Donny Kohler, the man who lives alone with his mother. Donny Kohler, the man who works at the incinerator plant and has only one friend. Donny Kohler, who is awkward around women and whose father left when he was five years old, leaving him unprotected with an unstable and abusive mother. Donny Kohler, the boy who was punished by fire, and who grew up with the mind of a child and the compulsion to watch things burn.
Directed by Joseph Ellison from a script co-written with Ellen Hammill and Joe Masefield originally titled The Burning Man and renamed to give it a more commercial appeal, Don’t Go in the House was never going to be a commercial film no matter the title, a bleak tale of a victim who becomes a victimiser, kidnapping and torturing women, burning them alive in a steel-lined room and keeping the remains upstairs, dressed in the clothes of his recently deceased mother.
A low-budget independent film released in 1980 and now restored from the original negative for Arrow’s Blu-ray release, Don’t Go in the House was never banned as a “video nasty” but it was investigated, understandably, as it is at times unnecessary and unpleasant in the extremities of the violence depicted, the killings shot “live” with a split prism over the lens allowing the writhing naked performer to be superimposed with an adjacent burning mannequin, caught in the frame as a single image.
Presented by Arrow in multiple versions across two discs, the “extended” versions are undeniably superior to the theatrical release, including scenes where Donny (The Sopranos’ Dan Grimaldi) confesses to his audience of charred corpses then later questions his priest on the nature of evil and forgiveness, allowing Grimaldi a chance to genuinely act and changing the tone and pace of the film.
Without these, the film is incomplete, leaving only the beautiful and ethereal nightmare beach sequence to create an atmosphere: attempts to address guilt, shame, abuse and grief are superficial and clueless and for the most part Donny does not entice or entrap, he nags women to come to his – admittedly stunning – house; while Richard Einhorn’s score is probably better than the film deserves, it is too often displaced by disco as Donny ventures out in his new three-piece dancing suit.
Supported by a plethora of commentaries, interviews and video essays, Ellison, Masefield, Grimaldi and producer Matthew Mallinson among the subjects, David Flint argues for the rehabilitation of the film in Minds on Fire, making interesting points but sometimes reaching in his aim to present Don’t Go in the House as misunderstood and unfairly maligned art when the standard of acting is not high and every woman is a victim who is either drunk or demonstrates poor judgement; a more honest assessment is given in Grindhouse AllStars which observes that with no budget you have to hit hard regardless of any other values, otherwise you are forgotten.