Friday, July 10, 2009

Don't Look in the Basement

Man, I love the 70's. Not only was it the decade in which I was born (give it up for that alone), it is also the decade that produced some of the greatest cinema to grace the pantheon of all cinema. Not that SF Brownrigg's (sounds like a phoney name, doesn't it? Like Mr. Bigglesworth Pighaven of Fallingsworth or something) 1973 flick Don't Go in the Basement goes down in celluloid history for any reason as far as being termed 'great' is concerned, but it's still pretty darn 70's and pretty darn good, at least as far as the standards here at the Cavalcade are concerned.

First, everybody, get out yer DSM IV's, because it's gonna be a long night trying to figure out what actually plagues all these characters in this movie. I wish I had a copy still lying around; I think I took a psych class somewheres along the way that required us to have one, but I can't find it anywhere. No bother. I think if we were to actually diagnose all these people, we would realize they weren't all that fucking crazy to begin with. Because aren't we all a little mental? Allow me to unpack this (I used to have this professor that would always say that, 'let's unpack this novel or this story or whatever and now I find myself using it even though we would always tally up how many times the woman would say 'unpack' in the course of a class).

So, the movie starts out with Janey, the elderly nurse with killer fifties glasses who is getting on in years, telling Sam, a lobotomized black man with the mind of an eight-year old who eats Popsicles all day, that's she's leaving Dr. Stephen's Sanitarium, a old farmhouse in the woods, at least an hour off the beaten track, and infamous (?), well known for (?) it's experimental methods in treating the mentally ill. Experimental simply means he lets them run around unsupervised while indulging in their psychoses until they absolutely explode with the CRAZY, which should cure them. Experimental, right? I'll explain more in a second and you'll see what I mean. Janey just can't take 'it' any more and, as much as she's grown to care for Sam, she just has to get the fuck outta dodge, and we'll see later that that's a pretty good decision.

We're then introduced to Dr. Stephens, the patriarch of the institution, in a treatment session with Oliver, who thinks he's a judge, or once was a judge, I couldn't quite discern. Treatment session here means letting Oliver hack away mercilessly at a fallen tree trunk with an axe while egging him on to release his aggression. It's only a matter of time, here a few moments, before the old judge has hacked his way into Dr. Stephens, killing him.

Enter 'Dr.' Geraldine Masters, who ushers Judge off to his chambers and has Sam deal with Dr. Stephens' body. It's up to Dr. Masters now to take over where Stephens left off and run the asylum. Just as we thought Dr. Masters had her hands full, the lovely psychiatric nurse Charlotte, looking a little Lindsay Lohan-ish, but without the disgusting fake tan and drug problem, shows up, saying Stephens' hired her last week to assist because of Janey's departure. Dr. M is initially turned off by Charlotte's arrival, in that she never discussed Charlotte's employment with Stephen's before his untimely death, but figures she'll take Char Char on in the interim, because, well, you know how crazy people can get outta hand. And you see it comin' a mile away, which you probably didn't because my attempts at narrative are so poor, Dr. Masters certainly ain't no doctor.

After all this painfully obvious exposition, we get to meet the rest of the characters. Oh, and what characters they are! We've got Danny, a ginger afro-ed young man who's only affliction seems to be that he laughs maniacally at everything. There's Allison, a seemingly normal ex-hooker who only wants men to love her, but at what cost? There's Sam, who we've encountered before, as well as Oliver, the dude that used to maybe be a judge. Then there's Jennifer, a catatonic, sometimes prone to serious instances of knife wielding rage, and Sarg, an ex-Sargent from the army, who lost his whole platoon due to some fault of his own and has resorted to wearing fatigues and starring out the window, waiting for the other side to attack. There's also Mrs. Callingham, an ancient old woman who cuts out her own tongue and Harriet, a young lady who thinks a baby doll is a real child.

Seems Dr. S had just let everybody go about their insane business, including Dr. Masters, who thought she was a doctor, so Stephens let her continue to think that, including letting her assist in Sam's second lobotomy (!). Charlotte finds the hard way that no one is actually being treated for anything, as she tries her best to relate to the aforementioned patients. The whole thing winds up dissolving into this complete descent into madness on the part of absolutely everyone, including Charlotte, although it doesn't end as badly for her as I thought it would initially.

We actually aren't treated to footage of the titular basement until the absolute end, which isn't a big deal, since the the crazies give us enough entertainment throughout to really forget there was a basement we should be concerned about to begin with. Harriet, the one with the baby doll she thinks is a real baby, smacks so much of Mink Stole from Female Trouble (when she plays 'car accident' I almost think John Waters riffed from this, considering FT was made in '74). Her performance is so Mink, it's uncanny, at least to this JW obsessive. Allison is damn near eerie as the former prosty turned mental case, as she seduces, kills, and winds up in a necrophiliac situation with a telephone repairman, I would have given her an Academy award. And Sam, he's so endearing as the lovable Popsicle eating sweetheart, it's hard to believe the depravity he results to by the end of the film. The performances, while over the top, are still quasi-believable; because they are portraying crazy people, it really doesn't fucking matter how ham-fisted this stuff really gets.

This movie was riddled with plot holes, full of obvious red herrings, and rife with scenery chewing performances. I loved every second of it. This movie is one of the many reasons why I choose to ensconce myself in the cinema of the 70's rather than anything else. The aforementioned, and the eye makeup. Definitely the eye makeup.


  1. Well said. I enjoy this one myself a lot it has that same kind of 'so off the wall it feels kind of real' vibe I get from BASKET CASE.

  2. Thanks, Al Bruno III. You know, it does kinda have a verite feel to it. The setting lends a lot to that, since the 'asylum' is basically just a house. However, since I don't frequent asylums, although it's been said more than once that I probably would benefit, I'm not sure what the typical set up for the patients is like, but if movies have taught us anything, it's that the crazies in the nuthouse just basically sit around either rocking back and forth between fits of screaming and/or maniacal laughter. DLitB covers this quite well IMO.

    And you said two of my favorite words - BASKET CASE. Damn, what a movie! One of my favorites. And you know, I always thought the cast of unknowns who went on to do little else did a really nice job of handling the bizarre subject matter, giving it a very real quality.

    Thanks for reading :)

  3. I love this movie. Nothing can top vintage grindhouse cinema. This movie makes me crave a hot shower (with extra soap) afterwards & that's all the more reason to love it. What it lacks in technology/scripting, it more than compensates in mere atmosphere. Check out "Three On a Meathook" or "Scream Baby Scream" for a similar vibe. 70's indy horror rules my world.

  4. Jenn,
    Bravo to you for actually getting through this one. I've tried and I just can't do it. The look is way too "early-Columbo episode" and I just can't stomach it.
    Your review does make me want to try again, though...which is a huge accomplishment.

  5. @J Richter. I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship :) I have seen the two pictures you mention; although it's been since my undergraduate days since I've seen ToaMH so a rewatch is definitely in order. I am a huge fan of director William Girdler's Day of the Animals and Grizzly, though. Leslie Neilsen and the mom from The Baby in a movie together!

    @Billy. Come on, Billy. You can do this. Just sit back and relax and let the crazy take over. Drinking helps. Drinking always helps.

  6. I watched this one for the first and only time while answering emails at work, so I think I missed half of it, but the half I saw (though be it the grimiest of grindhouse glory) seemed very middle of the road. I will rewatch it just in your honor, hopefully sooner than later!