Let’s face it, grown men who have unresolved issues with their mothers, particularly those who still live with them, have been a staple among movie bad guys since the days of Norman Bates — and while it may have become something of a cliche, it’s one that works, because to the rest of us, there’s just something creepy about a guy in his 30s or 40s who lives with his mom.
Donnie Kohler (Dan Grimaldi), the central character in writer-director Joseph Ellison’s 1980 grindhouse psychodrama “Don’t Go In The House” has a million and one reasons to move out of his mom’s drafty old Victorian tomb of an abode, but he doesn’t. His mom used to burn him as a kid, you see, holding his hands and arms over an open gas flame on their gigantic old stove when he’d been a bad little boy. As a result, Donnie grew up not only with unresolved mommy-issues, but with a peculiar fascination with fire, as well. He’s both attracted to and frightened of it in equal measure in his adult years, as evidenced by the fact that he works in an incinerator but when a co-worker catches fire, he freezes up and is unable to assist in his rescue, forcing the other guys at the plant to save him even though Donnie is closest to the scene.
Needless to say, this act of cowardice doesn’t go over well with his co-workers, and Donnie leaves the plant humiliated. If he thought he had a bad day at work, though, things only get worse when he gets home — his mother, you see, has finally succumbed to old age and departed this mortal coil, and with her goes Donnie’s last (admittedly tepid) connection to reality. He’s on his own now, and has a lot of shit to work out as he finally “grows up” in his own uniquely twisted way.
His first actions are natural enough—he blasts his stereo at top volume and gets drunk. But this youthful (err—okay, so he’s not youthful) fling with excess quickly loses its appeal and Donnie soon combines his unhealthy fascination with fire and his unresolved issues with an overbearing mother (issues that he has now, in a classic case of psychological transference, grafted onto the entire female gender as a whole) in a decidedly toxic fashion. He starts calling in sick from work every day and nailing sheet metal to the walls, ceiling, and floor of one of the many large and unused rooms in his house. Then, it’s time for him to get busy and bring home some “dates,” by any means necessary—but his idea of a good time with a member of the opposite sex requires him to wear an asbestos suit. That’s right, our guy Donnie decides to bring women home, chain them up, and take a flamethrower to them.
Okay, I’ll be the first to admit there’s nothing terribly original about the premise here (apart from Donnie’s preferred method of dispatch for his victims), but Grimaldi really sells you on the character with his performance. He absolutely seems like the quintessential loser who never left home, has no social skills, is terrified of the opposite sex, and blames them (all of them) for his problems. Ellison’s script is a character piece through and through, and the casting of Grimaldi in the lead was a brilliant stroke on his part. In the hands of a lesser actor, this would be standard—or even substandard—exploitation fare, but Grimaldi’s virtuoso performance alone elevates this movie several notches above where it probably belongs.
The house itself is a brilliant piece of location scouting, and succeeds in first capturing, then magnifying, the twisted mental landscape of our psycho protagonist. The winter shooting schedule of the film in the New York/New Jersey area adds to the overall intensely moody atmosphere, as well.
All in all, this is a classic case of a film whose whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. The creepily inherent understanding of the lead character’s twisted psychological worldview on the part of both the writer/director and the star, combined with (I hesitate to use the term but it really does apply here) a perfect physical setting takes what is, on paper, nothing too terribly special and transforms it into something very special indeed. Sick, twisted, depraved, abhorrent, offensive, shocking, perverse, and sleazy, to be sure—but very special nonetheless.
Media Blasters released “Don’t Go In The House” on DVD under their “Shriek Show” label a few years back, and it features a fine feature-length commentary with Grimaldi, an on-camera interview with the actor, an alternate take of one of the film’s more brutal scenes, the original theatrical trailer, and more. It’s available alone or as part of the “Grindhouse Psychos Triple Feature” boxset, together with “Cop Killers,” an early Rick Baker special effects effort, and Roberta Findlay’s notorious “Tenement.” Great stuff!