last House on the Left; Pink Flamingos; In the Mouth of Madness; Evilspeak; Deadly Friend