Ever noticed how movies released at the turn of one decade somehow seem like they belong to the previous one? It’s hardly surprising. It takes a while for a decade to establish itself as a unique entity in terms of themes, aesthetics, music, fashion, and the various other cultural elements that categorise an era. Movies made in 1990 are very much a product of the 1980s, for example. I’m usually good at guessing the year of a title based on its various traits, but unless I know the film well, 1990 often leaves me at a loss.
Less common, at least in my experience, are films made at the end of one decade that feel like they belong to the next. That curio certainly applies to Joseph Ellison’s grim psychological horror Don’t Go in the House, which asides from its throwback aesthetic and disco soundtrack is a movie that very much belongs to the 1980s, foreshadowing the slew of cynical slashers that would soon flood the market. But this isn’t your standard slice-and-dicer. In fact, there isn’t a sharp implement in sight in a film that still manages to prove uglier than most blood-and-guts horror of the era.
Played by an exceedingly young Dan Gimaldi, who would later play a dual role as Philly and Patsy Parisi in innovative HBO crime drama The Sopranos, protagonist Donny Kohler is an incinerator worker with an unhealthy fascination with fire, the kind who would rather watch a co-worker go up in flames than reach for the fire blanket. He also keeps an asbestos suit and flamethrower at the decrepit home he shares with his oppressive mother, a veritable mausoleum where he waits on her hand and foot.
Whether Kholer’s mother is aware of his secret stash of destruction we never discover, as she soon becomes the dear departed (from natural causes, obviously), triggering Donny’s complete emotional breakdown, one that spells trouble for a cast of gullible victims who are lured back to his homemade incinerator for the kind of extreme torture that would lead censors to deem the movie unfit for public consumption. What we can probably be more certain of is whether or not mommy dearest would have approved of her son’s activities. After all, it was she who would hold her child’s arms over a stove in an attempt to ‘burn the evil out of him’, presumably so he didn’t grow up to abandon her like Donny’s father, though such a punitive method proves sorely misguided.
Despite the film’s lack of graphic moments, those that do occur leave a particularly bad taste in the mouth. It isn’t so much what you see — though an opening kill involving an unfortunate florist and our killer’s weapon of choice is still excruciating to behold — but the movie’s sheer sense of nihilism that really hits home, a morbid tone skilfully assisted by director of photography and future mainstream player Oliver Wood, who would utilise a blue lighting technique to create the movie’s stone cold aesthetic. Largely ignored by critics, the film possesses a peculiar, low-budget artistry lacking in most productions of its ilk, serving as a blunt reminder of a lawless era that saw filmmakers embrace the kind of creative anarchism that would horrify a generation. It should come as no surprise that this grim slice of exploitation was selected for the first Quentin Tarantino Film Festival in Austin, Texas in 1996.
Released in 1979 as part of the Paris Festival of Fantastic Films, inevitable comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal proto-slasher Psycho would follow, Donny’s mother continuing to play an influence from beyond the grave along with a plethora of voices that fill our increasingly volatile protagonist’s head. But while Hitchcock left Mrs Bates to our imagination, Don’t Go in the House exhibits no such subtlety, ditching the director’s mocking wit for a sobering gut-puncher with the kind of macabre flourishes that elevates it above your standard ‘video nasty’ bilge. Without a domineering paternal presence, Donny becomes a character mired in conflict, bullying a room full of charred corpses in an alarming display of dominance reminiscent of his parental scourge. Those are the moments that truly set the movie apart, particularly when the deeply wounded Donny, regressing into a fetal position, becomes lost in macabre fantasies and zombie-laden nightmares of stifling dread.
Grimaldi, cast by producers who had fawned over his lead turn in an Off-Broadway play titled Mama’s Little Angels, is suitably theatrical as the movie’s erratic loner, leaping from genial citizen to emotional catastrophe with dazzling aplomb — quite the achievement for an onscreen debutante thrust into a meagre production. An often sympathetic character despite his unconscionable and premeditated actions, Donny is a pure fantasist, seeking sympathy from a pair of drunken teenagers for injustices that never occurred while extolling his virtues as an ex-Green Beret – a perverse mix of self-pity and tough guy bravado that echoes his need to both obey and impress his indomitable maternal figure. It is this dichotomy that makes him such an intriguing and unnerving character. You never know where one Donny ends and the other begins. You’re never sure if he’s worthy of our empathy or merely seeking it.
Though one of the 72 ‘video nasties’ unprosecuted following assurances from distributor Film Ventures International that an edited version would replace the original uncut release, Don’t Go in the House is one of the most startling, and of all those movies subjected to commercial purgatory it is certainly one of the more deserving. The film’s transparent instances of torture and sexual exploitation were deemed hugely misogynistic at the time, and along with William Lustig’s equally maligned Maniac, it was castigated as an example of the industry’s abrupt moral decline and presented as an example of the horror genre’s harmful effect on society. Audiences may have become desensitised in the ensuing years, but Don’t Go in the House remains an ugly monument to one of cinema’s most controversial eras.