United States. 82 minutes. Directed by Joseph Ellison, 1979. Starring Dan Grimaldi, Robert Osth, Ruth Dardick.
When Donny Kohler was a kid, his mother would punish his misbehavior by holding his arms over an open flame, intending to burn the evil out of him. As an adult, but his mother is still domineering…until the old lady passes away in her sleep. He may be free from his mother now, but he’s not free from the voices in his head. Those voices call him the “master of the flame” and promise to help him do whatever he wants. And what Donny wants to do is abduct pretty young ladies and kill them with fire.
I’m gonna level with you. Don’t Go in the House isn’t particularly original–if you’re anything like me, you’re going to spend a lot of time considering the various ways it reminds you of Psycho.
It’s not particularly well-acted, either. Dan Grimaldi (who’d go on to be a supporting player on The Sopranos), who plays Donny, tries his damnedest, but a lot of his line readings are a bit on the flat side. And the personality he puts across is a bit too…”old” is the best word I can think of to describe it. Or maybe “mature.” One of the key scenes to understanding Donny comes right after he discovers Mom’s corpse: now that he can do anything he wants without being yelled at, he jumps on the furniture and blares his disco records. While not necessarily being “childish” or a “big kid,” Donny really hasn’t been able to emotionally progress past the age of, say, eight. Grimaldi’s consistently just good enough to keep it from falling apart, but he doesn’t really nail it.
Most of his castmates are forgettable, with the exception of Robert Osth as Bobby, Donny’s co-worker and only real friend. (Although I do have a lot of respect for Johanna Brushay, who plays Donny’s first victim. It must have been extremely hard to play that death scene.)
And it certainly hasn’t aged well. It’s hard not to giggle at the ’70s-isms, such as the five or so minutes the film dedicates to chronicling Donny’s search for a suit he can wear to a disco where he’s meeting Bobby and a couple of girls. The “walking corpse” makeup isn’t particularly convincing (although I do appreciate it on an artistic level) and the seams are very visible during a couple of crucial effects sequences.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to admire Don’t Go in the House for what it does and how it goes about doing that. (Or at least it’s hard not to admire it if you’re anything like me.) It’s brutal, it’s nihilistic, it doesn’t flinch and it doesn’t compromise. This is a film that features a scene in which a moon-suited Donny douses a naked, chained-up woman with gasoline and then sets her on fire with a flamethrower, and doesn’t cut around it. The fact that it’s pretty easy to see how it was done doesn’t detract from the power of the scene, the knowledge that the people who made this film are not fucking around. It’s a powerful scene–sure, it doesn’t pack the intense emotional wallop of contemporaries such as Taxi Driver, Dawn of the Dead or Cannibal Holocaust, but you’re still going to remember it. And while no other scene in the film clears the bar set by that one, there are several sequences that are just about up to that standard.
And Joseph Ellison’s direction is very impressive. He’s not a particularly original stylist here (you can tell he’s cribbing a lot from Carpenter and Scorsese), but his camera work is engaging. And I loved the way he uses location in this–it was very easy to lose myself in the nasty, creepy sleaze of wherever this is supposed to take place. (From the Maryland license plates on Donny’s truck, I had assumed Baltimore, but apparently it was shot in and around the Jersey shore.)
I’m definitely not going to try to make the case that Don’t Go in the House is some sort of lost masterpiece, and there’s a lot of it that simply doesn’t work, but there’s enough material that does work to justify a watch. It may not be art, but it’s definitely not schlock.