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Don’t Go In The House (1979)

Don’t Go In The House first published by VODzilla.co

Don’t Go In The House opens with a pair of fiery images. In the first, a hand is seen lighting a gas stove with a match. The second shows powerful combustion in an industrial incinerator. Donald ‘Donny’ Kohler (an intense, bewildered performance from Dan Grimaldi) stares, mesmerised, at the flames of the latter, but he is probably thinking of the former. For these rhyming images, eliding time and space in the protagonist’s damaged mind, take him back to a primal scene of childhood abuse from which he still bears the scars, both physical and mental. When a colleague at the garbage disposal depot where Donny works is accidentally set alight, an idea sparks in Donny. “It just covered, just covered him up,” he stammers in confusion at his boss Vito (Bill Ricci), “He wasn’t evil, but it covered him up.”

“You’re crazy,” Vito replies, angry that Donny had failed in any way to help his colleague. “You’re sicko.” Vito is not wrong. For Donny hears conflicting voices in his head, both from his mother (Ruth Dardick) and other women, respectively scolding or encouraging his every action. When, later that day, Donny returns home to discover that his “sick” mother – the woman who used to burn the evil out of him over that stove seen at the film’s beginning – has died in her sleep, the other voices tell him that he is free now to do whatever he wants. Unfortunately that involves steel-reinforcing the walls of a room in his big old house, and luring women there so that he can burn them alive with a flamethrower and keep their scorched corpses, alongside that of his mother, as his best and only friends.

“I’m not a faggot,” Donny insists, after being called just that by Vito. Nonetheless, the film, though earnest throughout, assumes a certain campy vibe not just from its adult antihero’s strange mother love, but also from its voguish preoccupation with disco (it even ends with Bill Heller’s incongruously upbeat dance track Boogie Lightning playing over the credits). A scene near the end where Donny enters a clothing store and is set up by the obviously gay salesman “with an entire ensemble… to make a man of you in no time” clinches it: Don’t Go In The House is a coming-out film, tracing Donny’s doomed attempts to escape from under the thumb of his mother and to start listening to his own inner voices that have for so long been repressed.

It is not hard to see the direction of influence on Don’t Go In The House. The dilapidated, old house that Donny has inherited, always shot at a low angle to make it look as imposing as possible and to reduce our own perspective to that of a small child, is straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), as of course is the magisterial, mummified mum inside, looming like a bad conscience over her son’s every move. Alan Ormsby, Bob Clark and Jeff Gillen’s Deranged (1974) is another influence – and though released a year later, William Lustig’s Maniac (1980) also belongs to the same dysfunctional family of films about the monsters that mistreated mamma’s boys grow up to be.

While Donny’s particular problems may have started at home, writer/director Joseph Ellison finds ways to suggest that they are also reflections of the society outside which we all inhabit. Donny picks up his first victim, Kathy (Johanna Brushay), when she is being hassled in the street by three young man at night – “She’s a bitch,” is the first line any of them says, marking them as no less of a predatory, misogynistic threat than Donny himself will prove to be. Later, on his way into a store to prowl for another victim, Donny passes a woman telling off and shaking her little boy for his perceived misbehaviour. The (Freudian) notion that there might be many men out there who, domineered and abused by their mothers, end up just like Donny, is borne out by the film’s peculiar coda, in which a mother shouts at and slaps her young son Michael (“I am your mother!,” she tells him, “Don’t you ever ignore me!”) – only for her voice to be drowned out by a chorus of new voices in his head. Viewers might even wonder if little Michael’s surname is Myers.

On the Director of Public Prosecution’s list of Video Nasties for its incendiary on-screen violence against women, Don’t Go In The House was released in the UK in an entirely uncut version only in 2011. Nonetheless, it is a slasher that, for all its derivativeness, always retains our sympathy for its central bogeyman, ensuring that it is as much tragedy as horror.

Summary: Joseph Ellison’s grim coming-out slasher does hold a candle to Hitchcock’s Psycho 

© Anton Bitel