Don’t Go In The House. 1979. Directed by Joseph Ellison. Screenplay by Ellison, Ellen Hammill, & Joe Masefield.
Starring Dan Grimaldi, Charles Bonet, Bill Ricci, Robert Osth, Dennis M. Hunter, John Hedberg, Ruth Dardick, Johanna Brushay, Darcy Shean, Mary Ann Chinn, & Lois Verkruepse. Turbine Films Inc.
Rated R. 82 minutes.
Still banned in certain countries to this day, Don’t Go In The House was filmed in 1979 then released the following year to become one of the infamous Video Nasties. It ended up on the original list, though managed to avoid prosecution after certain cuts were made and the film saw a release in ’87. And while there’s a certain part of me which understands why some might find themselves horrified by this movie, it isn’t all shock and awe. Of course, for a movie about a man who burns women to death in his basement with a flame thrower it’s natural there are gruesome scenes. The entire concept and the plot is truly horrifying, a reason why this film has endured in the hearts of genre fans for years. Quentin Tarantino for one is a huge fan of the film having played it at his film festival several times, as well as mentioning the movie had an impact on him when he first saw it. Because for a slasher horror with a gimmick this doesn’t back down. It both delivers the goods any slasher demands, serving up lots of the sub-genre killing we’d expect, and also provides a decent enough view into the lead character, whose complex psychology brings about a series of destructive consequences that eventually lead to a violent catharsis. Underneath its meager
slashburn-and-kill premise, Don’t Go In The House looks at a man damaged by the psychopathy of his mother, and also encapsulates the end of a decade into the beginning of another with the ’70s fading in the rear-view while 1980 reared its head.
Working at an incinerator, Donny Kohler (Dan Grimaldi) witnesses a man almost burn to death in front of him. Freezing, unable to help, he’s ostracized by his boss. A co-worker named Bobby (Robert Osth) befriends him to try and make sure Donny doesn’t blame himself for anything. But while Bobby tries to be Donny’s buddy, the latter is busy out doing other things. Or well, he stays at home a lot. Because down in his basement Danny decided to build a special room. It’s lined with steel sheeting. In the middle hangs a chain. And at night Danny brings women home, chains them in his little room, then sets them on fire with a flamethrower.
See Danny has issues with his mother – the one sitting dead and dried up in his house, the one he still talks to casually, every day. The more women he takes home and burns to death, the crazier he gets. And going to the disco with Bobby just can’t seem to get him out of the habit.
For a time without the elaborate special effects of today, Ellison does a good job in ’79 making directorial choices so as to not have to focus on anything that might look less than stellar. Sure, it still looks like a film out of the late ’70s, in both good and bad ways. But the burnings especially are carried out with precision to make the scenes more effective, rather than having them come off as disingenuous, making things look terrible and campy, in the wrong sense.
There’s an interesting change in the film where we go from disco music to rock. This is ultimately the shift from the ’70s to the ’80s. Granted, there was plenty electronic music and other New Wave stuff to come from the 1980s, but what it means is the death of disco, a shift – even if only part of the way – back towards rock n’ roll again. A new era begins, the disco inferno burning out with Donny’s flamethrower. Finally, it is also the burning in effigy of his mother. Naturally those are what his victims stand in for, the memory of her, the things she did to him as a boy. Yet further than that the shift from disco music Donny played earlier to the rock n’ roll he falls asleep to, before having hallucinations of his mother and burned corpses, is another symbolic gesture of his departure from dear old mom. Similar to Norman Bates, this psycho has himself a mommy problem. Obvious enough, but the script and the direction together make this an impressive character study of a man driven to sick compulsions all due to the relationship he had with an abusive, domineering mother.
The film’s brutality is astounding. And yet there’s only truly graphic scene throughout the entirety, which is the first time Donny tries out his little fire room, a.k.a the oven, as I call it. We get what would come after this as the obligatory 1980s slasher horror nudity, but then comes the savagery when he burns the woman in his room alive. Even while it’s graphic, the editing and Ellison’s choices as director make the whole burning sequence disturbingly memorable without any gore. And like I mentioned the effects come off well because of this effort. Even though there’s plenty more to creep us out the movie’s violent horror elements hinge on this kill. Upon revisiting this one, a major reason why it left an impression on me is because for what’s technically a slasher sub-genre flick, Ellison’s movie drums up tons of terror with only one actual graphic murder. Usually these types of horrors are based on a body count. Instead of going with what would become a major trend in the ’80s, Ellison kicks off an important decade for the genre with one of the most atypical and enjoyable slasher movies out there.
For me, this is one of those movies that only gets better every time I see it. Almost every time I forget about how eerie the dream sequences are, then they hit me like a ton of bricks. Don’t Go In The House has more to it than meets the eye. It presents as another Don’t-titled generic horror that’s ready to offer up all the same trappings of most every film in the sub-genre. Director-writer Joseph Ellison went another way, studying the character of a fragile young man that turned into an adult killer while also ushering one decade out and saying hello to the next one.
This little flick has the goods and is all too often passed over as a lesser offering in horror. I say that is nonsense. Give this a chance, look at it closer. But mostly, let it wash over you, from the disco to the dark subject matter and the fire – oh, the fire! It’s all glorious.