Monday, February 14, 2022

DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE (1980) Blu-ray Review

Don’t Go in the House (1980) d. Joseph Ellison (USA) (92 min)

Lonely misfit city worker Donny Kohler (Dan Grimaldi) suffers the one-two punch of witnessing a co-worker engulfed in flame after an aerosol can explodes in the incinerator and then coming home to discover his overbearing mother has kicked the bucket sitting in her easy chair. This pair of traumatizing events apparently fry the last circuit in Donny’s brain, because he immediately starts hearing disembodied voices, instructing him to remedy the “evil” in the world, which he interprets as “build a steel-plated furnace room in the basement, purchase an asbestos fire suit and flamethrower, and start luring unsuspecting females into your new DIY BBQ palace.”

Lumped in as an early ’80s slasher as well as a Video Nasty when it is officially neither (there are no sharp implements at play here and while seized by the BFCC, it was never successfully prosecuted), Don’t Go in the House is first and foremost a shameless spin on 1960’s Psycho, with an abusive (and expired) matriarch kept alive in her son’s broken mind in order to justify his serial killer tendencies. To be fair, director Ellison and his co-screenwriters Joe Masefield and Ellen Hammill are hardly the first to appropriate Hitchcock’s beats and the first act is genuinely suspenseful and horrific as we watch Donny’s sanity swirl down the drain. Grimaldi, who would gain worldwide fame in the early 2000s as the Parisi twins on HBO’s The Sopranos, tenders a believably high-wire performance of a man who is just competent enough to play “normal” and gain the trust of others, but whose natural state wavers between frustrated rage and deep despair.

Were it not for the rightfully infamous sequence where Donny convinces floral shop worker Kathy (former Playboy bunny Johanna Brushay) to accept a ride home (after missing her bus assisting him after hours), only to find herself strung up naked in the “burn room,” it’s unlikely the film would still be discussed four decades later. But the atmosphere of dread is so palpable and the fire effects so well executed that it became an instant “you gotta see this” moment for the VHS generation of hungry horror fans.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story fails to come anywhere near capturing our attentions to this degree again and we are left with a character study of a non-character, propped up by repeated flashbacks of Donny’s mother burning his forearms over an open stove flame and present-day sequences of him entertaining his victims’ crispy corpses (courtesy of Christmas Evil's makeup man Tom Brumberger) with not-so-witty banter. (This latter is a plot device borrowed from Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby’s marvelously creepy 1974 Ed Gein biopic flick, Deranged.)

DGITH also suffers in comparison to that same year’s other “sicko” serial killer flick, William Lustig’s Maniac, since the two share very similar DNA, i.e. a homicidal monologue-spouting loner with mother issues. However, Lustig’s effort wins the race by a mile, thanks in no small part to the fact that there are multiple troubling scenes of Tom Savini-engineered violence punctuating Joe Spinell’s unhinged, babbling lead turn (as opposed to the solitary one on hand here).

This is not to say that Ellison’s debut feature is a disaster, far from it. The minimal production values serve the turn and/or impress beyond their budgetary constraints; in addition to the aforementioned practical burn effects, the entire production was re-dubbed in post-production so skillfully that one would never know it wasn’t synch sound. It’s just that our expectations are so elevated by the opening act that the final hour is an inevitable letdown, and as capable as Grimaldi is, he doesn’t possess Spinell’s magnetic madness or Roberts Blossom’s haunted, dead-behind-the-eyes presence.

Severin Films serves up a blue-ribbon package with a double-disc Blu-ray that showcases the 82-min theatrical cut, the alternate 89-min TV version (which eliminated much of the violence in favor of more speechifying), and an “Integral” cut combining both that clocks in at 92 minutes. These latter two also bear the film’s original title, The Burning, before it was changed to avoid confusion with Tony Maylam’s 1981 shocker featuring a very young Holly Hunter and Jason Alexander. There is also a wealth of supplemental materials, some ported over from previous releases (such as Grimaldi’s interview and commentary track) and a number of newly minted featurettes. Fans will not be disappointed and even those who are a bit lukewarm (hi there) will gain a deeper appreciation even if they remain unconvinced of its “classic” status.


Disc 1 (Theatrical Cut)

THE BURNING: Alternate TV Cut
Audio Commentary with Director Joe Ellison and Producer Ellen Hammill
Archival Commentary with Actor Dan Grimaldi
“House” Keeping: Interviews with Co-Producer Matthew Mallinson and Co-Writer Joseph R. Masefield
We Went In The House!: The Locations Of DON’T GO IN THE HOUSE
Playing With Fire: Archival Interview with Actor Dan Grimaldi
Trailer Gallery
Image Gallery

Disc 2 (Integral Cut)

Audio Commentary with Stephen Thrower, Author of Nightmare USA
Minds On Fire: Video Essay by The Reprobate David Flint
Burn Baby Burn: Interview with Director Joseph Ellison
Grindhouse All-Stars: Interviews with Filmmakers Matt Cimber, Joseph Ellison, Roy Frumkes and Jeff Lieberman

Don’t Go in the House is available now on Blu-ray from Severin Films and can be ordered HERE:


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