“Don’t Look in the Basement”: Insane mental patients run an asylum in this ’70s drive-in hit

By on March 22, 2019

In S.F. Brownrigg‘s 1973 cult hit Don’t Look in the Basement — slightly NSFW for a few scant topless scenes — a young nurse starts working at a privately-owned sanitarium, right after criminally-insane mental patients have taken over running the asylum.

Watch this blood-dripping Grade Z slice of drive-in sleaze — frequently double-featured with Last House on the Left (1972) — on Night Flight Plus.

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Right from the start, we realize that Stephens Sanitarium isn’t like other mental institutions after long-employed nurse “Jane St. Clair” (Jessie Lee Fulton) tells her patient “Sam” (William “Bill” McGhee) she’s leaving.

The once-violent gentle soul has been lobotomized, but still reacts like an emotional eight year old child. Luckily, Sam cools off whenever he’s sucking on a grape-flavored Popsicle.

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In another wing of the sanitarium — a two-story dwelling which doesn’t look big enough to keep all the craziness from spilling out — the “Judge” (Judge Oliver W. Cameron, played to the hilt by Gene Ross) uses the business end of an axe to make his point on “Dr. Stephens” (Michael Harvey).

The doctor’s bloody death allows “Dr. Geraldine Masters” (Anne MacAdams, a.k.a. Annabelle Weenick, who also worked behind the camera) to finally run the asylum like she’d been doing it all along.

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Then, new nurse “Charlotte Beale” (the lovely Rosie Holotik) — who traded in her comfy supervisor job at a major hospital to come to work with the unorthodox Dr. Stevens at his private sanitarium — arrives, unaware there have been a few personnel changes.

She reports to her new boss, who tells her she’s always had a problem with the way Dr. Stephens ran the place, so she’s not too sure she’s going to honor their prior arrangement.

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After a lengthy chat, Dr. Masters hires Charlotte, who is shown to her room (asylum staff and patients apparently live on the same floor).

The very next morning, she and Dr. Masters make their rounds and we meet a few more of the patients.

There’s “Danny” (Jessie Kirby), a bratty curly-coifed fellow with an annoying hyena-like laugh, and a nympho named “Allyson King” (Betty Chandler, who occasionally strips down naked as a jaybird).

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There’s also “Harriett” (Camilla Carr), who carries around a doll she believes is her own baby, the crazy old poetry buff “Mrs. Callingham” (Rhea MacAdams), and the moody psycho “Jennifer” (Harryette Warren).

Last but not least, we meet “Sarge” a.k.a. “Sgt. Jaffee” (Hugh Feggin), the PTSD-suffering homicidal maniac who lost his entire platoon in combat.

These characters make all the psychos in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (released a few years later, in 1975) look like Broadway stage actors chewing the proverbial lead-paint covered hospital green scenery.

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At first, Charlotte seems generally unaware of the craziness going on behind the scenes, such as the phone lines being severed, and when phone company repairman “Ray Daniels” (Robert Dracup) tries to fix the line, well, let’s just say he’s going to be unavailable to make another call.

Be sure to stick around long enough to see the film’s credit sequence, which is a sanguine reminder not to take any faked-up horror movie schtick too seriously.

The original trailer is really great:

Read more about Don’t Look in the Basement below.

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Sherald “S.F.” Brownrigg — b. September 30, 1937, in El Dorado, Arkansas — served as a combat photographer in the Army, where he also made military training films.

After his time in the service, he met friend and mentor Larry Buchanan, another indie filmmaker with similar interests in low-budget horror and exploitation movies.

The two men worked together on The Naked Witch (1964), High Yellow (1965), and the magnificently-monikered Zontar: The Thing from Venus (1966).

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Brownrigg later headed up the sound department of the Dallas-based Jamison Film Company, but by the early 70s, he was ready to begin working on his own regionally-shot and distributed low-budget horror films.

Brownrigg’s debut as a director featured unknown local actors (he’d already seen Ross, Weenick, Fulton, Feagin and Carr in Buchanan’s A Bullet for Pretty Boy a few years earlier).

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Hotolik, the stunning redhead from Tyler, Texas, had appeared as a centerfold in Playboy magazine’s April 1972 issue, and that same year she’d earlier appeared as an ill-fated hitchhiker in Encounter with the Unknown.

She also appeared in the teen revenge flick Horror High, released in 1973.

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Don’t Look in the Basement — filmed in Tehuacana, Texas, on a production budget of just $100,000, and completed in about twelve days — was originally released in the greater Southwest as The Forgotten, with poster tag-lined: “You might get over the shock, but you will never forget the Forgotten!”

It was later distributed as Death Ward #13, Beyond Help and The Snake Pit, but no matter the title, it is today considered a cult classic by devoted fans of ’70s Grade Z low-budget drive-in sleaze.

It also apparently horrified UK censors, who added it to their infamous Video Nasty list.

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Brownrigg continued making more low-budget regionally-shot & distro’d films with titles like Scum of the Earth (a.k.a. Poor White Trash 2, 1974), Don’t Open the Door (1975), and Keep My Grave Open (1976).

Brownrigg’s last film was Thinkin’ Big (1986), after which he worked on fishing, hunting and golf programs for ESPN.

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He ultimately became the president of Dallas-based Century Studios, and in 1990 he told Fangoria fanzine he was planning on filming his own sequel to Tod Browning’s classic film Freaks (1932).

Alas, Brownrigg never lensed his Freaks sequel. He died on September 20, 1996, just ten days before his sixtieth birthday.

Watch Don’t Look in the Basement and Don’t Open the Door on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.