Friday, October 27, 2017

the Bel-Air at midnight

Don't Go in the House (1980, d. Joseph Ellison)


Amid myriad distractions (and excuses), this blog has sat dormant and forgotten the past six weeks—an especially egregious distinction considering October is my favorite month (and horror runs thick in my blood).  And so I'd like to share a movie intro I wrote a couple of weeks ago for London-based Neodrome (expertly rendered to video by founder/filmmaker, Simon Kennedy, at the bottom):

One summer night many moons ago, in a crowded drive-in theater on the outskirts of Detroit, a pair of impressionable young boys sat mesmerized in the backseat of their mother's AMC Pacer, gripped by a horror they'd never dare to imagine. Something terrible was happening onscreen—something unconscionable—and it would haunt their spirits for years to come.

I first saw DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE at the Bel-Air Drive-In when I was 5 years old. Raised by a young single mother who loved horror movies, my brother and I were exposed to all manner of creature feature—mom more often than not too transfixed in terror to consider that perhaps her boys were a bit young to be seeing some of this stuff.   

Okay, now about this movie...if you've seen it, you already know, but if you haven't, it remains one of the real shockers of the horror genre—from any era.

As Donnie Kohler, Dan Grimaldi gives a very persuasive, harrowing performance, both a victim and a fiend in this dark, perilous funhouse ride. Here's a guy who is just trampled by the world, one of those painfully awkward designated loners whose life is mired in day-to-day ridicule.

Dominated and abused by his mother (whom he still lives with in a large, dilapidated old house), the narrative is a tricky one because you become invested in this sad, pathetic man in a very particular way—and you get on his side—and of course once that happens, the extent of his psychosis is revealed.

Early on we witness a flashback to some very disturbing childhood trauma inflicted by his mother, who tells him he's evil and needs to be punished (and punctuates this by burning his arms over the stove, scarring him for life). When she soon dies, Donnie's already tenuous grip on reality is shattered, and a monster is set loose upon the world.

From this point on, he's tormented (and egged on) by a creepy, whispering voice as we witness his desperate, clumsy attempts to lure women back to his house—or at least into his truck. At home, he's fire-proofed a room with steel paneling—and he's bought a head-to-toe fireproof suit as well as a flamethrower—and it isn't long before we're plunged into a waking nightmare.

There was much critical vitriol and indignation inspired by Don't Go in the House, and it can be traced back to one scene, really—his first murder. It's the only instance in the movie in which director Joseph Ellison really dwells on the act (and since Donnie's burning women alive, the outrage from critics was understandable).

After torching his victims, they're dressed in his mother's clothing and assembled in a sitting room, where he occasionally visits their charred remains for a word or two (and at one point threatens to “punish them again” in a desperate bid to regain control, as they've begun popping up here and there around the house, startling him with laughter). And it's in these moments, when his blackened, rotting victims stalk and torment him, that the real horror occurs.

The influence of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is quite apparent throughout Don't Go in the House.  As in Psycho, Donnie keeps his once-domineering mother's rotting corpse at home (and still hears her bark orders from time to time). And as with Norman Bates, there's an ambivalence towards the killer as we initially pity Donnie, who warily, nervously traverses life as an outcast.

Though routinely dismissed as ugly, repellent, exploitative trash upon its release—mostly for the shocking brutality of its first murder—a more complex and compelling picture would emerge as Don't Go in the House withstood the passage of decades. Regardless of how they felt about this nasty little movie and its motives, it truly did frighten the hell out of people, and that is what still resonates after all these years. Very few horror films have endured so well after initially being so roundly condemned. Yes, it's cheap and rough around the edges, but wow is it scary.

For years afterwards, my brother and I would recall the tale of that mythic, awful thing we'd seen that night, which our mother somewhat inadvertently exposed us to, and we'd speak of the nightmares it caused as well.

I'll wrap this up by mentioning that it was somehow fitting (given the plot) that it was my mother who had introduced us to this traumatic horror film at such a young age. She really tried her best, though, and neither my brother nor I have become violent criminals, so. 

One more interesting side notewhen I was 12, my mom came home from shopping one day with a treat from the VHS bargain bin at K-Mart, and having forgotten the title, she'd once again brought Don't Go in the House into our lives.