The low-budget horror boom of the 1970s led to one of the most important, pivotal and game-changing eras for the genre. It launched lasting Hollywood careers, and saw the release of films which ensured their directors would never work in the industry again. Many of modern horror’s lauded greats began their careers making films that epitomized the boundary-pushing, DIY ethic of the time, but for every Craven or Hooper, there are any number of innovative and visionary film makers whose work has, for whatever reason, never found the lasting appreciation it deserves. In this regard, one name always leaps ahead of the rest for this viewer; that of the late S.F. Brownrigg.
The bafflingly underappreciated Texan auteur made just four horror films in the seventies, shot within 2 or 3 years of each other, all of them beautifully crafted gems. His most celebrated among fans of seventies horror and exploitation though, has remained his 1973 debut Don’t Look in The Basement. Finding notoriety in the UK as one of the DPP’s ‘video nasties’, the film is a moody, melancholic character piece which erupts into intermittent bursts of hideous violence. Originally titled The Forgotten, but renamed for added drive-in marketability, it enjoyed a decade-long run playing with Wes Craven’s The Last House on The Left. The film follows the inmates of Stephens Sanitarium adjusting to a new regime following the murder of Dr. Stephens by one of the patients. Weaving around the individuals’ stories (not least that of lobotomized hulk Sam, played with heartbreaking truth by Bill McGhee), the narrative builds to a revelatory and shocking finale. Basement stands out in the 70s grindhouse landscape due to its permeating sense of sadness, foregrounding as it does the tragic plights of its characters.
Like Basement, Brownrigg’s second film also suffered frequent re-titling. Released in 1974 to US drive-ins as Scum of The Earth, it arrived on VHS as Poor White Trash Part II (in an attempt to pass it off as a sequel to a 1957 film, related only in its shared Bayou setting), before losing the ‘Part II’ for the UK video cover, though it remains onscreen. Perhaps this re-titling led to the film’s lessened notoriety, but this grimy yet poetic underground classic easily stands up to more celebrated backwoods slashers, oozing rural Southern terror from every sweaty, muddied pore (the theme tune – ‘Death is a Family Affair’ – is dripping with redneck charm). Brownrigg followed up with Don’t Open The Door (also 1974) and Keep My Grave Open in 1976. Less lurid and grindhouse-friendly than their predecessors, they still retain the melancholy air and Southern gothic sensibilities that characterize Brownrigg’s films.
Respectful releases of S.F. Brownrigg’s films remain elusive, most not seen in the UK since their 80s VHS heyday. Articles on the director are equally scarce. In a rare Fangoria interview from 1992 he discussed an imminent return to the horror genre, even hinting at a desire to remake Todd Browning’s 1932 classic Freaks. This was never to be however; S.F. Brownrigg passed away in 1996, aged just 58.
Thankfully, Brownrigg’s limited body of work was not to be the extent of his legacy, as 2015 sees the release of Don’t Look in the Basement 2, a sequel 40 years in the making. Directed by his son, Anthony Brownrigg, it is a true labour of love. Having worked on film sets in various capacities for most of his life, as well as directing Red Victoria in 2008 plus a handful of short films, Anthony now surely faces the most daunting moment of his career to date, as well as the most personal. Anthony has apparently been careful to stay true to the spirit of the original film, centring his tale on one of the original’s lead characters, as well as casting S.F. Brownrigg regular Camilla Carr. I contacted Anthony ahead of the sequel’s premiere at 2015’s Dallas International Film Festival to discuss his film, as well as the work of his father, whom he is happy to talk about. And with such precious little having been previously written about his father, his words provide some truly valuable insight into a man who is to many, an unsung genius.
(contains spoilers to original DLITB)
What stage are you at with Don’t Look in The Basement 2? Do you have a distributor yet?
At the present time, we’re putting on the finishing touches, music, audio sweetening and the like. The amazing thing is we’ve been approached by numerous distributors on the film, but we’ve been very hesitant on making decisions until the film is finished.
Can you tell me anything about the plot?
The plot to Basement 2 has a very paranormal bent. It takes place at the original location forty years after the first film ended. It’s a direct sequel that follows what happened to Sam after all those years. Who found him there with all those dead bodies? Where was he taken? The building was sold in 1976 to GreenPark clinic, and after forty years the current doctors and patients there have no idea the place used to be Stephens Sanitarium, not until Sam returns, and the past gets stirred up.
It’s great that Camilla Carr is returning, will we see any other original cast members?
Having Camilla was one of my first demands on the sequel. Granted she doesn’t play the same character being as Harriet was killed in the original. But just having her involved was something I think my father would have loved. We had plans to utilize Bill McGhee to come back and play Sam but unfortunately he was lost to us a few years ago. Willie Minor Jr. has stepped into the role and does a fantastic job. On a side note my own mother Libby Hall of Larry Buchannan classic The Naked Witch makes her return to acting after 50 years portraying one of the patients. My mom and dad met on the set of Naked Witch when he was a sound man. I thought it only fitting she should get included in this. And also even though we didn’t have Bill McGhee, we did bring in his daughter Dawn to be one of the patients as well.
Have you always wanted to make this sequel, and do you feel a lot of pressure, finishing off your father’s work, as it were?
I’ve wanted to make a sequel to Basement for about fourteen years. Dad had plans for longer than that to create a sequel, but unfortunately the funding never materialized for him. As far as pressure, yes absolutely. This film meant a great deal to him and we talked about it for years off and on. After his passing I took a lot of our conversations about the film to help create the premise of the sequel. Then late [in 2013] Megan Emerick and I sat down to rework the screenplay. I hope he’s happy.
Where did the shoot take place? Does the Trinity Institute building from the original film still stand?
Indeed it does, and yes our venture into the sequel for basement was eerily similar to the original film. The crew and cast all traveled to Tehuacana Texas, to the Trinity institute, and we did the same thing the original cast did, and slept there on site. The building still operates as a working Hostel so we had two floors of beds that we all split up into. It was one of the most fun shoots I’ve ever been on. Wake up early, go down stairs, have breakfast, go upstairs and get shooting. It was a mind-blowing experience shooting in the exact same location, seeing every corner and hallway that dad worked in.
Growing up, did you watch your father’s films? Did you spend a lot of time on set with him?
Oh yes, I learned how to cut film while he was working on Don’t Open the Door. I started on sets with him at ten years old (free Labour of course). I learned so much by doing almost every job on set. I can’t count how many various productions, commercials, industrials, films, that I managed to get experience on simply because he was my father. It truly gave me a wealth of knowledge.
I’ve read that your father rejected offers of work in Hollywood. Was he happy with the underground, cult status of his films, and did he enjoy working the way he did?
That’s a hard question. My father was a lot of things, and I think first and foremost he was a man of humble integrity. That almost by default put him at odds with typical Hollywood shmoozing. He hated that. He was a simple west Texas guy who liked the small town life, and family life. I could never see my father in Hollywood, he couldn’t either. As far as the underground cult status of the film, he never remotely expected it. It was a pleasant surprise for him. And I think that’s mostly because he did enjoy working small. Small crews, small cast, etc.
His regular cast members must have fond memories from their time working together. Have you stayed in contact over the years? What are they up to these days?
I rarely see or talk to most of them. Hugh Faegin, Larry O’Dwyer, Sharon Bunn, and myself did a stage play at theater three in Dallas in the nineties. I talk to Camilla off and on as she’s an amazing playwright and is touring with her latest show. I also talk to Robert Dracup off and on who in addition to crew played the Telephone Repair Man. It was Bob oddly enough that taught me how to light, and as luck would have it was a mentor of our cinematographer on Basement 2, Chuck Hatcher. Most importantly the whole endeavor to start this last year came from producer Daniel Redd. Danny’s father Robert Redd was the owner of PSI film labs, [who] processed the film for the original, and used to work with my father as Jamison Films. And he was the one that got the ball rolling on Basement 2 by saying the simple words “Hey, why don’t we go ahead and do that basement thing.” He called David Rennke to come in and produce, and David brought in Andrew Sensenig. All this happened mind you in one afternoon. The film immediately gained one of those weird auras of ‘This is meant to be’. It was amazing as we went along, all the little connections that revealed themselves. It made the whole project feel special.
What led your father to stop making films?
He never stopped, at least in his head. Getting funding for films in the eighties and nineties was often as hard as it is today, albeit without Kickstarter. He did a lot of commercial work over the years, a lot of industrial training films and the like. But he was always looking for the right investors for more films.
The finale of Don’t Look in the Basement strongly recalls Todd Browning’s Freaks. Is it true your father had a Freaks remake planned? A desire to make belated sequels must run in the family!
Haha! Yes, Dad had several meetings with various side show celebs in the eighties as he really wanted to do a Freaks remake. I think that was another one that funding wasn’t available for. And typically I’m not one to enjoy building off someone else’s work. Basement however is different. It’s like a family heirloom, which made it a passion project, but also a more challenging one.
Don’t Look in the Basement gained cult notoriety here in the UK due in part to its inclusion on the infamous video nasties list, which saw it removed from video shop shelves. Was your father aware of the stir his film caused on this side of the pond?
When he became aware of the Video Nasties list his reaction was one of bewilderment. He really was more interested in folks seeing the film than any ‘selling’ points of having a cult status. It tickled him after a while as when you look at the original, there’s really very little violence involved compared to other similar films of the day. Dad saw Basement as a psychological thriller, more than a horror film. But he was happy about the cult status in the respect that it might help him get more films made, and through the seventies indeed it did.
Your father’s tonal and aesthetic style elevated his films from the exploitation pack. Will Basement 2 mirror the feel of the original, or are you going for a wholly different approach?
That has been the most challenging part of this project. When I started working on a sequel fourteen years ago I had three challenges. One, to create a sequel that would answer a lot of the questions that Dad and myself had about the unspecified things in the plot. i.e. Why did Sam love boats? Why would doctor Stephens give away his whole practice because of one botched lobotomy? Is there more to the story? What happened when someone eventually found Sam alone with all those corpses?
Two, to create a sequel that wouldn’t compete with the original but compliment it. I think dad would have risen from the grave to throttle me if I had simply done a ‘Just like the first one, but more’ approach.
And three, to create a sequel that a general audience could enjoy without having to have seen the first film, yet at the end would want to go out and watch it. Much like the original film, this is more a thriller than a horror approach, heavy into character development, and plot twists and turns. It references the first film as a “historical event” that occurred in the seventies. But the sequel has its own style that doesn’t try to compete with the first one but instead give it validity.
Fans of Last House on the Left or Texas Chainsaw were once labelled as perverts and deviants, yet the films are now hailed as classics of the genre. Do you see your father’s films ever receiving the acceptance and recognition they deserve?
I certainly hope so. Dad believed, and I agree with him, that his films were errantly labeled slasher films. He liked characters more than simple plots, and his films had more of a thriller bent. What I personally hope is that the original Basement might get reclassified. The slasher label that applied to Basement was specifically a marketing ploy for the drive-in market. I believe it actually hurt the film in the long run. Horror is a wonderful genre with many different subsets. If you rent a film labeled and marketed as a “slasher” and the gore is light handed you can get a lot of folks that think the film just fails because it’s not what they’re expecting from a film on the Nasties list.
Before your father’s untimely passing, he had talked of his plans to start making films again. Did he leave behind any scripts, or projects that you would consider taking on?
I suppose I will let this cat out of the bag. Dad had more children’s projects on the burner than he did horror films. It was just the horror films that got funded first. Dad loved kids, and as the years passed he created several stories that were more focused on children, adventures, and the like. He had a good heart, and was one of the most unpretentious men I’ve ever met. I’m not sure if I’ll take up any of his other projects. I kind of want to, but I kind of don’t? Some of those things I think Dad would have wanted to take to the grave with him. But there’s no telling, we’ll see what the future holds.
What are your thoughts on the current landscape for low-budget film makers, and how this end of the industry differs from 40 years ago?
In the early eighties my father used to muse with me while driving on long distance trips about his vision of film in the future. He told me point blank. “One day son, people will be shooting movies with video cameras, if they can only get that twenty four frames per second thing down.” I laughed at the time. Sorry dad, you were right. Today, the technology has become so much more available that it’s really come down to quality of story, script, and execution. Simply having the technology so easy to attain doesn’t mean it’s easier to make a movie. Any movie, no matter what the budget is a tapestry of performance, writing, shooting, lighting, editing, and all the other facets that go into it. If all those weave together into a single beautiful piece, you’ve got a great movie. Most of those choices however happen in our creative heads more than in a great piece of tech. And all our brains are still as low tech as they’ve ever been. Once the film is done, distribution however is a different story. As the technology changes, so does the landscape. Right now things are in horrible flux due to the distribution models changing. With itunes, Hulu, Netflix, and the others, there are opportunities to get your projects seen that were never available when Dad was around. Yet with so many films now being made on the cheap, getting a film noticed in the sea of indie projects can be daunting.
The truth about the film industry is this. None of us know what we’re doing. If we did we wouldn’t have gotten into this nutty business in the first place. Every director no matter how big still has to sit in the back of a theater during the first audience screening privately saying “God I hope they like it”. We’re crazy to be doing this, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I do think all the new tech has leveled the playing field a certain amount as far as pure capability to make a high resolution film. A great story can come from anywhere and in any budget range. And in today’s landscape there are a lot of rules of thumb for making a movie. But nowadays the other nine fingers are up for grabs. I can’t wait to see what the next twelve-year-old with an iphone comes up with.
Thanks for talking to SCREAM MAGAZINE.
You are very welcome.
Words: Kevan Farrow @KevanX