AVAILABLE ON VOD: 14th September
RUNNING TIME: 90 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Successful LA singer/songwriter Craig Owen is kidnapped. While his wife Kelly and her friend Bianca try to find out what’s happened to him, Craig finds himself imprisoned in the basement of a serial killer known as The Gemini. He has already murdered seven people with a blowtorch, and he now wants to play bizarre psychological mind games with his victim in which he takes on the roles of various different characters.…
Every now and again one of us on HCF tends to champion a film which fell under the radar and which we think deserves more exposure. Here’s a really strong micro budget serial killer drama which according to some sources was actually made in 2017 and which at the time of writing doesn’t have a DVD release but which in my opinion really deserves to be seen by more people. In some respects it’s very simple, the majority of it taking place in a dark room between two people. What is in essence a two hander no doubt sounds very stagy, and in some ways it is, especially with the way one of the two characters keeps on leaving the ‘stage’ and then coming back on, albeit with a different ‘outfit’ every time. With a good director and the right performers it would make a tremendous stage play. However, writer/directors Brian M. Conley and Nathan Ives, clearly working with a tiny budget much of which may have gone to acquiring the services of the film’s one ‘name’ Mischa Barton [remember her?], have also managed to ring some changes on the serial killer formula, so that what initially may seem to be something of a melding of Saw, The Silence Of The Lambs and Split goes down further and further down its own pathways, emphasising the psychological elements more than anything else – though that’s not to say that there isn’t some gore along the way.
Opening text informs us that Geminis have a dual nature, something that’s only briefly important later. Conley and Ives would have been better off ditching this and going straight into the first scene of a woman sitting at a table, covered in blood, pleading that she’ll change and will anything – not that it makes any difference to the person we now cut to looking at the wall, who now turns and seems to be wielding a blowtorch. The woman screams and we cut to the film’s title in what is a rather deceptive scene because it gives the impression that graphic nastiness will be avoided. We then meet Craig and Kelly who seem to happy in their spacious abode. She asks him to go out for another bottle of champagne. As he parks at the nearest garage, a white van playing death metal parks up alongside him. We’re immediately on edge, lengthy tracking shots following Craig around adding to the feel. Craig receives a text from another woman who he’s obviously been seeing, and tells her that he can’t make it before deleting their conversation. This meaning that we’re perhaps not too bothered when he’s bundled into a van – though that soon changes when he wakes up in a basement tied to a chair at a table. In enters a clown who juggles to circus music on the stereo, tries to shove a balloon into his mouth and punches him in the face for smoking. He also calls him Billy and says that he smiles all the time but on the inside he’s a very lost soul before disappearing – and then re-appearing in the form of a cop with a gun.
Craig initially assumes that he’s there to rescue him before recognising the face. The strange man still calls him Bill, but this time he asks him where the bodies are. Craig doesn’t give him the right answers, so he knocks some of his teeth out with the butt of his gun and makes him swallow them. If you’re one of the many who have a fear of dentists, this wince-inducing moment really will shock you and may haunt you more than those words “is it safe”? as spoken to Laurence Olivier to Dustin Hoffmann in that famous movie scene. And, while much of the film is indeed chat, there are several nasty moments later on that benefit from fine practical effects which you won’t forget in a hurry. No shying away in this movie as the kidnapper, who of course is really the one called Bill, punishes Craig whenever he gets from him a wrong answer, even if it’s just slightly wrong. We soon become terrified whenever Bill leaves the basement as to which character he will reappears as, but then feel rather differently when he tells of his terrible childhood involving an abusive father of the most extreme kind. And the psychological mind games sometimes become more balanced when Craig gets an idea of when he should “be” Bill, and when he should be someone else.
This material is sometimes inter-cut with Kelly trying to find out what’s happened to her husband. She’s convinced of foul play but of course the police won’t begin to look for her until twenty four hours have passed. It’s nice to have some escape from the darkness of that basement once in a while, and we’re waiting in suspense for Kelly, who knows that her husband has been having an affair, to find out a certain something about a certain somebody which I won’t describe. Sadly Barton is still a fairly poor actress and the scenes between Kelly and her best friend who’s helping her come across as a bit stitled, though I was still involved so I guess that’s not a huge problem. In any case, the stuff in the basement is absolutely riveting. Some of this of course is down to the performers. I wasn’t initially too enamoured of Cayleb Long as Craig, but he seems to get better and better throughout the film, as if it was shot in sequence. As for Jackson Davis, he’s nothing less than phenomenal as Bill. In fact I think he’s better than James McAvoy who of course essayed a similar part. I’m sure that many will disagree, but I felt that McAvoy, while still very good, often seemed too much like he was acting. But Davis is more natural in his various parts, a few of whom are like some of the McAvoy character’s alter egos, and even gets away with some humorous moments that could have gone badly wrong. No jarring fantastical elements to ruin the final quarter of this particular film either. Interestingly, we’re never told if Bill has multiple personality disorder or is just having some wicked fun. For a while I took to thinking he was some kind of scorned actor akin to Vincent Price in Theatre Of Blood, giving himself the chance to play various roles before an often literally captive audience as he goes about his wicked business.
The Basement bravely doesn’t feel the need to provide us with a big chase or fight climax, though it does give us a twist ending which frankly isn’t necessary and which doesn’t make too much sense if you think about it. For a start, one character’s reaction to something seems ludicrously excessive. Still, it doesn’t ruin the fascination and even the intelligence of much of what has come before. Bill is totally aware of his crimes, and his games with his victims act as some kind of therapy even if the victims are bound to say something wrong. He’s compelled to re-enact the traumatic events that have made him who he is, and to make his victim[s] and by extension the audience feel what he, a serial killer, feels. The viewer is therefore asked to develop some understanding, even sympathy, while still remaining terrified of this vicious killer who may main you if you say the wrong thing. This film’s villain is able to chug at your heartstrings and even make you laugh while keeping you nervous on the edge of your seat. It’s a difficult balancing act but this film achieves it and the character remains believable. Meanwhile cinematographer Kenneth Stipe gets a lot out of his primary location, many of his lighting set-ups and compositions being very cinematic despite largely comprising of lots of darkness and not much, and despite having previously worked mainly on TV.
I hadn’t heard of The Basement before watching it, though I wonder if its title has been a bit of a hindrance as several other, lesser seeming films bare the same moniker, including another one this year. It really is though a surprisingly deep entry in a sub-genre that always seems like it’s pretty much been done to death and then something fresh comes along, last year’s offering being the Australian Hounds Of Love. I felt that it took me closer into the mind of a killer more than any film I’d seen in a long time, and it may have really got under my skin. And have no fear – despite being so dialogue heavy it moves along pretty well. Conley seems to have done very little prior to this film, while Ives’s previous credits seem to be mainly romantic comedies, but I predict big things for these two if they decide to stick with this type of movie. They seem to be able to achieve a lot with very little.