Retrospective: Don’t Go in the House (1980) – Ignore the Warning and Go In
The terribly titled Don’t Go in the House had the working title of The Burning Man and was then retitled to The Burning until the producers found out another horror production happening simultaneously was using the same title. Unfortunately, that very fine slasher was released about a year after this one. Both films actually ended up on the DDP’s infamous list of banned video nasties in the UK.
I do not know why the producers just did not go back to using The Burning Man, as it is a more suitably effective title than the uninspired one they stuck on it. Because of this, the film was lumped in with “Don’t” titled American slashers of poor quality released around the same period – the utter dreck of Don’t Go Near the Park (1979), Don’t Answer the Phone! (1980) and Don’t Go in the Woods (1981). The mainstream critics venomously spat on it and while this is no surprise considering the slasher cycle was the victim of a witch-hunt led by the typical pomposity of the late Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel, it is truly a shame, as this is quality filmmaking deserving more recognition. It certainly does not deserve its pitiful 5.6 IMDb rating.
Dan Grimaldi (later best known for his dual role as twins Philly and Patsy Parisi in “The Sopranos”) plays Donald Kohler (called Donny by his co-workers at an incinerator). He is a lonely soul, a deeply disturbed young man who was abused emotionally and physically as a boy by his cruel single mother. She would punish him by burning his arms by holding them over a lit gas stove to “burn the evil out”. Due to these traumatic experiences, he has developed an obsession with fire and human combustion. One day while working at the incinerator, Donny sees a co-worker have an accident catching on fire. Instead of rushing over to help him like his other co-workers, Donny just stands there staring mesmerized.
When returning home that evening Donny finds that his mother has passed away. Although he is now free of her wickedness, he does not know what to do, as his life with her was the only life he ever knew. Left with a “burning” hatred due to the cruelty she inflicted upon him and now she has left him alone in the world he sees this as an opportunity for revenge on her. He keeps her death secret and builds a flameproof steel-panelled crematorium in one of the bedrooms, hangs a hook on the ceiling with chains hanging from it, buys a flamethrower and abducts young women who bear a resemblance to his abusive late mother. He pours gasoline all over them and “In a steel room built for revenge they die burning… in chains.” As the provocative tagline says.
Yes, this is yet another troubled mummy’s boy horror movie obviously inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960 masterpiece Psycho. Like Norman Bates in that, Donny keeps the corpse of his mother in one of the bedrooms of the house. He burns her body first though and then places her charred carcass in a chair. Even the setting of the house here resembles the Bates’ Gothic house and both are built on a hill. This was also not the only film released in 1980 featuring psychos with mummy issues as William Lustig’s more famous genre milestone Maniac was released later in the year. There is a couple of striking similarities between both. Donny much like Frank Zito in Maniac keeps the bodies of his victims in a room like a collection of hunting trophies but Donny places them on chairs. This is the same room where he keeps his mother’s corpse and he dresses them all in her clothes. The climax here is very reminiscent to the ending of Maniac. Although this debuted just a full six months before so both productions more likely occurred around the same time.
This is where the similarities between both movies end though. This is a far more restrained affair than Maniac. William Lustig opted for potent stomach churning graphic sequences one after the other. Here during the first act, director and co-writer Joseph Ellison expertly crafts a skilful emphasis on the build up to a single grand horrifying set-piece that explicitly depicts the brutal burning of a naked woman and it is sublimely executed in its shocking realism. The camera does not shy away from showing us everything as the flames consume her and she screams and withers in agony. His other victims are seen only in the aftermath of their demise as smoking burnt to a crisp corpses as we have already seen it once and do not need to see it again; we know what happens and the imagery produces such a powerful and harrowing effect it stays with us long after. That was all that was needed. Ellison knew just to show enough.
There is more startling grisly imagery as Donny sees the burnt corpses of his mother and his victims coming back to life to haunt him including a terrifying dream sequence. Whether this is all in his mind or is supernatural is left up to interpretation. There are several moments he hears creepy female voices – “We can help you. You’re free now. You can do anything you want to do!” He also hears his dead mother’s voice still telling him how bad he is and this and his memories of her cruelty is what sets him off. Seemingly, it is as if he is hearing the voices in his head but the final scene points to something possibly supernatural that Donny has experienced.
Director of Photography Oliver Wood employs a blue lighting technique to generate a cold atmosphere that encapsulates these horrid proceedings; a contrast of ice and fire then. This aesthetic complements the melancholic and sombre mood. Wood is now one of the most sought after DPs in Hollywood having provided the cinematography for such movies as Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990), Face/Off (1997), the original Bourne Trilogy (2002 – 2007) etc. Richard Einhorn’s excellent electronic synth score is eerily effective heightening the atmosphere. Einhorn’s other great compositions in the horror genre are for Shock Waves (1977), Eyes of a Stranger (1981) and The Prowler (1981).
This is very sad stuff indeed, as Donny never had a chance at a normal life. He is also a victim here as his portrayal is sympathetic… at first. He is a complete failure in life and we cannot help but pity the poor fucker until he commits these atrocities. We felt sorry for him before but we cannot condone his evil actions later as there is no way we can identify with him killing innocent women. There is no cool anti-hero factor to him because he is so uncharismatic and awkward and the bumbling fool only manages to pick up his victims out of blind luck. This is a complex, thoughtful and responsible treatment of a serial killer character challenging us what to feel for him. Grimaldi is solid as Donny, his conviction is why his character successfully draws our sympathies and he is just as convincing as we witness Donny’s decent into homicidal madness. Most of the supporting cast turn in performances ranging from average to just above. Robert Osth is the stand out here as Donny’s co-worker Ben who offers Donny human connection with friendship.
Don’t Go in the House is a dark, chilling, grim and gruesome depiction of the tragic repercussions of child abuse. It is a great little film; a nasty little gem so underappreciated and is deserving of your time and a loftier placing in horror history. Ignore the warning and go in.