DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT – the original "DON'T" film – arrives on DVD yet again, but this time from Film Chest.
Nurse Jane (Jessie Lee Fulton, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) has had all she can take working at the Stephens Sanitarium where the patients are allowed to wander freely and Dr. Stephens (Michael Harvey, THE VELVET TRAP) eschews surgery and drugs in favor pushing them to the extremes of their obsessions. When purity-obsessed Judge Cameron (Gene Ross, HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS) accidentally sinks an axe in Dr. Stephens' back, Dr. Geraldine Masters (Annabelle Weenick, DEADLY BLESSING) quickly takes command only to learn that she is soon to be short-staffed. Someone hastens Jane's departure by planting murderously protective mother Harriet's (Camilla Carr, LOGAN'S RUN) among the nurse's belongings. Masters is also surprised by the sudden arrival of nurse Charlotte Beale (Rosie Holotik, HORROR HIGH) who Stephens hired to replace Jane. Masters is against taking Charlotte on until she realizes she would have to explain what happened to Dr. Stevens if Charlotte returns to her former position. Charlotte barely has time to settle into the sanitarium's routine before elderly Mrs. Callingham (Rhea MacAdams) is warning her to leave and childlike Sam (Bill McGhee, QUADROON) – whose lobotomy was Dr. Stephens impetus for adapting a more radical approach to mental illness – is ostensibly under orders from the dead doctor to protect her. When Charlotte discovers Mrs. Callingham with her tongue cut out after once again warning her to leave, Masters insists that the hallucination-prone woman bit it off herself. Charlotte, however, is continually unnerved by the behavior of the other patients – including nympho Allyson (Betty Chandler), shell-shocked Sergeant Jaffee (Hugh Feagin, IN THE YEAR 2889), withdrawn Jennifer (Harryette Warren), and the childlike but more mischievous Danny (Jessie Kirby) – and finds it all but impossible to leave (as does anyone else who wanders in from the outside world).
Although horror fans familiar with Edgar Allen Poe's "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" – and Juan Lopez Moctezuma's baroque film adaptation MANSION OF MADNESS – might think early on that they are one up on the filmmakers and the heroine, DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT's scripting and debuting S.F. Brownrigg's direction is actually good at keeping the viewer in suspense as to whether the inmates have taken over or if Masters is just a sadistic tyrant making a power grab (or both). After the relatively tight set-up, the middle meanders a bit but in such a fashion as to give depth to each of the inmates – in their interaction with Charlotte, Masters, or with each other – demonstrating that they do not all share or accept each other's delusions and engendering sympathy for them (particularly Sam) while also acknowledging how dangerous each can be. The third act's attempt at delirium is only so-so, but it does become considerably more vicious, bloody and creepy (even if the actual visit to the basement is not the highlight suggested by the title). The late Brownrigg got his beginnings working as a sound and film editor for fellow Texan no-budget exploitation auteur Larry Buchanan (ZONTAR: THE THING FROM VENUS) with whom his productions shared common cast and crew members. Holotik, Ross, Harvey, and Weenick would also appear in the Texas-lensed Rod Serling-narrated anthology ENCOUNTER WITH THE UNKNOWN in a dreary, drawn-out retelling of the hitchhiking ghost girl urban legend. Ross and Feagin would also appear in Brownrigg's DON'T OPEN THE DOOR! and Carr would also appear in his SCUM OF THE EARTH before taking center stage in KEEP MY GRAVE OPEN (which also featured Fulton). Brownrigg's son Tony (RED VICTORIA) has mounted a sequel in the same location with a 2015 release date. Carr is listed in the cast as a new character, and different actors are listed as playing the 1973 characters suggesting reenactments rather than recycled footage.
Originally titled THE FORGOTTEN and released in most U.S. markets by AIP-offshoot Hallmark as DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT (as well as reissues as DEATH WARD 13 and THE SNAKE PIT) – with the same kind of splotchy background replacement title card seen on their THE HOUSE THAT VANISHED retitling of SCREAM AND DIE – utilizing the "only a movie" tag that also appeared on their trailers for LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, THE HOUSE THAT VANISHED, DON'T OPEN THE WINDOW (aka LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE), and Mario Bava's BAY OF BLOOD (as TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE). The film was released on VHS by Gorgon Video and VidAmerica in the 1980s. It made its digital debut courtesy of VCI's DVD which featured a colorful fullscreen transfer that would serve as the source for several budget DVD releases from Alpha Video, Diamond Entertainment, Brentwood, St. Clair Vision, and Mill Creek among others (as well as presumably the source for its airing on the short-lived "Elvira's Movie Macabre" revival series). VCI would reissue the film in a two-disc set with DON'T OPEN THE DOOR in a 16:9 transfer that was less colorful but otherwise fair (they later reissued the double feature as a single disc "Scream Theater" release).
Although Film Chest have been rather inconsistent with some HD-mastered by DNR'd to hell releases of PD titles like THE TERROR and DEMENTIA 13 – along with a handful of forgotten but welcome film noirs – as well as an unmolested but perhaps a bit bright transfer of SILENT NIGHT BLOODY NIGHT, I did have high expectations for an HD-mastered DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT. Alas, Film Chest's single-layer, interlaced transfer is so poor I would have assumed it was another rip of the original fullscreen VCI disc with additional compression from an MPEG-2 re-encoding, excessive sharpening, and ghosting. Some digital glitches also appear at different points, but I'm not sure if this is the encoding or the burning (Film Chest's retail editions have been pressed DVDs while the fully-authored screeners have been DVD-Rs). So far, Film Chest's release is the only edition of the film to include closed captioning which is helpful but it seems as though the transcriber's attention waned during the second half of the film as the track starts referring to Masters' given name as "Deanie" even though she was called "Jeanie" earlier on (which makes sense since she introduces herself as "Geraldine") and refers to the willow flute main theme of Robert Ferrar (PLAY DEAD, TERROR AT TENKILLER) as "easy listening trumpet music". For fans of the film, either of VCI editions are currently the preferable choice (although I find myself prefer VCI's original fullscreen transfer to their 16:9 one). (Eric Cotenas)
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