Friday, April 13, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Don't Look In The Basement (1973)

aka The Forgotten

aka Death Ward #13

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

When psychiatric nurse Charlotte Beale (Rosie Holotik, growing increasingly hysterical very prettily) arrives at the peculiar little clinic of Dr. Stephens (Michael Harvey), where no door is ever locked, and patients are treated in a manner as far away from traditional psychiatry as possible (with all the good yet also all the bad that implies), she doesn't suspect the awful truth the audience learned during the pre-credit sequence. Stephens has been axed by one of his patients, the axe-loving Judge Cameron (Gene Ross and his favourite fake axe), and the only nurse has been strangled for supposedly kidnapping a baby (that is in fact a doll) by another patient. It's the sort of thing that can happen when you give an axe to a man with violent tendencies so he can live them out hitting a poor innocent log, and a baby doll to a woman who thinks it's her baby.

The only remaining medical professional, Dr. Masters (Annabelle Weenick), has decided to get rid of the bodies, so that her little family can remain as if nothing had ever happened. How fortunate there's no missing persons bureau in Texas (or so I imagine).

Masters is not too keen on Charlotte's arrival, but after some back and forth, she decides to allow the nurse to stay. That's a decision Charlotte won't be all that happy about in the long run, for the streak of violence among the patients, once awakened, continues with a bit of murder and a smidgen of tongue cutting, and deteriorates further from that point. Why, you could even think at least some of the murders have a concrete reason besides madness.

But who is doing the killing - creepy manchild Danny (Jessie Kirby, reminding me of Steve Ditko's "The Creeper", among other nightmare-inducing things), orally fixated friendly manchild Sam (Bill McGhee, in a surprise turn where the person of colour is the least murderous character on screen), the judge, the nymphomaniac, the soldier (Hugh Feagin)? All of them together, or somebody else?

The Forgotten (as is the initial and least sexy sounding title of the film at hand) is the directorial debut of Texan local filmmaker S.F. (Science Fiction? San Francisco?) Brownrigg. Brownrigg, unlike many other director/producers of local independent horror actually managed to put out more than one film, and going by The Forgotten, that's a thing to be quite excited about. Even in this debut, Brownrigg proves himself a capable director, using the small number of locations available - the film basically takes place in and around one not very interesting mansion - and a love for close-ups and surprisingly sprightly camera-work and editing to produce a mood of increasing claustrophobia and tension. Sure, there are some moments that will seem amateurish compared to bigger productions (sometimes Brownrigg's love for close-ups goes a bit too far for example, the blocking of scenes is often just strange, and you can't turn a normal house into a clinic, not even one as weird as this one), but by and large, Brownrigg is in control of his material, and knows which techniques to use to achieve his aesthetic goals.

I very much love how Brownrigg's direction grows less and less "normal" and conservative the longer the film runs, clearly mirroring how increasingly unhinged the characters become.

These characters, though, may be the film's main problem for some. The way they are written and acted is hardly informed by any actual knowledge about mental illness. One might even find the movie's whole set-up and large parts of its execution and vibe utterly offensive. Personally, I've seldom found myself offended by the depiction of the mentally ill in horror films because I see the movies' various whackos and psychos as just as fictitious as vampires and werewolves. If you want to piss me off in this regard, show me I'm A Cyborg, But That's OK and its horrible romantization of the pain people with mental illnesses suffer from.

Anyhow, coming back to the film, Brownrigg has to work with a cast of amateur and semi-amateur actors, and if you've ever seen an amateur actor trying to play "mad", you probably know what to expect: a horde of people chewing scenery so hard and excitedly, it comes as a bit of a surprise there's still scenery left to chew after half an hour of the film is through. However, the actors' various ideas of how to go about their roles (from cackling, to shouting, to bug eyes, to menacing stares, to McGhee's awesome blissful calm and Kirby's "crazy clown in puberty" performance) come together in a way that may start out silly but becomes increasingly intense, the bad portrayals of "insanity" taking on the feel of more real insanity, as if all the cackling, shouting and gibbering would actually unhinge the actors and/or the audience. Come the film's grand (as much as the budget allows, of course) freak show finale, the performances have taken a turn towards the feverish, even the disturbing, and the film's tone turns from a 70s interpretation of the friendly hokeyness of a William Castle production towards something a little more nightmarish and (in)arguably creepy. One may very well argue the latter turn to be utterly typical of the more cynical mood of 70s horror cinema, even though Don't Look doesn't have quite as cruel an ending as one would expect of it following this theory.

While Brownrigg does escalate his movie's action further than older horror rules and regulations would have allowed, and certainly shows himself unafraid of a little blood and decapitations, there's also a sense of (rather black) humour surrounding the movie that reveals itself in knowing nods in the direction of the audience that are best exemplified by the film's lovely ending credits, which show the actor's names over stills of their characters' corpses (if available). It's the perfect mix of the brazenly exploitative, the funny, and the slightly disturbing - a perfect ending for a film like this if ever I've seen one.

No comments: