I finally finished binge watching Nurse Jackie yesterday. That was a surprisingly compelling show that aired on Showtime for seven seasons. I think I might have seen one or two episodes when it was current, but as is my habit, I didn’t watch the whole thing until I could watch it all at once. I think this habit comes from watching so many reruns in syndication when I was growing up. I like to digest whole series while I can still remember everything that happened. Makes it easier to spot discrepancies in story continuity.
Anyway, since I finished Nurse Jackie, it was time for something else to watch. One of the suggested shows on iTunes was a made for TV film called Girl in the Basement (2021), not to be confused with a 2005 slasher film by the same name. I read that the film, which starred Judd Nelson, Joely Fisher, and Stefanie Scott, was loosely based on the Josef Fritzl case out of Amstetten, Austria. The Fritzl case, as you might recall, involved a creepy father who abducted his own 18 year old daughter, Elisabeth, in 1984 and locked her in a homemade dungeon in his basement. There, she stayed for 24 years. Elisabeth and her children, all fathered by Fritzl, were finally rescued in April 2008, when the eldest of her seven children got very sick and needed to go to a hospital. Fritzl, now 85 years old, was finally arrested and is currently incarcerated in Austria.
I don’t have much patience or tolerance for Lifetime dreck anymore, so what made me decide to watch this? Well, I recently reposted book reviews I wrote about the Fritzl case. I was also living in Germany when this case was hot news. I grew up in the 1980s, and remember Judd Nelson as a rebellious teenager in The Breakfast Club and a philandering asshole politician wannabe in St. Elmo’s Fire. Judd Nelson plays “angry man” well. I figured he might be interesting as an Americanized incarnation of Fritzl… although how sad it is that he did it for Lifetime television. Ah well. I’m sure the money was good.
So I watched Girl in the Basement last night. It wasn’t an extraordinary film. I didn’t expect it to be, as it was made for Lifetime TV. Judd Nelson was nothing at all like John Bender from The Breakfast Club or Alec from St. Elmo’s Fire. He still plays anger and rage well. In Girl in the Basement, he plays a weird guy named Don Cody, a controlling asshole who seethes with barely concealed rage. Don and his wife, Irene (Fisher), have two daughters. There’s dark haired Sarah (Scott), and blonde Amy (Emily Topper). For some reason, Don is really hateful to Sarah. It’s never established why he’s this way, probably because the film is only 88 minutes.
Don is also very strict and mean to his wife and his other daughter, but he’s especially controlling toward Sarah. When she wants to do fun and normal things like go to parties and hang out with her age appropriate boyfriend, Christofer (Jake Etheridge), Don flies into rages. I don’t understand what Don and Irene are doing together. I never see a trace of what put them together, and there’s really no chemistry at all. But here they are, a manufactured family, and Don is a perfect shit to Sarah. Irene does nothing about it, yet doesn’t come off as especially weak, meek, or submissive. (note– I see the name “Sarah” is spelled Sara on the Lifetime site and on IMDB.com. However, in the note left with her baby son, her name is spelled with an “h”.)
One night, just before her high school graduation and 18th birthday, Sarah is in her bedroom with her mom and sister, talking about the future. She can’t wait to move out of the house. She wants to get away from Don, who is a control freak and makes her life miserable. Irene and Amy agree with her. At this point, I wonder why the hell the three of them haven’t left the bastard. He’s certainly not a looker and he doesn’t treat them well. But they do live in a gorgeous house.
After Sarah graduates from high school, but just a few days before her 18th birthday, Don fools her into helping him carry a crate full of stuff to his man cave. Unbeknownst to anyone else in the family, a previous owner had a bomb shelter built into the house. It’s windowless and soundproof, and dismal. It looks kind of like a subway station without the kiosks and train tracks.
The room doesn’t have any ventilation, ambiance, or warmth. It certainly lacks the charming Pottery Barn touches seen all over the rest of the house, which I assume is in Georgia, since the film has a Georgia film industry tag on it in the credits. It’s funny, because I used to live in Georgia, and even before I saw that tag, I was thinking the scenery reminded me of Georgia. As Sarah is setting down the crate, Don asks her what she thinks of the mysterious room. Sarah says it “sucks”.
To Sarah’s hostile criticism of the shelter, Don says, “That’s too bad.” Then he swiftly locks her in the room, which is behind two doors with an airlock. The first door is hidden behind a sliding bookcase, while the second is locked with some kind of electronic keypad. Sarah tries the keypad, but then the power goes out. Don later tells her that after three incorrect code entries, the system is designed to turn off the power, which cuts off the fan– and the only ventilation in the room. Then, he screams at Sarah that he changes the code “EVERY DAY!! “
Sarah is well and totally fucked, both figuratively and literally. Don shows up with a birthday cake on her 18th birthday and forces her to blow out the candle. Then he hands her a plastic bag with a “gift” in it. He forces Sarah to open the gift, which turns out to be a bright red, low cut, spaghetti strapped number that looks like it came from the lingerie section of Target or Walmart. He forces her to wear the dress, then rapes her doggy style. He tells her to call him Don instead of the the more familiar “Dad”.
Naturally, Irene and Amy are wondering where Sarah is. They’ve called the cops, who tell them that because Sarah is over 18, there’s not much they can do. Don tells them that Sarah is living out her dream of traveling the country. Don also tells Christofer that story. For some reason, everybody takes his word for it, even though he’s famously horrible to Sarah. Meanwhile, Sarah is in the basement, a room Irene refuses to explore, because Don told her they are rats down there. And she just can’t bring herself to determine that for herself… or call an exterminator.
It wouldn’t be a loose dramatization of the Fritzl story without pregnancy. Don rapes Sarah repeatedly– apparently doggy style– and she ends up having four kids- a daughter and three sons. One son dies at birth after Don beats up Sarah. Sarah convinces Don to take another one upstairs, because there’s no room for him in the basement. The baby boy is left on the porch with a note from Sarah, indicating that he’s her son. Irene takes him in without question. The other two kids grow up with Sarah, who proves to be an excellent mom… or as excellent as she can be under the conditions they’re in.
As time marches on, Sarah doesn’t change much. Her hair is a little grayer. Judd Nelson comes to visit his secret family. Don tells Sarah she looks like his mother– a woman he obviously hates. He says one of his sons looks like his father. As the kids get older and rebel, things begin to unravel. They finally fall apart completely when the eldest child has a near fatal asthma attack and Sarah is able to summon help.
That’s about the whole film. At the end of it, I was rolling my eyes.
I don’t think the Fritzl story is one that can be summed up in 88 minutes. Granted, this was not strictly about the Fritzl story. It’s a cheesy Lifetime Movie interpretation. I certainly don’t expect a Lifetime movie to be anything earth shattering, but I do think this interpretation of a real life story is rather simplistic and kind of disrespectful. I’m sure a lot came into play as this film was being made. Budget constraints were no doubt a factor in how this story could have been told.
Maybe I’m naive, but some money probably could have been saved if the filming hadn’t been done in such a fancy and apparently newly constructed house. It’s hard to believe that someone had built a bomb shelter in it, because it looks a bit like a McMansion. Bomb shelters were more of a thing sixty years ago. We never learn what Don does to support his family in such a home, either.
My next complaint has to do with Amy and Irene, two women who are supposedly submissive to Don. But there’s never any time to establish why they are so submissive to him. In Fritzl’s case, his wife Rosemarie was known to be very unquestioning, old school, and submissive. Joely Fisher’s characterization of Irene doesn’t seem to be that meek. As I watched her, I kept thinking that she doesn’t seem like the kind of woman who would just accept that her daughter ran off. There’s not enough time to show the motivation as to why she wouldn’t be tearing her hair out with worry… or why she would take Don’s word that their daughter had just run away, when she supposedly had a strong bond with her mom and her sister. And why wouldn’t a mom, crazed with worry and despair, not explore the basement, rats or not? Amy is shown checking things out down there, and she gets busted by Don, but I didn’t understand why these two women allowed him to be so secretive and never challenged it.
And then there’s the basement itself. I kept wondering how Sarah took care of her needs every day. We don’t see bathroom facilities. It is established that Sarah has to earn everything. She has to put on the red dress to be given a clock. She has to be submissive to Don to finally get an old television/VCR after several years in the basement. Through it all, she doesn’t change much. She doesn’t get paler or frailer. She doesn’t have any dental problems. She doesn’t seem to have much mental distress for what she’d been through. And the children are surprisingly healthy and normal for being so traumatized and seeing their mother beaten and raped repeatedly by their father.
I think this film would have been a lot better as a miniseries or a two-parter. And I think it would have been better not set in the United States. I think it was supposed to be set in the year 2000 or so. Things haven’t changed that dramatically since 2000. I mean, most of us have quit using VCRs and landlines. But other than that, there isn’t much of a change to show how many years they were supposedly trapped in the basement. I can’t believe the police wouldn’t have done more, especially after she was gone for so long. They wouldn’t have brought dogs in to sniff?
It was interesting to see Judd Nelson again. I wasn’t that impressed with him in this film. I know he can do better. Given better writing and a bigger budget, this could have been a compelling film, and Nelson probably could have done a good job playing Don. In this incarnation, his version of a Fritzl-like monster dad is just silly, melodramatic, and frankly, disrespectful to Elisabeth Fritzl and her family. She probably would just as soon not have her trauma turned into cheap, Lifetime entertainment. And before anyone points out the obvious, I know I shouldn’t have watched it myself… but I was curious to see Judd Nelson again. It’s been years since I last saw him in anything.
Judd Nelson is a legitimately good actor, especially when he’s playing rage. This movie is kind of an embarrassment. I’m sure he did it strictly for the money. On another note… I remember when Lifetime was a health channel and had shows like Good Sex with Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Golden Girls reruns on it.
I know… I should have known better than to watch this movie. It’s been a long time since I last enjoyed a Lifetime movie. There was a time when they weren’t as over the top as they are now. It seems like nowadays, all of the channels and streaming services want to make their own stuff. I’m sure it’s more lucrative for them to make their own content. However, I think of some of the really excellent miniseries and movies of the week that were aired years ago, when there was more money to make them and less competition. This would have made a good miniseries. It should have definitely been longer than 88 minutes, so we can at least figure out how these people would be so completely fucked up to the point at which this scenario could be pulled off the way it was. As it is now, even with suspending disbelief and knowing that there was an actual real life case this was based upon, this film is utterly unbelievable.