Don’t Go in the House Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: February 8, 2022
Audio: English LPCM 1.0 Mono (Theatrical & TV Cuts); English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono (Integral Cut); English Dolby Digital 2.0 Descriptive Audio (Theatrical & Integral Cuts)
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 82:33 (Theatrical Cut)/89:37 (TV Cut)/92:09 (Integral Cut)
Director: Joseph Ellison
A shy incinerator worker named Donny (Dan Grimaldi), scarred by memories of his mother’s abuse, begins luring women to his childhood home for incendiary torment. (From Severin’s official synopsis)
I don’t think it’s reductive to say that Joseph Ellison’s notorious shocker Don’t Go in the House (1979) was designed to be a downbeat and blatant combination of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Ellison and Ellen Hammill’s screenplay features a tortured child who grows into mentally ill and murderous adult man who is haunted by his overbearing/abusive mother’s voice while bumbling his way through the Gothic malaise of 1970s tri-state America. The main character, Donny, bears the trademarks of famous real-world serial killers, but, in keeping with the Psycho theme, he’s essentially a firebug version of human skin suit enthusiast Ed Gein. And, like basically every pre-Friday the 13th (1980) variation on the budding slasher theme, Don’t Go in the House wants audiences to remember the raw intensity of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Some critics will compare the killer’s use of a flamethrower to Leatherface’s chainsaw, but the key similarity is the spooky, rotting abattoir that is the titular house and its mummified inhabitants, which is, of course, another connection to Mr. Gein.
While not as (in)famous as some of the other late ‘70s/early ‘80s children of Psycho, Chain Saw Massacre, and Taxi Driver – Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer (1979), Dennis Donnelly’s Toolbox Murders (1978), or Bill Lustig Maniac (1980), for example – Don’t Go in the House has endured mostly due to its reputation on home video. It was easily available in the United States, thanks to VHS tapes from Media Home Entertainment and Video Treasures, and became a sensation in the UK when it found itself on the Director of Public Prosecution’s list of banned films, aka: the Video Nasties (after being already censored by three minutes for its British theatrical release). Unlike many of the Nasties, which are too strange, harmless, or dreadfully amateur to be taken seriously as a threat to public safety and sanity, Don’t Go in the House’s shocks are well enough designed to chill the spines of even modern-day audiences. It’s not as relentlessly unpleasant as Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (aka: Day of the Woman, 1978) or Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), but it’s definitely more frightening than Jack Weis’ tepid Mardi Gras Massacre (1978), which, by the way, still isn’t available in the UK.
Most of the controversy surrounds the central murder sequence, in which a woman is stripped nude, hung up by her arms in a metal room, doused in gasoline, and burned to death with a flamethrower. It’s easily rejected by insusceptible critics as tasteless and cruel, but the scene is also so artfully filmed and committed to its amoral, objective point-of-view that its power can’t be outright dismissed. The rest of the film isn’t otherwise artless – to the contrary, Ellison understands the importance of mood and hired future A-list cinematographer and editor combo, Oliver Wood and Jane Kurson – but there’s definitely a gap between the depressive griminess of its character drama and the horrifying, surprisingly realistic murder sequence. Shades of the flamethrower scene can be seen in the studio-driven, so-called “torture porn” movies of the early ‘00s, which filtered grindhouse trash of the bygone era through the craft of mainstream thrillers. Eli Roth’s Hostel Part II’s (2007) Mrs. Bathory scene, where a victim is hung upside down over the eponymous Mrs. Bathory, who lies in a bath and slashes the girl with a scythe until she is raining a literal shower of blood upon her nude flesh, being a good example.
Following the burning sequence, Don’t Go in the House returns to gloomy psychodrama mode. Even the fiery climax, complete with (imagined) zombie attack (similar to how Lustig ended Maniac a year later), doesn’t match its intensity. The film disguises its lack of budget better than most shoestring horror, in part because the special effects money is put into these two sequences and a couple of brief nightmare flashes. The rest of the film is devoted to Donny’s mental anguish, Catholic guilt, and strange disco double date, all of which helps maintain the nihilistic tone without doing much to endear Don’t Go in the House to the gorehound crowd. It has been labeled boring by critics and horror fans for decades now and fairly so, but those who are willing to endure its disquieting drudgery may find themselves genuinely disturbed in the best/worst way.
As mentioned, Don’t Go in the House was a hit on US VHS and banned on UK home video (the uncut version remained banned until 2011). NuTech Digital released a 1.33:1, VHS quality DVD in 1999, followed by a much better anamorphic disc from Media Blasters in 2005. The first Blu-ray release came via Subkultur in Germany and the second was released as recently as 2016 by Scorpion here in the US. That Scorpion disc included an extended version of the film created using a television cut (yes, there was a cut of this notoriously gruesome movie made for network television), however, they mistakenly included the censored audio. Severin’s collection includes three cuts – the original uncut theatrical version, the censored, but longer TV version, under the superior title The Burning (deleted scenes were included to pad time lost from censored shots), and the extended cut, dubbed the integral cut, that includes all of the gore and deleted TV scenes and the uncensored audio. The box labels the transfer as being culled from a new 2K scan of the original 35mm negatives and all three cuts are presented in 1080p, 1.78:1 video.
Naturally, the image is gritty and grainy, but the overall clarity is remarkable, considering the film’s age, budget, and intended style. I had only ever seen Don’t Go in the House on DVD and the HD bump really shows off cinematographer Oliver Wood’s delicate lighting and subtle use of shallow focus, both of which were turned to digital mud in standard definition. The largely neutral palette is consistent and the occasionally colored highlights pop without bleeding. Sometimes, the most low-lit sequences clump up a bit, but, overall, the black levels are clean. There’s little to no degradation between the theatrical and TV cut footage, though some exterior shots are grainier than the interiors.
Don’t Go in the House is presented in its original mono English, though, for whatever reason, the theatrical and TV cuts in LPCM and the composite cut in DTS-HD Master Audio. The entire film is dubbed and no one seems to agree as to why. In See No Evil: Banned Films and Video Controversy (Headpress 2001), David Kerekes & David Slater claim that, despite being filmed in New Jersey, Don’t Go in the House was planned for European distribution only, so it was decided that on-set sound was unnecessary. While Ellison had originally worked in dubbing European films, according to an interview in Stephen Thrower’s In Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents (FAB Press, 2007), the Arriflex cameras were too loud and the dialogue that was recorded was on-set was basically unusable. He also implies that this was understood from the beginning and that the recordings were only ever meant as a guide track, though imdb.com trivia claims that Dan Grimaldi was under the impression that the audio equipment was at fault.
Whatever the reason, the dubbing is impressive enough that many viewers (including myself) might not even notice it, aside from a few obvious bits here and there. Anyway, the mono mix is surprisingly rich and bassy, really rumbling whenever blazing fire comes into play. The dialogue can sound a little squeezed, but not unusually so for a four-decade-old single channel mix. Richard Einhorn’s largely ambient score, the licensed disco & rock tracks, and the stylized effects are crisp with minimal buzz. For the record, Einhorn had a heck of a run composing music grimy slashers between this, Ken Wiederhorn’s Eyes of a Stranger (1981), Joseph Zito’s The Prowler (1981), and John Grissmer’s Blood Rage (1983).
Disc One (Theatrical Cut and TV Cut)
Commentary with director Joseph Ellison and producer Ellen Ellison (nee Hammill), moderated by Severin’s David Gregory (Theatrical Cut) – This brand new director/producer commentary is full-bodied and brimming with behind-the-scenes anecdotes that I hadn’t otherwise learned from older DVD extras or critical reevaluations, but it really runs on the pleasant back & forth conversation between participants. Gregory keeps things moving, but rarely needs to interject.
Commentary with actor Dan Grimaldi (Theatrical Cut) – The second track was originally recorded for the 2005 Media Blasters release and features a solo Grimaldi working his way through his own production stories. Despite the lack of moderator or other commentators to bounce off of, he fills the space effectively.
“House” Keeping (20:55, HD) – Co-producer Matthew Mallinson and co-writer Joseph R. Masefield discuss the film’s development, script and title changes, the phenomenon of exploitation movies with “don’t” in the title, inspirations/homage, working with the cast & crew, the logistics of filming, controversy over credits, and release reactions.
We Went in the House!: The Locations of Don't Go in the House (19:23, HD) – A 2021 location visit hosted by Michael Gingold.
Playing with Fire (9:44, SD) – 2005 interview with Grimaldi from the Media Blasters DVD.
Trailer Gallery – UK theatrical trailer, UK teaser trailer, German theatrical trailer, US theatrical trailer, and 4 US TV spots
Disc Two (Integral Cut)
Commentary with Stephen Thrower – The author of Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents, who has spent much of his career championing Don’t Go in the House, draws upon the interviews he conducted with the cast & crew for his book, as well as more recent research, to give us the most complete exploration of the film possible. The track covers the production, the careers of the cast & crew, the general state of horror around the time of release, real-world events that inspired serial killer cinema, and more, all from the intimate point-of-view of someone who loves the film and has spoken directly with the people who made it.
Minds on Fire: The Dying Embers of 1970s Psychological Horror (14:56, HD) – Horror Out of Control co-author (with Keri O’Shea; Reprobate Press, 2020) David Flint explores the bleak, contemporary-set psycho thrillers that sprung up during the 1970s, the more formulaic slasher films that replaced them in the 1980s, and movies like Don’t Go in the House that bridged the gap.
Burn Baby Burn (28:29, HD) – A new 2020 interview with director Joseph Ellison, who recalls the struggle of dialing back on the atmospheric focus in favor of thrills, building the entire movie around the flamethrower sequence, attempts at balancing humor and tension, behind-the-scenes strife, preview screenings with distributors, critical reevaluation, and rejecting future slasher projects.
Grindhouse All-Stars: Notes from the Sleaze Cinema Underground (34:24, HD) – A 2020 documentary by Calum Waddell featuring interviews with filmmakers Ellison, Roy Frumkes (Street Trash, 1987), Jeff Lieberman (Just Before Dawn, 1981), and Matt Cimber (The Witch Who Came from the Sea, 1976).
Open matte version of the flamethrower scene (3:50, HD)
Don't: Trailers from the Golden Age of Grindhouse trailer reel (13:21) – In the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, a number of exploitation films were titled or retitled with some variation of ‘don’t do/go/look (blank).’ Severin has collected eight trailers/TV spots and one radio spot to give us an idea of how prevalent the trope was.
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