Don't Go In The House

Director: Joseph Ellison            
Dan Grimaldi, Robert Osth, Ruth Dardick

I was about to write a scathing review of Don't Go In The House, complete with adjectives like stupid, offensive, misogynistic, exploitive, and boring. But just before I was about to write, I was e-mailed the following paper from Professor Usborne K. Edwards, who lectures on 80s horror movies at UCLA. After reading it, I now believe I (and the few others reviewing it) might possibly have misinterpreted this movie. So that coverage of this movie may be balanced, I now present to you Mr. Edward's review:

Don't Go Into The '80s:
A Retrospective of Don't Go In The House

by Professor Usborne K. Edwards

Released with little fanfare in 1980, Don't Go In The House was unfortunately dismissed by both audiences and critics. Audiences, no doubt accustomed and comfortable with the notorious "slasher" films of this period, were likely both frustrated that it didn't give them enough blood and violence, nor the kind they were expecting. Another factor perhaps explaining the poor turnout by audiences might come from the fact this independent production was released by the small independent studio FVI(1), who were saddled in their brief history with limited resources, thus not able to promote the movie to the extent it needed.

What's really unfortunate is that the few critics who bothered to cover the movie generally gave it reviews both quick and dismissive, such as "Lurid junk"(2). The little examination they gave it had them only taking the movie at face value: "Donald's mother severely abused him as a child by roasting his arms over the gas burner. When she dies at the beginning of the movie, he flips out and, listening to the voices in his head, decides to return the favor to the rest of the world. He lures a series of women (who obviously weren't aware of the title of the movie they were in) into his house, where he strips them, douses them with gasoline, and blasts them with a flame-thrower. After they're charred black, he dresses them in his mother's clothes and leaves them sitting around her bedroom, where he talks to them."(3)

In this paper, I will disprove these negative charges against the movie by a thorough examination of the movie, which will list evidence proving my theory that Don't Go In The House is, in fact, primarily a cross-satire/examination of the attitudes of several specific social groups prevalent at the time when the '70s were ending and the '80s were beginning. Additionally, I will bring up evidence that director Joseph Ellison, at the same time, was foreshadowing specific '80s attitudes and events, as well as trying to introduce to mainstream audiences new insights to the mentally ill(4).

The first clue pertaining to my theory of the examination of the period actually comes with the opening credits. In the copyright credit line(5), the date reads 1979, though documentation shows the movie was actually released in 1980. Because of this delay it can be concluded that FVI decided to wait until the '80s actually started until a release, being afraid that a '70s audience would not comprehend the '80s material until the '80s actually started. Soon after, main character Donald (played by actor Dan Grimaldi) comes home from work, to find his mother has died in her sleep. The death of his mother in effect equates the death of the 70s, and Donald's immediate grief represents the populous who wish to be conformists (in other words, the "in" crowd) being upset at this time, because a new decade inevitably means learning and mastering new fashions (clothing, lingo, and the like,) and there runs the inevitable risk of not being able to feel a part of this conformist group. His tears equate the tears of a newborn's birth; in effect, Donald is reborn - he is now a child of the '80s, whether he is ready or not.

Donald then convinces himself that he's okay, he's free of his abusive mother (free of the '70s values), and attempts to convince himself more by a celebration consisting of playing disco music out loud on his stereo(6), and jumping on the furniture. This act is essentially mocking the entire '70s decade - Donald believes now that deep down he was actually always an '80s person, and he is making fun of one particular '70s trend (the "disco dance") by his leaps onto the furniture. His self-denial and braggart behavior is typical of many people in the '80s, like American President George Bush. These actions also pre-echo a famous scene in the 1983 movie Risky Business, when actor Tom Cruise had his own scene where he danced to music and leapt about on furniture(7). It's interesting to note that the Tom Cruise character is partially undressed in this scene, when Donald does his dance completely clothed. Cruise's character is well-adjusted to the period, and therefore lacks inhibitions - unlike Donald, who is secretly inside very nervous about himself and his place in society.

This nervousness Donald's character experiences is seemingly the catalyst of his sanity beginning to slip away from him. As stated earlier, director Ellison used this opportunity in the course of the story to present audiences with a new insight into the mentally ill - though ironically, this new perspective has come into criticism by the same critics who disapprove of the usual stereotypes concerned with the cinematic portrayal of these challenged individuals(8). This criticism includes complaints that the voices Donald's character starts hearing in his mind are inaudible, and a dream sequence is seemingly incomprehensible and pointless to the thrust of the narrative.

It is true that the voices Donald's character start to hear in his mind are, for the most part, difficult to impossible to make out. But this seeming flaw in the technical aspects of Don't Go In The House actually contribute to the  points director Ellison was making - that we can't understand the workings occurring in the mind of a madman. We cannot read the mind of any individual, sane or not, and with this technique, Ellison has broken down one of the stereotypes associated with the mentally ill in motion pictures. The same thing happens with the dream sequence, where Donald dreams about fires and explosions on a beach for several minutes. All of us have experienced many times a dream that makes absolutely no sense. How many times in previous motion pictures has there been dreams with the purpose of providing symbolism, or a chance to try to shock the audience in an unsubtle fashion? Practically every time there has previously (and afterwards) been dream sequence in a motion picture.

Most of the controversy (and criticism) surrounding Don't Go In The House has centered on the murder sequences, when Donald uses his flame-thrower to burn nude women alive. The setup and execution, however, is a foretelling of the change in sexual attitudes in the '80s - mainly with the introduction of AIDS(9). Witness Donald, now firmly rooted in an '80s sensibility, coming to terms with the '80s new attitude towards sexual activity; he is seen looking nervously in the window of an Army surplus store, looking at a fire protective suit. This scene represents the '80s individual dealing with the tension of having to purchase male contraceptive devices(10) for the first time. Later, when Donald's first victim is taken to the metal sheet-lined room and chained up naked, Donald enters the room wearing his "protection", having prepared for his symbolic sexual activity. Further proof of the upcoming flame-broiling is seen with the phallic hard and straight nozzle of the flame thrower extending away from his body, especially when the tip of the nozzle emits flame(11). And subsequently with the realistic effects sequence of the screaming naked woman ablaze, Ellison has thrown in a visual joke - a true "naked flame".

Further proof of the movie being centered around the issues announced in the second paragraph, and not around seemingly misogynistic and exploitive topics, is in the look at the subsequent murders. Footage of the second murder only shows the smoking corpse after it was burned, and we don't even see footage of  the third murder(12). The third murder happens before half of the movie is over, and, certainly to many people's surprise in 1980, there are no subsequent murders(13). Ellison uses the rest of the movie to focus on several key issues. A significant portion of this footage takes place inside Donald's house, where he is taking refuge from his anxiety - unable to handle the new decade and the responsibilites(14). Frequent shots showing the house pitch-black inside while it being daylight outside use the classic "black/white" parallel(15); Donald's decision has made the inside of the house dark (black), which means that his decision is wrong.

Subsequently, the remainder of the movie focuses on a night when his long-puzzled friend manages to convince him to go to the disco with him and two women. This leads to yet another scene accused of being pointless padding, when Donald goes to a men's clothing store, and asks a homosexual(16) clerk  to help him purchase the right disco shirt for him, then subsequently detailing the selection and purchasing of a pair of pants, shoes and a coat to go with this disco shirt. The point being made here is not to waste time, but details that, although Donald has advanced into the '80s, the society around him actually hasn't - in other words, the '80s (Donald) can't understand the kind of thrills experienced in the '70s (including disco). This extends to the scene at the disco itself; Donald is unable to speak or dance with his date, and she gleefully pulls at his arms, trying to drag him onto the dance floor. "Enter the '70s, it's fun!" she is, in effect, saying. Donald then has visions of his mother (the '70s) pulling his arms over the gas burner - a warning from his subconscious that makes it clear that the '70s created foolishness that would be embarrassing (represented by the pain from the gas burner's flames.) When Donald then thrusts a candle into his date's hair, setting it aflame, he is giving her several messages: First, that her embrace of the '70s is now giving her the same pain that Donald has experienced. Second, he is mocking her embrace of the '70s, and disco, by giving her some actual "Hot Stuff"(17). Lastly, he is giving her a warning that the glitz and spectacle being generated by disco will evolve into the "new wave" musical style of the '80s, which, while not negative by itself, will have the indirect consequence of '80s pop performer Michael Jackson having his hair accidentally set ablaze during the shooting of a carbonated beverage commercial for television.

It seems unlikely as of this writing that Don't Go In The House could receive any wider retrospective, seeing that theatrical prints don't seem to exist any longer, the sexual and violent content of the movie making it unfit for commercial television, and with the video edition(18) long out of print on video. Rumors of a "special edition", starting in 1998, have been punctured by the elapse of time. Hopefully, this paper will start the motion to make this "special edition" a reality, which will in turn hopefully initiate more examination of this motion picture, clearly ahead of its time.

(1) FVI in the 70s and 80s released other misunderstood movies of a similar vein, such as Survival Run and The Dark. The latter movie - a study of man vs. environment, plus a satire of race relations in L.A. with a literal "alien" interacting with the W.A.S.P. community -  has been latched to one critic, who constantly mocks it by writing "The Daaaaaarkkkk...." every opportunity he gets.

(2) Leonard Maltin, Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide, (c) JessieFilm Ltd., 1998. Published by The Penguin Group

(3) L.A. Morse, Video Trash & Treasures, (c) L.A. Morse 1989. Published by Harper & Collins Publishers Ltd.

(4) Number four

(5) Though FVI distributed Don't Go In The House, the independent Turbine Films actually made it.

(6) The musical score throughout the movie consists mostly of disco music. This may be director Ellison's manner in representing the inescapable influence of the '70s even well into the '80s; one is constantly reminded and embarrassed by the decade, and must live with knowing how foolish (in their perspective) they acted in that period.

(7) This action was endlessly imitated in other '80s productions, suggesting Ellison foretold this national craze.

(8) Such actions include, and not limited to, shrieking out loud, "symbolic" dreams, periods of intense fury, etc.

(9) Though present day research shows proof of AIDS occurring before the '80s, it was not commonly known before this period. Either Ellison had some inside knowledge of this spreading disease, or he somehow had a sense that the excesses that would occur in the '80s would have tragic consequences.

(10) Fire protective suit = condoms

(11) Semen - the "fire" of sexual activity

(12) A parallel to the ingestion of cocaine - a drug that was to flourish in the '80s - can be seen here. It is well documented that addicts find that, over subsequent uses of the drug, the same quantity of cocaine ingested subsequently has less effect. Since we can assume that Donald is committing the second and third murders in the same fashion as the first murder, the likelihood of this parallel being intended by the director becomes more likely.

(13) One person gets a life-threatning injury just before the end of the movie, but it's never made clear if the victim actually dies.

(14) Partly represented by his not going to work.

(15) The standard symbolism for these two colors have black representing "bad", and white representing "good".

(16) Homosexual = gay - as in "a gay old time," which is what many people felt about disco dancing in the '70s.

(17) Performed by Donna Summer, written by Pete Bellotte, Harold Faltermeyer,  Keith Forsey. (c) 1979 Mercury Records

(18) Media Video, in a poor quality edition free of hi-fi, and using a substandard print  and video transfer.

UPDATE: I got some (true) information about the theatrical release of this movie from reader William Norton:

"Don't Go In The House actually opened very wide in Seattle, and Los Angeles, and had major ads in newspapers, and TV commercial on Saturday Night Live several time in my area, and even had tv spots on Saturday afternoon!  It had a good three week run in most cities.  I saw it at the drive-ins with The Dark. (:  The film was released in 1980, but shot in 1979 because no one wanted it.  I hear FVI picked it up cheap, similar to Survival Run (Spree in some cities, like San Diego,) and Nightmare in Chicago, (which was supposed to be released by Columbia pictures once). Don't Go In The House also was shot without sound, as the producers really had no intention of US release, as they only cared for non-English speaking countries.  The film's ending pre-dates MANIAC, but William Lustig mentioned that the film ripped his film off, despite the fact it was shot a year before his!  (Yeah, right)"

And now to add my own information for this update...Shortly after this review was first put up, I learned by accident that Don't Go In The House was recently re-released on DVD!

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See also: Clownhouse, Confessions Of A Serial Killer, Uncle Sam