Joseph Ellison, 1979
Starring: Dan Grimaldi, Charlie Bonet, Bill Ricci
Donny works at an incinerator and lives in an old house with his controlling mother. On the same day that one of Donny’s coworker is incinerated and burns to death, he comes home to find his mother dead. Instead of calling the police, he keeps her at home and fantasizes about hearing her voice or other strange voices that encourage him to kill. It seems that Donny’s mother badly abused him as a child, holding his arms over the stove to burn out his sin and evil. In turn, Donny begins kidnapping women and taking them to a homemade crematorium deep in the house, where he burns them to death with a flamethrower. As dead, burned women pile up around the house, they begin to weigh on Donny’s conscience. He tries to pursue a normal life — visiting a priest in desperation or going to a disco with a friend — but his mind begins to unravel…
Nearly as mean-spirited as New York Ripper or Maniac, but not quite as well made as either of those films, Don’t Go in the House is an underrated late ‘70s horror effort that anyone interested in the above films must see. In terms of plot, this is a cross between Psycho and Maniac (thought Maniac was released a year later), this psychologically heavy film is less like a slasher film than you might imagine. It is grim, disturbing, and intense nonetheless, with a pervasive mood of despair and nihilism.
This was one of the notorious video nasties and was banned in the U.K. for many years. The worst part of the film is an infamous blow torch scene. The film never quite reaches the intensity of the first death scene, which is unfortunate. On one hand, it’s refreshing that the same kills aren’t merely recycled over and over, but it would be nice to see a little more. The women Donny chooses to kill are all awkward victims of circumstance, simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, which adds to the nasty, mean-spiritedness. Unlike other serial killer films, Donny doesn’t stalk anyone, they simply wander into his path.
Child abuse is a theme that horror sometimes, but not often treads, and it only adds to the grim, foreboding, and hopeless air of Don’t Go in the House. The home-made crematorium, forever a grim remind of the Holocaust, is also suitably disturbing. There’s fire in nearly every scene, which somehow flows with the plot — Donny’s job as a trash incinerator, matches at home to light the stove, candles at church, a candle at the disco, cigarettes, etc. There’s also a wonderful sense of mood, despite the film’s slow pace and occasional sense of inaction. The powerful hallucination scenes will frustrate or bore some, but they are visually very pleasing and foreshadow the dramatic, (literally) explosive conclusion of the film.
The acting is a mixed bag, but that’s pretty standard fare for ‘70s and ‘80s exploitation/horror. Dan Grimaldi (The Sopranos) does a decent job as Donny and manages to portray a sense of loneliness, despair, and turmoil. He also excellently captures the kind of social awkwardness that escapes so many more popular actors. Donny is an antihero, but struggles to be a sympathetic one, though it’s hard to hate a character who experienced so much abuse.
The wonderful, creepy old house with a beautiful exterior is almost a character itself. It resides somewhere in northern New Jersey if you’re in the area and want to check it out. Director Joseph Ellison could have made more use of it, but I suspect that the low budget limited his options for the interior shots. Also keep an ear out for the hilarious use of disco during the film and, most inappropriately, during the closing credits. It’s fairly silly, but adds to the film’s overall charm and is one of the few elements that dates it.
There’s a nice DVD from Shriek Show that includes a commentary track and a remastered print. For horror fans across the pond, there’s also a UK Arrow release that finally presented the film uncut in the U.K. Disturbing, grim and nihilistic, this is certainly not for everyone, but fans of Maniac will definitely want to check it out. For more on Don’t Go into the House, check out Stephen Thrower’s impressive Nightmare USA. It’s currently out of print, but a second run is allegedly in the works for this year.