Friday, September 21, 2012

The Camp and Cult Blogathon: Scream Theater Double Feature – Don’t Look in the Basement (1973)/Don’t Open the Door (1975)

This is the second of several of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contributions to The Camp & Cult Blogathon, an event being hosted at my BBFF Stacia’s blog She Blogged by Night from September 17-28.  For a list of participants and the camp classics/cult films discussed, you’ll find the “usual suspects” here.  (Note: Unlike my previous entry of Seconds, I’m not going to provide adequate spoiler warning space—though there will be spoilers—because while I urge you to see Seconds if you have not already done so…these two turkeys can go to the back of the Netflix queue.)

You’re going to have to bear with me here.  As a rule, I like horror movies.  Admittedly, my tastes run toward those filmed in black-and-white and usually have Boris or Bela or Vincent in the cast…but I do like horror movies.

I kind of draw the line at those that go waaaaay over the top, however.  Gore fests, or movies where mad slashers pursue teenagers who have just had premarital sex and are now going to pay dearly for it—just not my bag, man.  There’s a scene in the film Murphy’s Romance (1985) where James Garner’s Murphy Jones walks out on a slasher picture in disgust, and Emma Moriarty (Sally Field) goes after him, leaving her son Jake (Corey Haim) and ex-husband Bobby Jack (Brian Kerwin) inside the theater.  Jones explains to Emma that he used to work in a slaughterhouse, and he doesn’t need to see that sort of action on the big screen.  So that’s sort of the way I feel.

I bring all this up because I need to point out that I lack the credentials to be a proper horror connoisseur, like Dennis Cozzalio or Bill R. or Tony Kay—or blogs like Chuck Norris Are My Baby and The Lightning Bug’s Lair.  There are a myriad of bloggers out there who can watch a horror movie and see all the nuances that no doubt will sail right by me, because if I’m not retching by then I’ve more than likely nodded off.  If a recent fright movie has some good critical buzz, I’m certainly willing to check it out…otherwise, I’ll stay away as a rule.  This brings me to this evening’s double feature.

Sherald Fergus Brownrigg was an Eldorado, Arkansas native whose small oeuvre of independently-produced terror films (the majority of which were produced in Texas during the 1970s) had earned him some considerable cache with horror movie fans.  He dabbled as an electrician in his younger years; working in his father’s hardware store…but by the late 1950s/early 1960s he developed an interest in movies during a stint in the Army.  He started out as a still combat photographer, and then moved up to the creation of Army training and educational films while in the service…and after his hitch was up, he went to work as a sound engineer and editor for legendary Texas exploitation filmmaker Larry Buchanan (Mars Needs Women).   Among the films Brownrigg worked on were the Buchanan “classics” The Eye Creatures (1965) and the ever-popular Zontar, the Thing from Venus (1966).

Brownrigg—“Brownie” to family and close friends—had aspirations of becoming a director-producer in the Buchanan mold, and he went to work as a soundman for the Jamison Film Company…which later spun-off into PSI/Century Studios.  In 1973, that company’s premiere film, Don’t Look in the Basement, was released…the first feature length film shot in Texas after the Texas Film Commission was formed in 1971.  (I’ll bet the folks who voted on that would have voted differently if they had seen this film.)  Brownrigg’s film was shot as The Forgotten (which I think is a better title), and was also released as Death Ward #13 and The Snake Pit (just don’t tell 20th Century Fox).  Basement was released on a double bill with the infamous Last House on the Left (1972) by distributors Hallmark Releasing…proudly trumpeting that it came from the “makers” of that film (and as you’ve already guessed, neither director Wes Craven nor producer Sean Cunningham had anything to do with Basement) and using Last House’s successful ad campaign: “It’s only a movie…it’s only a movie.”

Well, Don’t Look in the Basement is only a bad movie.  The film takes place in a private sanitarium run by a doctor named Stephens (Michael Harvey)…who for reasons only to move the plot along has allowed one of his patients to do a little workout, chopping at a log with a sharp axe…and then finds that same axe buried in the small of his back.  During this nifty homicide, one of his nurses (Jessie Lee Fulton) announces her intention to leave the facility in retirement…but she doesn’t get an opportunity to get that gold watch because not long after the doc’s murder she’s done in, too…by a crazy (Camilla Carr) who closes a suitcase on her head.  That leaves only one employee left at Stephens Asylum, Dr. Geraldine S. Masters (Annabelle Weenick, billed here as Anne McAdams)…whose odd reaction to the body count among the staff is to promise the remaining inmates that she will keep them safe, since “they’re family.”

As a rule, farm out your asylum sign to a reputable firm instead of letting one of the inmates tackle it.

See…warning bells are already going off and we’re only ten minutes into this thing.  Fortunately for Doc Masters, help is on the way in the form of nurse Charlotte Beale (former Playboy model Rosie Holotik), who was promised a job with Stephens’ coo-coo house and insists that she will stay on because she gave up a better job to work with the medico recently felled by an axe.  She’s introduced to a wide variety of patients in the place, everyone from nymphos to pranksters to shell-shocked Vietnam vets…and never once bats an eyelash when strange things start to happen, like an elderly patient (Rhea McAdams) having her tongue cut out by a mysterious assailant.  Nurse Beale finally learns the truth: that Dr, Masters took a few shortcuts in her medical studies and is really just as batshit crazy as the rest of the patients…Beale is spirited out of the asylum by a man child named Sam (Bill McGhee), who goes back inside after getting Beale to safety to kill the rest of the patients (who have done away with Masters) and have a popsicle.  (I swear I’m not making this up.)

"I don't think your Blue Cross will cover long-term expenses.  I also need to mambo dogface to the banana patch."

Those of you who've often wondered where to place the blame for the blue eye shadow shortages during the 1970s...look no further.

"My name is...Oliver...W...Cameron...juror's consult...adjudicator of the court of of jurisprudence...I own a mansion and a yacht."
The only way to really enjoy Don’t Look in the Basement is to approach it from a black comedy perspective.  There are a number of (intentionally) amusing moments, many supplied by McAdams’s elderly character who’s prone to spouting gibberish verse (“Up the airy mountain/Down the rushy glen/We dare not go a-hunting/For fear of little men!”) and talking to flowers as if they were her children.  In one scene, Nurse Beale takes the elderly woman out for a stroll and some fresh air and when she asks, “Do you get out often, Mrs. Cunningham?” the elderly woman snaps: “You’re the one who needs to get out!”

Sam!  Didn't you see the title of the film?  Don't look in the basement!

The other gem involves a phone repairman (played by Robert Dracup, who worked on several of Brownrigg’s films as a gaffer) who’s there to fix the phones (seeing the now-mute Mrs. Cunningham, he innocently asks “Cat got your tongue?”)…and in one scene he’s hit on by nymphomaniac Allyson King (Betty Chandler).  Allyson volunteers the information that she “used to live in this place where the phone man was always coming around” and the sympathetic phone guy naturally assumes Allyson had trouble with the lines.  “Hell, I didn’t even have a phone!” she informs him, not missing a beat.

Damn it, I said stop looking in the basement!

Sam's status as the film's "hero" was not in any way influenced by Night of the Living Dead, I'm sure.

But because the plot of Basement gets telegraphed fairly early on—all you really have to do is ask yourself why Dr. Masters makes no attempt to contact the authorities after two of her "colleagues" are croaked—much of the movie is fairly rough sledding.  Brownrigg was not an incompetent filmmaker, but his initial effort has no pacing or feel for suspense.  The music used in the movie got on my nerves after a while because the solemn dirge-like background tune is similar to that played in 1939’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (a film I probably would have been better off watching).  The acting is fairly capable, though it’s the kind of dramatics you’d probably find during a dinner theater play; many of the scenes in the movies feel as if they were part of some sort of improv workshop where the instructor says: “Okay, you’re a nurse in a nuthouse surrounded by crazies…GO!!!”  I am being a little facetious, I know—there was a screenplay, fashioned by Tim Pope (who later enjoyed a lucrative career directing music videos) and his brother Thomas…who would co-pen a screenplay with my Facebook chum Lloyd Fonvielle in 1983, The Lords of Discipline (based on the Pat Conroy novel).

Brownrigg’s second film was Scum of the Earth (1974), a film I have not seen but which has been described as a horror film in which a backwoods clan helps a young girl who’s being stalked by a killer.  Three of the thesps from Basement appear in this film—Camilla Carr, Gene Ross and Hugh Feagin—and upon its initial release it did quite well…but it did even better when a sharp distributor re-released it in 1976 under the title Poor White Trash II (hinting that it was a sequel to a 1957 potboiler starring Peter Graves).  Many Brownrigg devotees argue that both Scum and Basement are his best vehicles, but one Michigan newspaper critic apparently had it in for the filmmaker when he called Scum the worst film ever made.  (“Time would be better spent watching a block of ice defrost in the microwave,” he wrote in his review.  That’s gotta hurt.)

1975 found S.F. filming his third horror outing, Don’t Open the Door!, entirely on location in Jefferson, Texas…and once again utilizing the services of actors Ross and Feagin, as well as Rhea McAdams and Annabelle Weenick.  Despite the title, it’s not a sequel to Basement: a young woman named Amanda Post (Susan Bracken) returns to her hometown of Ellerton, TX on an errand of mercy when she learns her Gran (McAdams) is deathly ill.  Thirteen years earlier (in 1962), Amanda’s mother was murdered by a prowler…and is so often the case in these movies, the killer was never apprehended.  Arriving at her grandmother’s house, she finds a number of suspects—a corrupt judge (Ross), an incompetent doctor (James Harrell) and a slightly creepy museum curator (Larry O’Dwyer)—all angling to do the old lady harm because they want her stately three-story house for…some reason or another.

Feagin's character's name is "Nick"...and since he's a doctor, you know what that means.  ("Hi, everybody!"  "Hi, Dr. Nick!")

Amanda asks her ex-boyfriend, another doctor (Feagin), to come down and help her out…particularly when she starts getting phone calls from a heavy breather who is apparently phoning from inside the house (shades of When a Stranger Calls!).  In fact, why they called this movie Don’t Open the Door! remains a mystery to me (they should have titled it Don’t Call Here Again, Sicko!), not to mention the mystery of why Amanda never makes any serious attempt to contact the authorities about her phone pal.  But again, you won’t have to be Hercule Poirot to figure out the identity of the weirdo (O’Dwyer), who also puts on women’s clothing and hangs around in bars at one point in the film.  Any potential suspense in this movie sort of goes south because the phone conversations between O’Dwyer (with his raspy breathing) and Bracken are akin to listening to two scuba divers chat.  The movie ends with Bracken’s character going off her nut and croaking her boyfriend (by bashing in his skull with a heavy object, causing him to fall down three flights of stairs), then sitting in a rocking chair and laughing maniacally, as if she’s telling the audience: “And you paid to see this…suckers!”

Admittedly, I did a lot of this, too while watching the film.

But for all my snark, I do think S.F. Brownrigg had some filmmaking talent.

Basement is definitely the better film (though this isn’t saying much), but it’s a shame that Door is a disappointment it is because Brownrigg shows a definite improvement in his filmmaking skills (I like the movie’s opening credit sequence, which features some freaky ass looking dolls).  The acting isn’t too amateurish, but once again there are scenes in which characters who confront one another have to make sure they’re PROJECTING so that the people in the last row of the drive-in will hear them.  I liked Susan Bracken (the IMDb says this woman is the daughter of comic actor Eddie but I think they’ve confused some credits, to be honest)—she sort of reminded me of Ashley Judd—but I had trouble buying her demented act at the film’s conclusion.

The final film of Brownrigg’s horror film career, Keep My Grave Open, was made in 1976 (though some sources also say 1978), and features Brownrigg stock company player Camilla Carr as a looney tune living in a deserted mansion with a man who may be either her husband or brother.  Brownrigg players Gene Ross, Annabelle Weenick and Jessie Lee Fulton are also among the cast…as well as two thespians that went onto bigger things, Chelcie Ross and Stephen Tobolowsky.  With the exception of a 1986 teen comedy called Thinkin’ Big, Brownrigg’s brief directing career stepped aside for more financially stable work producing sports and hunting documentaries.  S.F. left this world for a better one in 1996 before he got the opportunity to do his dream project—a remake of the Tod Browning classic Freaks (1932).

Both Don’t Look in the Basement and Don’t Open the Door! were made available to me via the good people at VCI Entertainment, who have re-released these and other drive-in classics on a series of DVD volumes under the aegis of Scream Theater.  Thankfully, they didn’t cram both movies on a single disc (two discs for two films), and while there’s not a whole lot in the way of extras (a bio on Brownrigg and a couple of film trailers—if you watch the trailer for Door you really don’t need to see the movie) it’s priced to be easy on your wallet if these kind of movies are your particular meat.  I’m going to try and brave another edition of Scream Theater in my next C&C contribution…so if you want to say a rosary for me, I’m game.

1 comment:

Stacia said...

Great post! Your tears are delicious to me.

Like you, I am delighted by the titles of these films. "Don't Go in the Basement" followed by "Don't Forget to Sort the Laundry" and "Don't Leave the Lights On, What Am I, Made of Money."

If I had been on the set of "Basement" during filming, you could not have stopped me from making "he was given... the AXE!" jokes. Constantly.