You might be inclined to dismiss Brian M. Conley and Nathan Ives’s movie as a bargain-basement version of the “Saw” and “Hostel” franchises, if it weren’t for the fact that they were actually bottom-of-the-barrel examples of the torture porn genre themselves and have already had many cruddy imitators. “The Basement” tries to add some clever touches to the unpleasant formula, but it fumbles them. The result is a very minor addition to an ugly horror subgenre.
On the surface the story is a simple one. A serial killer called Gemini is terrorizing Los Angeles, leaving behind victims he’s decapitated with a blowtorch. One evening musician Craig Owen (Cayleb Long) leaves the mansion he shares with his wife Kelly (Mischa Barton) to buy a bottle of champagne, but he’s abducted as he leaves the liquor store and wakes up tied to an old school desk-chair in the titular dungeon-like basement.
His captor is Bill Anderson (Jackson Davis), who is in fact the Gemini Killer. But his technique is of a role-playing sort, not unlike the sort of thing Rod Steiger’s Christopher Gill utilized to lull his victims into a sense of complacency in Jack Smight’s “No Way to Treat a Lady” (1968). In this case, though, Anderson simply dons a series of disguises to portray various characters who parade through the basement accosting the bound Owen on the way to his coming execution at 6am. He will start out as a cop and an interrogator before moving on to becoming another prisoner, a lawyer, a doctor who tends to the victim’s wounds (he loses a couple of teeth and a few fingers along the way) and Craig’s mother and father before winding up as a priest and an executioner.
Frankly it isn’t a conceit that makes much sense, but Bill is a wacko after all, so maybe it doesn’t need to. The problem with it is more cinematic: Davis is simply no Rod Steiger. He wears different clothes, lots of makeup and plenty of wigs, and he adopts different accents and voices, but he never really changes much, and his line delivery is as theatrical as Steiger’s was, but much less fun. It’s a stab at a virtuoso performance by a jobber actor who just doesn’t have it in him, though to be honest the dialogue provided by Conley and Ives is awfully stilted and flat.
On the other hand, Long is quite good as Bill’s hapless victim. He convincingly shifts from anger to attempts to outmaneuver his captor, and even carries off Craig’s collapse of composure at the very end. In a way it’s as showy a role as Davis’, and he manages it with much greater success.
The two men’s verbal jousting is the centerpiece of “The Basement,” but it’s periodically interrupted by scenes involving Kelly, who goes to the store to question the clerk (Tracie Thoms) but mostly sits around her living room talking to her best friend Bianca (Bailey Anne Borders), whom—as we see in an early scene—Craig has listed on his phone. These scenes are utterly dead air, especially since neither actress seems able to muster a shred of credibility (though Barton, presumably because of her time on TV, gets first billing). Then there’s the twist ending, which not only stretches one’s ability to suspend disbelief past the breaking point but most viewers, familiar as they are with such stuff, will probably predict far in advance.
For what must have been a poverty-row level production, the picture looks surprisingly good, with Kenneth Stipe providing solid, if not terribly imaginative, widescreen lensing. The other technical credits are adequate, though Brady Hallongren’s editing is hobbled by the need to shift constantly from the basement scenes to those with Barton.
“The Basement” is a bit better than you might expect for a lesser entry in the torture-porn genre. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much.