In his biblical tome Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents, author Stephen Thrower likens exploitation films to “the uncultivated countryside of the American landscape, where weeds and flowers grow alike more freely,” as opposed to the more sterile laboratory environment of Hollywood. Prestige cinema has always been easy enough to find in North America; the big dogs present a plethora of films annually to a public that doesn’t question their value or pedigree. But as Nightmare USA posits, variety is the spice of life, and low-budget genre pictures provide the fiery sauce to complement Hollywood’s vanilla fare. Just before the major studios began paying attention to (and capitalizing on) the slasher subgenre in the 1980s, the decade prior saw an exponential increase in creativity (budget be damned) and taboo-pushing in the American exploitation film. Some saw instant notoriety, like The Last House on the Left (1972), whereas some treasures have yet to get the discovery and cult following they deserve (I’m doing my part by recommending Don’t Go in the House, below).
Today we’ll look at three such underseen gems of the 70’s, all currently available on Amazon Prime. For the uninitiated: the same decade was peppered with horror and exploitation films with the word “Don’t” in the title; the trend was ubiquitous to the point of parody. For the 2007 release of Grindhouse, Edgar Wright did just that, cutting a fake trailer for a horror movie simply called Don’t. (Bonus: the first thirty seconds of that trailer references all three movies recommended below.) The “Don’t” triple feature is the quarantine viewing you didn’t know you needed.
Don’t Look in the Basement (1973)
The first two genre pictures here come courtesy of the same director, one S.F. Brownrigg. Don’t Look in the Basement is through-and-through asylum horror that has a mean streak, despite obscuring its most titillating gore offscreen.
The film stars Rosie Holotik, who genre diehards may recognize as the leading lady in the only good segment (the last one) of Rod Serling’s Encounters With the Unknown (1972). Holotik is Charlotte Beale, a young psychiatric nurse who arrives to work at an isolated rural asylum. The doctor that she was hired by was murdered, in a more tragic predecessor to the halfway house axe murder scene in Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (notably, one of the few axe murders in that series that doesn’t involve Jason Voorhees). There, she meets the remaining staff and patients, who proceed to torment her in as many ways as they can. Slashed throats, impalements, (implied) necrophilia, and multiple axe slayings follow.
Basement’s power lies in its modest but potent cast. From the creepy Mrs. Callingham (Rhea MacAdams)—an old lady who speaks in vague riddles until she suddenly,shockingly, doesn’t speak much at all—to the perpetually horny Allyson (Betty Chandler) who battles intimacy issues, the story boasts a colorful cadre of patients, each as unique as the veteran patients of William Peter Blatty’s slow-burn The Ninth Configuration. The movie’s problematic treatment of mental illness is a product of its time; the rising body count affirms the structural guideline illuminated by scholars Snyder and Mitchell in Cultural Locations of Disability: “difference is exposed, explained, and rehabilitated, often through cure, rescue, or extermination.” Seemingly curing mental illness by killing the person who carries it is one trope we can leave back in 20th century cinema, but Brownrigg does find balance in his Freaks-esque ending that punishes those who don’t do right by the patients.
It all culminates in a fugue-state climax that recalls Tobe Hooper’s sweat-soaked conclusion trifecta (as seen in Eaten Alive and Texas Chain Saw Massacre) of frantic camerawork, an off-putting uncanny score, and ear-piercing screams that don’t discern between fear and madness. Without spoiling too much, it’s safe to say that Don’t Look in the Basement contains one of the most mean-spirited endings of the “Don’t” films.
Don’t Open the Door (1974)
Similar to cult classic The Nesting (1980), S.F. Brownrigg’s Don’t Open the Door concerns a woman navigating the attacks and disrespect of various men who have both motive and means to mentally destroy her. Also known as Don’t Hang Up, director S.F. Brownrigg’s 1974 white trash thriller is the Pabst Blue Ribbon-soaked kin of When A Stranger Calls, with the Blood and Black Lace color aesthetic thrown in for good measure.
The post-credits opening features a POV stalking shot of a house, three years before John Carpenter made the horror trope famous with Halloween (but several years after giallo filmmakers such as Mario Bava had already primed the pump). In 1962, Rita Post was murdered as she slept in her Texas home. Her adolescent daughter Amanda discovered her body, and the killer let her go. Fourteen years later, an anonymous phone call summons Amanda (Susan Bracken) to return to the town of Allerton to care for her grandmother, who is apparently ill. Things get weird from there.
At the historic home (Texans will be tickled to find that the House of the Seasons in Jefferson served as the primary filming location), Amanda meets three men who immediately give her static: Dr. Crawther (Jim Harrell), who refuses to admit Amanda’s grandmother into a hospital; Judge Stemple (Gene Ross), who wants to buy the home after the grandmother’s death; and museum owner Claude Kearn (Larry O’Dwyer), whose obsession with both Amanda and porcelain dolls gives off immediate creeper vibes. After shooing all of the men away and focusing on her grandma, Amanda starts getting lewd phone calls from someone who knows a lot about her and her slain mother.
Make no mistake, the low-budget seams show in Don’t Open the Door; the title sequence cuts off mid-melody, and the occasional boom mic shadow peppers the frame. But the melodrama outdoes itself every ten minutes: creepy phone calls give way to dressing up a mannequin as a tribute to a dead woman, to cross-dressing, to doll molestation, and more. There’s a certain two-fold charm to the film. The first is in its strong sense of place; shooting primarily at Jefferson’s House of the Seasons cements Brownrigg as a proud Lone Star director in the same sense that Frederick Friedel (with only two genre films, Axe and Kidnapped Coed) reigns as king of North Carolina-based ‘sploitation gems of the same era. Second, it refuses to wink at its audience, maintaining an air of integrity in spite of its lowbrow texture. Brownrigg takes the narrative seriously and doesn’t rely on gore (it has scarcely more blood than Psycho, in color) steeping the story’s tension in ever-increasing paranoia to create a potent, borderline-campy final brew.
Don’t Go in the House (1979)
Don’t let the disco music fool you—Joseph Ellison’s Don’t Go in the House has a lot to unpack. The director leavens the drama with a challenge to the domineering mother figure, presenting itself as a lowbrow homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho— with a flamethrower.
Donny Kohler (Dan Grimaldi) is pathetic. He’s a weirdo with mommy issues, the result of a domineering mother (Ruth Dardick) who held his arms over an open stovetop flame when he was a child. Upon her death, Donny is torn between celebration (he can smoke in the house and play his music as loud as he wants now) and fear; her voice pops into his head, along with several others, whispering grim things into his psyche. Already conditioned to view fire as a cleansing agent, the grown loner turns a room of his dead mother’s house into a flame-resistant torture chamber and sets out to find a few sinful women in need of punishment.
Ellison is wholly unconcerned with having fun with the narrative; he stays firmly in the macabre and refuses to budge in tone, letting sadism and scrutiny rule the day. With Dan Grimaldi leaning fully into the dark pathos of the lead role, Donny is Norman Bates in an asbestos suit, racking up charred bodies and dressing them up in his mother’s old clothes for a low-key party from hell. He converses with them as though they weren’t burnt corpses, and the voices sometimes turn on him, adding to his own paranoia. Between the still-shocking sequence in which Donny sets a nude, shackled victim aflame and quieter moments of introspection (voiced by the charred guests upstairs), the film oscillates between sadism and sad sobriety, striking a similar unsettling chord as grim killer pictures Deranged (1974), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), and recently, The Golden Glove (2019). It’s easy to call the lady-killer’s tale a misogynist one, but Thrower hits the nail on the head in observing “the cultural trend wherein it’s impossible to critique the mother figure without being portrayed as a woman-hater.” Plenty of horror films interrogate patriarchal structures and upend the family unit (looking at you, Texas Chain Saw Massacre); there’s a rebellious streak of ahead-of-its-time progressiveness here film for giving bad moms the same unflinching eye.
These three films are solid products of an era when the sky was the limit for indie exploitation filmmakers. The cinema that they embody is mercenary and fleeting, resisting the sort of pigeonholing that mainstream film criticism entraps them in. While the creative soil was just as fertile in the 1980s, the ‘70s were nonetheless magical for the depraved rebel storytellers who, with a shoestring budget and a couple of cameras and trespassed film locations, could transcend the confines of genre and industry to reach out and grab viewers like an armed assailant in an alleyway. The “Don’t” films (and there are many more than the above) represent an alternative answer to the more polished Excorcists and Jawses that sat at the offbeat-but-still-cool-kids’ table in the celluloid lunchroom. Stray from the beaten path and take in the scenic Americana route today when you open your streaming app; “do” the “Don’t’s.”