Friday, December 18, 2015

021. Day of the Panther and 022. Don't Look in the Basement

Jump to Don't Look in the Basement (1973)

021. Day of the Panther (1988)
Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith
Writer: Peter West
From: Cult Cinema and Drive-In

Jason Blade, an elite special forces agent trained in a secret form of kung-fu, goes to Perth, Australia to infiltrate the drug syndicate that killed his partner. He has to find enough evidence to lock the boss up for good before the syndicate learns who he really is.

From the start, from the first note of the opening theme, this feels like the most '80's thing from the '80's that ever '80's. After the credits, we cut to two doughy white guys and a gormless woman walking down a hall while the older doughy man narrates. The woman is Linda, the narrator's daughter, and has been training with “a young man called Jason Blade.”

Jason Blade. That is a stupid, stupid name. The kind of name you riff on endlessly, and it serves as a good barometer for the kind of pleasure this movie offers.

Oh, so many pleasures.

The scene passes quickly. Blade and Linda become partners investigating a drug deal in Hong Kong, but their camera with all the evidence gets destroyed. Cut to Perth where Linda has found one of the syndicate's hideouts and tells Blade over the phone that she's going to investigate with or without him.

Of course she goes in alone and has to fight several toughs, but what makes the scene stand out is the entire time she's fighting, the movie keeps cutting back to Blade coming to Perth, literally cutting to his commute. We see him on the plane, disembark, get tailed by some cops, even check in to his hotel. The dichotomy between the fight and his arrival is hilarious. He is, 100%, a lump of hero.

Linda, by the way, is kicking all kinds of ass. Her fight scene against a trio of thugs wearing odd Halloween masks—a pig, a skull, and an old man—is probably the most impressive in the movie. She manages to defeat all three of them (with a bonus “Fresh!” death at 19:20) only to be killed at the last minute by the big boss' #1 henchman which is really disappointing. I wanted to see more of her in the movie, not just watch her become an additional piece of motivation for hero lump.

To the movie's credit, she does die off-screen and is never portrayed as weak. There's no exploitation of her suffering and she's never a damsel in distress. Even when she dies she resigns herself to the fact that she's lost—she doesn't beg or bargain, just closes her eyes before the villain throws the knife. The same is true of the other female character, the old man's niece who becomes hero lump's new love interest. As soon as she showed up, I expected her to be kidnapped and turned into a damsel in distress. While she does get threatened and captured, she handles her own escape and lays out the thug menacing her, all without any martial arts.

The women provide the peak moments in the film. In between Linda's death and the climactic final battle, hero lump is smug and boring while trying to infiltrate the syndicate with a stupid plan that somehow works. He has several fight scenes that aren't bad, but not nearly as good as the big one with Linda.

This is an Australian film shot on the cheap and, oddly enough, the director took to IMDB's message boards to defend these movies—yes, “movies” plural because this one ends with a last-minute narrated cliffhanger and the credit tag that “JASON BLADE will return in STRIKE OF THE PANTHER”. The comments are worth checking out because they not only pull back the curtain a little on the business of film, but they also make the movie seem that much more impressive.

Unfortunately, I do not have Strike of the Panther (I would watch that so fast). This movie is pure bad movie fun. It's eminently riffable and just a pleasure to behold. It's from 1988 so no chance that it's public domain, but it looks to be in several places online—both legal and not-so-legal—and I highly recommend watching it. It's a tight 83 minutes, shot pretty well on really cheap sets, and absolutely delightful. It's the kind of thing that makes you happy to watch movies.

022. Don't Look in the Basement AKA The Forgotten (1973)
Director: S. F. Brownrigg
Writer: Tim Pope
From: Cult Cinema and Drive-In

Stephens Sanitarium operates under the radical concept of letting its patients indulge their obsessions instead of trying to cure those obsessions. Unfortunately, this leads to a patient putting an ax into Dr. Stephens' back while another patient murders the nurse. Charlotte Beale, a new nurse, arrives that night largely unaware of what has happened. She tries to do her job despite increasingly dire signs that things are not all right.

A light twist on “the lunatics have taken over the asylum.” Rather than have the patients swapping roles with the doctors and horror ensues, this offers a space where the patients are already given free reign leading to unsurprising results. Frankly, I like that as a pitch more than I like its execution. Were it a space where various sociopaths were interacting, their conditions and issues coming into conflict, that could produce some real tension and drama (see any Batman story about Arkham Asylum). This movie, though, portrays all the patients essentially as developmentally disabled. They're all overgrown children throwing murderous tantrums which isn't compelling entertainment. I mean, if you're going to put us in the crazy house, give us interesting crazies.

This is obviously a low-budget film—minimal set decoration, sound is a little muddy, everything is shot with one spotlight—but they handle it well. The movie doesn't have any frills or flare, but it doesn't have any obvious incompetence either. The acting, then, has to carry the weight of the film, and, as I mentioned earlier, the characters themselves are just children. This isn't an issue of good vs. bad acting, it's that there are no real roles to work with. All the patients are shouty, stabby, and giggly in various ratios which just leaves us with Nurse Beale who's supposed to serve as our window into this world and the person we hope escapes.

But there's nothing there.

Even when things jumped off, I wasn't worried about whether she'd make it, I was disappointed that there wasn't more of a slow-burn up to then. Ti West's House of the Devil does an amazing job of that—nothing happens the entire movie and it's non-stop tension. Things happen in Don't Look in the Basement, but there's rarely, if any, tension. It just limps along to it's unnecessary and obvious twist.

The movie does have two unintentionally funny moments. The first is a telephone repairman visits the sanitarium and says, “How come you people didn't call, I mean about the telephone? It can't be working.” Because the phone's not working.

The other was the closing credits which has a shot of each character and the name of the actor. Simple enough, however, the shot of every character who died is their corpse so it just becomes this comically grisly cast list.

It's not a good movie, but it's not so-bad-it's-good either. It feels like everyone involved was competent but also showed up just to cash a check. If you do riffing with friends, it'll serve you well enough. Otherwise, it's pretty meh.

Odd bit of trivia: the director's son, in 2015, wrote and directed a sequel, Don't Look in the Basement 2. The trailer made me laugh out loud several times.

This movie is in the public domain and available on the Internet Archive here in MPEG2 format.

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