The ungrammatically titled Don’t Go in the House — the title has no apparent connection to the movie (it should be called Don’t Go into the Metal-Lined Room) — shoots its notorious wad early on. Our protagonist, Donald Kohler (Dan Grimaldi, who decades later got a recurring role on The Sopranos), is one sick pup. His beloved mother, one of those horror-movie Catholics who take the Bible way too literally, used to burn his arms when he was a boy, to “purify” the Evil in him. Donald still lives with his mother, who dies one day when he’s at work (a long, hard day of tinkering with incinerators and standing around doing nothing when a coworker catches fire). His reaction runs the familiar gamut of grief: denial, voices in his head, loud disco music, jumping around on furniture, and seeing his mom’s greenish reanimated corpse. He knows what he must do: modify a room in his house with metal walls, pick up women, strip them, chain them up, and burn them to death with his trusty flamethrower.
Ouch. And the first murder in this nasty little item (shot in chilly New Jersey) has been talked about for years: a more-or-less unbroken shot of the flames hitting and engulfing the nude body of an unlucky floral-shop worker unwise enough to go home with Donald. You can see how it was done (in those pre-CGI days) if you look closely — the effect is repeated later on three of Donald’s charred victims who have come back to haunt him, and you can clearly make out where footage of flames has had a body shape matted out of it and then been pasted over the body. But in this first scene, you might not be looking too closely; you might be too busy wincing, and perhaps thinking, “Jesus, did they actually set a woman on fire for this?”
Sadly, the rest of Don’t Go in the House doesn’t live up to the dubious splendor of this opening assault on our sensibilities. Gorehounds will be disappointed in the subsequent dearth of onscreen slaughter — the remaining kills are offscreen. Everyone else will stifle yawns as Donald alternately whines and yells at his decaying mother, while a concerned work buddy (who seems for all the world to be hitting on Donald — “Let’s go out for coffee and talk” — until he’s revealed to be married with girlfriends on the side) keeps calling Donald to make sure he’s okay. Freddy or Jason never contended with that problem, the horrifying Nosy Friend Two Steps Away From Staging an Intervention, but they would’ve known how to deal with one; Donald, however, is altogether too polite for his own good.
Dan Grimaldi delivers a dual Xerox of Harvey Keitel and David Proval, never endangering the memories of either. He seems too normal to play abnormal, unlike the bug-eyed Joe Spinell in Maniac, which this movie predated; some prefer this earlier, grimier story about an unhinged mama’s boy who takes up a unique misogynistic mission, but Don’t Go in the House renders a simple equation — subtract Spinell from Maniac (not to mention Tom Savini’s lurid gore effects) and you have Grimaldi trying too hard to rant and rave and appear fearsome (he never is, except when silently approaching his victims in his fire-retardant suit). For all that, the movie does have an authentic working-class Jersey flavor, and if the jaded viewer needs something to hoot at there’s always the disco, which by 1980 was already as dead as Elvis. Donald accompanies his friend to a dance club, where the same heinous ditty from his home turntable (“When we’re home…when we’re alone”) is blaring, and Donald flashes back to Mom simmering his flesh over the gas stove and chucks a lit candle at his date. This isn’t guaranteed to get you laid, even in a disco joint.
Eventually, poor Donald goes completely bugfuck, resurrecting his three fried victims in his imagination while his friend, accompanied by the pissiest priest I’ve ever seen in a movie, bangs on the door. Which is good news for the two drunken chicks Donald has picked up and brought to his metal lair. Don’t Go in the House arguably has something to say about the cycle of child abuse — it ends with another kid being slapped around and then hearing the same mind-voices Donald does — and though it’s been singled out among its ’80s peers for its virulent misogyny, it was co-written and produced by a woman, Ellen Hammill, who with director Joseph Ellison also gave us the considerably gentler Joey (1986), about a teenage boy who wants to be a rock star. This has to be upsetting to true grindhouse fans (like Quentin Tarantino, reportedly a fan of Don’t Go in the House — he may have quoted from it a bit in Reservoir Dogs when Michael Madsen threatens the newly one-eared cop with immolation), who would probably prefer to believe that the perpetrators of this film slunk off into the shadows of Jersey and were never heard from again, chased out of Hollywood on a rail for their crimes against good taste. That Hammill and Ellison followed up this sleaze epic six years later with a rock-and-roll coming-of-age story just suggests that their hearts weren’t really in the story of a demented guy burning women alive. It’s as if William Lustig had made Maniac and then followed it with Stand by Me. That’s just weird, man.