Judge Bill Gibron offers this solid piece of exploitation advice: Don't...believe the admonitions of these strange S.F. Brownrigg titles. They both offer some interesting '70s-era shocks.
After 13 Years She Returned Home…To a House of Terror, on The Day The Insane Took Over The Asylum!
Few exploitation fans would probably recognize the name S. F. Brownrigg. After all, the five films he made as director don't represent the best of '70s sleaze. Instead, this fascinating filmmaker took influence from his mentor and frequent collaborator—Larry Buchanan—and translated it into his own disturbed vision. The Texas maverick, responsible for such memorable schlock as Common Law Wife, The Naked Witch, The Eye Creatures, and Mars Needs Women, used his Southwestern base as a location for what could best be described as Southern Grindhouse Gothic. It's a stylistic sense that definitely rubbed off on Brownrigg, as witnessed by the two films collected by VCI as part of a throwback double feature. Focusing on the drive-in over the art house, and establishing that all horror films don't have to be gory or gonzo to be effective, Brownrigg proves quite capable of wearing the outsider moniker. Sadly, one of these movies fails to overcome its rather dated dynamic.
In Don't Look in the Basement, it's the first day of work at the Stephens Sanitarium, and Nurse Charlotte Beale (Rosie Holotik, Horror High) is a little confused. She can't find the man that hired her and a new person, Dr. Geraldine Masters (Annabelle Weenick, Deadly Blessing) appears to be in charge. Though she's quite authoritative, she tends to let the residents run ramshackle over the grounds. They include a true nymphomaniac, a stunted giant, a shell-shocked military man, a crazy kid, and a completely unhinged judge. As she tries to adjust, weird things begin to happen. People start disappearing, and the patients invade her room at all hours of the day and night. If she wasn't so sure of Dr. Masters' rules, she'd swear the inmates have taken over the asylum—and she'd be right!
Meanwhile, in another part of Texas, Don't Open the Door features an old woman, a town full of money-grubbing estate robbers, and the distant granddaughter of the dying lady. It's been years since Amanda Post saw her relative. She suffered a horrible loss as a child, witness to her mother's terrifying murder. Now she wants to protect the family fortune, including a house loaded with rare antiquities. When she arrives in the small Texas burg, she is stunned to see three men sitting by her grandmother's side. They are Judge Stemple (Gene Ross, Lost Highway), Dr. Crawther (James N. Harrell, JFK), and museum curator Claude Kearn. They all want a piece of the property. Little does Amanda know that one of them will go to deadly extremes to maintain their interest.
As examples of no-budget efforts relying on local talent and local settings to sell their shivers, Don't Look in the Basement (a.k.a. The Forgotten) and Don't Open the Door are quite good. They maintain increasingly surreal levels of scares while piling on the arch ambience and bizarro-world details that substitute for professionalism and production value. Taking a page or two out of Buchanan's book (rotating cast and rural settings with their inherent interpersonal politics) and matching them to an overwritten, dialogue-driven ideal, Brownrigg creates suspense out of speciousness and speculation. We dread what's going to happen next, but not because this filmmaker sets up his scares. Instead, he's so looney-tunes in the way he presents said fear factors that the unknown forges some inherent terror.
Brownrigg also exploits the human element to make his movies work. His actors are all very unique and unusual looking, bringing a sense of supernatural authenticity to his stories. Of the two films offered, Don't Look in the Basement is by far the best. It has the most action and the most atmosphere, and doesn't overstay its welcome. Thanks to the solid premise, and the ease in which the director pulls it off, we get swept up in this world of crazies and the movie pays off handsomely. The same can't be said for Don't Open the Door. This is basically a two-character yakfest, our heroine harassed by a terrifying unknown phone caller for 90 minutes a la Black Christmas. The late Bob Clark was a much better filmmaker, however. Here, Brownrigg thinks a goofy man talking in a whiny whisper equals fear. It only results in laughter. We never buy the plotline, and when the last-act denouement turns slasher, we've long since stopped caring.
Fans of either film will be glad to see the care taken by VCI in bringing these obscurities to DVD. Neither movie is pristine, and there are lots of age and stock element issues, but considering the rarity of each title, these 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers are pretty good. Of course, some might argue over the aspect ratio, since most exploitation films were shot in full frame, but the cropping here (if there is any) is unobtrusive and professional. As for the sound, there's not much that can be done with rickety old technologically inept recordings. The Dolby Digital Mono cleans both tracks up the best they can, but there is still a lot of hiss, drop out, and just plain indecipherable dialogue. As for added content, we are treated to a bio of Brownrigg (he led a very fascinating life) and trailers for both films. It's interesting to see that Don't Look in the Basement was sold the same way as Last House on the Left, using the familiar tagline "It's Only a Movie…" While a little more context would have been nice, especially in light of the connection to Buchanan, this is still a solid digital offering.
Clearly a case of good (Basement) balancing out unexceptional (Door), the Grindhouse Double Feature of S. F. Brownrigg's unique cinematic stances is definitely worth a look. While he's not a known quantity in the world of sex, sin, and the salacious, he did follow in the frightmare footsteps of some of independent moviemaking's masters of middling macabre. Fans of the genre will definitely enjoy this introduction. Others will wonder why something so shoddy is celebrated. If you have to ask, it's not worth explaining. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• S.F. Brownrigg Biography
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