From among the Video Nasties

When the Director of Public Prosecutions assembled the legendary list of Video Nasties, they obviously couldn't be bothered to do something unreasonable like watch all of the movies they wanted to publicly prosecute, to make sure they were actually obscene. So some shortcuts were taken: if a film sounded like it was probably a Nasty, on the list it went. If a film's title had a word like "cannibal" or "zombie" or "death" in it, there was a good chance it would end up targeted for banning. However, the best example of a keyword that almost guaranteed a film a one-way trip to Censorshipville - for unlike "cannibal" and "zombie", it's not specifically tied to a genre, therefore it can safely be said that the word itself was the red flag and nothing else - is "don't". Usually in the construction, "don't do this, or you will end up massively dead".

All told, four "don't" movies ended up on the DPP list, though only one of them, Don't Go in the Woods was successfully prosecuted. This was hardly exhaustive - I am at least moderately shocked that Don't Torture a Duckling escaped without a hint of controversy, but perhaps it wasn't even available on video in Great Britain at the time - though four films represents a significant enough portion of the Nasties that it wouldn't do for a survey of that list to pass them by altogether, and it is for this reason that we're all here tonight. The oldest of the "don't" films was 1973's Don't Look in the Basement, but that was the re-release title of a movie originally called The Forgotten; I do not know when this title was first applied, though it seems to have been sometime in the '70s. Still, in the interest of being perfectly fair, I have elected to review the first film that bore that notorious "don't" moniker right out of the box: 1980's Don't Go in the House, a remarkably low-budget affair that managed to avoid the worst excesses of the DPP only because the producer promised that he'd get a re-cut version of the film on store shelves as soon as possible. Which makes this, incidentally, the first non-banned film we've looked at in this Nasties retrospective.

It will come as no surprise to those who have been following along that Don't Go in the House, even in its rawest, most unadulterated version, is a pretty damn tame thing: the violence it depicts is not nearly as off-putting as the perfunctory misogyny the film evinces, and even that isn't half so obscene as the ridiculously shabby quality of the whole thing.

What we have here, at its most basic, is a particularly banal rip-off of Psycho, a good 12 years or more after such things last possessed any kind of real currency. This is the story of Donny Kohler (Dan Grimaldi), who got good and fucked-up as a child when his mother held his arms over a lit stovetop, scarring him for life both physically and mentally. The latter manifests itself in his creepy preoccupation with human bodies burning, which we first see in the very first scene: at his job at the local incinerator (which seems like too much contrivance already for the opening of a film, but whatever), he watches dispassionately as a co-worker accidentally gets set on fire and nearly dies. He comes home that night, after being soundly chewed-out, to find his mother (Ruth Dardick) dead on the sofa. This bit, at least, is a clever - relatively so - Psycho riff, for we in the audience recognise instantly that Mrs. Kohler must be dead, from the way she's hidden from the camera, and we're primed to assume that Donny is a crazy dead momma hoarder. Except that he is so shocked to find her that way that whatever sanity remained in his head (and it wasn't much, to judge from his rambling when he was confronted after the accident) is blown to pieces. He starts hearing whispering voices after that, and apparently they tell him to go out, find girls, and kill them with a flamethrower in the giant metal room he keeps in the basement, for that is just what he does.

I say "apparently", because I have no damn idea what they actually say; except for a moment here and a moment there, the staticky whispering is wholly illegible. Which is just par for the course in a movie whose cheap and incompetent production quality sits crouching like an angry toad in the corner of every single shot. The story goes that the film had wrapped, and it was only then that the filmmakers took a look at their material; and it was now that they found that, thanks to hideously out-of-date equipment, there was not one line of usable audio from the whole shoot. So every moment of the film had to be dubbed and foleyed, and it seems that whatever post-production audio facilities they had were also out-of-date, given the wretchedness of the sound that made it into the finished film.

Is it fair to blame a movie that was made for essentially no budget for having dodgy audio? Well... yes. A movie is only as good as its on-screen merits, and if it sounds like every actor was speaking through a sweat sock, that's true whether the movie cost $10,000 or $10,000,000. At any rate, the audio isn't illegible, but it is muffled, and poorly synced: there only rarely seems to be an active relationship between what is being spoken with the people speaking.

Even so, if Don't Go in the House had no greater sin to its credit than shitty sound, I would probably have refrained from calling it "ridiculously shabby". To earn that distinction, the film also has to engage in some generally flat, underlit cinematography (which may well be exacerbated by a plainly insufficient DVD), and more importantly, a terrifically lousy storyline, crudely functional and wandering, and not remotely attentive enough to the depiction of death and mayhem that is presumably the film's primary draw.

Following his messages from the voices, Donny meets a girl, Kathy Jordan (Johanna Brushay), at a bar; he convinces her to go out with him, and to swing by his place really quick to check on his mother; then, while she gets more and more freaked out by whatever the hell is going on, he clonks her on the head, strips her, hangs her from the ceiling of the aforementioned metal room, and blasts her with the aforementioned flamethrower. It is this scene that won Don't Go in the House both its title and its place on the Video Nasties list, and to be entirely fair, the effects work is pretty darn convincing, if not tremendously unsettling.

It is also the last scene of violence in the film. A little bit later, Donny kidnaps another girl, and dispatches her, in a much faster sequence, and a little bit later still, he has dressed his three victims in his mother's clothes, set them in a room, and fantasises that they are haranguing him. Three girls? Yes, a third woman briefly appears and then is dead before you can even say "tendency to deprave and corrupt", just to add some extra pep to it all, I guess. This scene occurs significantly before the mid-point of a movie that clocks in at 86 minutes, and we're done. Donny kills no more women; he sets on woman's hair on fire at a bar when he feels trapped, but that's not even vaguely the same thing. What happens for the rest of Don't Go in the House concerns the efforts of Donny's work friend Bobby (Robert Osth) to drag the yet-masked serial killer out of his shell by forcing him to go out on the town - Bobby assumes that Donny is just feeling out of sorts because of that initial accident, you see - while Father Gerritty (Ralph D. Bowman), who has been on the receiving end of Donny's paranoid ramblings about the Devil and all the evils trying to take over his mind, slowly puts together the pieces of what happened to fuck Donny up so horribly, and in the end it still takes an act of sheer coincidence to keep the murderer from murdering again.

It's a massively unsatisfying narrative structure that assumes we've gotten so invested in the tormented mind of this killer that we'll be thrilled to watch as he tries to function, but only gets more and more terrified by his memories of his cruel mother and his visions of the three burned women rising up to take their revenge. It is not at all likely that this is the case for any but the most forgiving viewer: between the generally crummy dialogue, and the deleterious effects that the awful dubbing has on the performances, it's hard to see Don't Go in the House as anything but a specially violent edition of the local amateur theater company's dinner show. The interplay between Donny and Kathy is particularly stiff and unnatural; it's the worst possible time for it, too, since this ought to be the tensest moment of the film. But as a whole, the screenplay (by director Joseph Ellison, Ellen Hammill, and Joe Masefield), indulges in barbaric, over-written exposition and hammy examples of Donny's psychosis, and nothing that an average human being would recognise as the behavior of another member of the species.

Without being vile in the way of the Nazisploitation or cannibal movies, the film is generally unpleasant and seedy, mostly in the way that it treats the female victims as identity-deprived logs who wander in to pique Donny's interest and then get burned, or as the inexplicably monstrous harpy who made the little boy into a madman in the first place. Not that the men get much better: the ones who aren't Donny spend most of their time mouthing platitudes about "life is swell if you just get out there and live it". Not that it would matter if they were well-written, for the acting is of a uniformly rancid quality that would undo a brilliant script, let alone a tawdry piece of birdcage liner like this. Add in a hateful disco score, and Don't Go in the House proves to be, in the end, a film that works on exactly zero levels. It's not brutally horrific, it's not a compelling character study; hell, it's not even interesting to look at except in one or two scenes. This is perhaps the finest example we've seen so far this summer of a movie that has no merits whatsoever, and would have passed right into obscurity years since, but for its enshrinement on this one single list. And if that's not a perfect argument against the DPP list as a terrible crime against cinema, then I don't have one.

Body Count: 4, including Donny's mother, and including that random third girl who we only see well after she dies off-camera.

Nastiness Rating: 2/5, not very Nasty. Almost the whole damn movie depicts people talking about how weird Donny is, or Donny fretting about how weird he feels, and the single violent setpiece is not remotely offensive enough to justify any kind of controversy around this one. The objectifying view of women, maybe, but I doubt that's what got the DPP's attention.