A good ending can often redeem what would otherwise be a less-than-stellar film. Such is the case with S.F. Brownrigg’s drive-in classic Don’t Look in the Basement (1973) (also known as The Forgotten and Death Ward 13). Based on a lesser-known story by Edgar Allan Poe, it is the tale of a young nurse who finds her first days at a small psychiatric hospital disrupted by the fact that the head doctor was recently accidentally killed by one of the patients. The nurse is assured by the second-in-command that everything is under control, but things are not always what they seem. The acting ranges from pretty good to downright dreadful. Though the source material is not one of Poe’s more well-known tales, it has been adapted enough times that most viewers will find the plot quite familiar, nonetheless. The story meanders for the first two-thirds of the film, but it picks up in the third act, becoming quite brutal and frightening.
Dr. Stephens (Michael Harvey) is the head of the Stephens Sanitarium, a small, private mental health facility that feels more like a group home than a full-fledged hospital. He has a new nurse coming, as his old nurse Jane (Jessie Lee Fulton) is getting ready to retire. Unfortunately, during an active therapy session, one of the patients, Judge Oliver W. Cameron (Gene Ross), apparently kills Dr. Stephens by hitting him the back with an ax. In the ensuing panic, Jane accidentally disrupts the patient Harriet (Camilla Carr), who proceeds to strangle to death Jane. This so happens to be the same day that Jane’s replacement, Charlotte Beale (Rosie Holotik), arrives at the hospital. Dr. Geraldine S. Masters (Annabelle Weenick as Anne MacAdams), apparently the hospital’s only other doctor, is reluctant to allow Charlotte to stay, but finally, she agrees. Charlotte has a hard time adjusting, especially considering some of the sanitariums strange features, such a no locks on any doors. Dr. Masters is not the kindliest of administrators, and Charlotte begins to suspect that not all is as it seems at the Stephens Sanitarium.
If one comes to a drive-in/grindhouse film expecting great acting, one will, more often than not, leave disappointed. Most of the performances in Don’t Look in the Basement meet this greatly lowered expectation. Lead actress Rosie Holotik is a former Playboy cover model (April 1972), and this is her film debut. As such, her acting skills are not those of a seasoned professional. She spends most of the first two acts looking bewildered and somewhat concerned. That said, once the third act kicks in, she switches into “scream queen” mode and performs admirably. This being the 1970s, sensitive portrayals of the mentally ill are not exactly in fashion, which leads to much scenery chewing by the actors portraying the patients. They ham it up, but the cheesy nature of their schtick works well within the context of a drive-in movie. The one stand-out, acting ability wise, is Anne MacAdams as Dr. Geraldine Masters. She handles a somewhat complex role admirably, presenting a character that is struggling to keep it all together in spite of the chaos. That is not to say that she does not do a bit of scenery chewing, herself, but she does keep it somewhat tempered.
The mystery behind the plot to Don’t Look in the Basement, while intended to be shocking, probably will be familiar to most viewers. This is because it is based on the Edgar Allan Poe story The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether (1856). Now, the story itself actually is not that well known, but its plot is. This is because, surprisingly, it does have over a dozen adaptations, including plays, films, teleplays, and even an opera. Even without being familiar with the source material, most viewers will figure out what is going on well before the characters do. This does not lessen the impact of the film, though, as the best parts come after the question of what is going on is already answered.
Pacing is the biggest of the problems with Don’t Look in the Basement. Even though it does start off with an ax murder, it just kind of meanders after that . . . up to a point. The first two-thirds of the film is supposed to be filled with menace, but it comes off flat. Even when one of the residents has their tongue ripped out (off-screen), one really does not have a sense of danger. Whereas the film should be filled with a creepy atmosphere, it just does not achieve that in the early segments. All of that changes, though, around the time of the third act. It is not so much a slow-build as it is a sudden departure. Once things go off of the rails, the tension and terror kick into high gear, and it feels like a completely different (and much better) movie. The final act is more darkly lit and really increases the air of menace. Additionally, the bloodshed in the finale is quite brutal, and it feels all the more so when compared to the underplayed violence earlier in the film.
While Don’t Look in the Basement is not really a great film, it is still a drive-in classic. Aside from Anne MacAdams’ turn as Dr. Masters, the acting is par for the course for drive-in fare, i.e. it is pretty bad, but in a fun and cheesy way. The plot tries to be mysterious, but modern audiences will probably guess what is going on well before the characters do. The first two-thirds of the film are not that thrilling, but then it makes up for that in the kick-ass final act. Viewers who enjoy the drive-in aesthetic and can sit through the rather oddly paced early portions of the film are rewarded with a kicker of an ending and one of the more bizarre cinematic “curtain calls” since The Bad Seed (1956).
Don’t Look in the Basement (2.8 / 5)