Donny Kohler (Dan Grimaldi) lives with his invalid mother in a big rambling house on the outskirts of town. By day, he works in a furnace. By night, he is at his mother's beck and call. What people don't know is that since childhood Donny's mother routinely punished him by holding his arms over the gas stove.
When the movie starts, Donny is already a few matches short of a full box. When a colleague is burned in an accident at the beginning of the movie, Donny does nothing to help. He just watches the poor man burn.
When his tyrannical mother dies, Donny tips over into full-on dementia. Realising he is still not free of his mother's influence, Donny takes his frustrations out in a uniquely appalling way -- by kidnapping women he finds attractive and burning them to death with a flamethrower in a room of his house that he has covered in sheet metal.
Don't Go In The House is not a perfect movie. It borrows heavily from Psycho, doesn't have much plot and some of the supporting players are god-awful. Despite its flaws, Don't Go In The House is a pretty effective thriller.
Despite the killer's modus operandi, the film does not dwell on it. Director Joseph Ellison shoots the first burning sequence with no cutaways and it is brutally effective, but he leaves the rest of Donny's murders to the viewer's imagination.
DOP Oliver Wood (now most famous for the first three Bourne movies) gives the film a cold but atmospheric look -- the film feels very lived-in, in that way the 70s horror movies are, with a visceral bluntness which is very disturbing without tipping over into feeling ridiculous.
Donny's occasional visions -- in which he is attacked by the cadavers of his dead mother and victims -- are just as frightening as his actions. Ellison strikes a balance between an objective and subjective view of the protagonist that keeps the viewer on their toes. There are points where the film makes you feel like you're stuck in Donny's head, yet there is always a distance between the camera and Donny -- he is a pathetic creature, yet still too alien to truly empathise with. It's an uneasy tension that makes the film far more memorable and disturbing than any of its individual 'signature' moments.
On that count, the movie falls outside of traditional formulas. Released in 1979, Don't Go In The House has the benefit of having been made in a time before 'slasher' movies were a thing, and so it lacks many of the conventions one would expect -- there are no teens, no summer camps and -- despite his iconic furnace garb -- Donny is not presented as some kind of anti-heroic one-man-army ala Jason Vorhees.
In terms of set pieces, the movie does boast some highlights -- as I said, the first burning is extremely brutal and shot in an unflinching way. There is a nightmare scene set on a beach which boasts some amazing visuals involving jets of fire shooting into the sky. And there is a scene set at a disco where Donny tries -- and fails -- to act like a normal human being which has to be seen to be believed.
Despite the fact that the movie is clearly intended to be a drive-in cash grab, the subject matter, and the way Ellison and Grimaldi present it, prevents Don't Go In The House from feeling like some kind of escapist thrill ride. By the same token, it never carries the same air of sleaze that most exploitation movies of this era have -- there's no focus on pain, relatively little gore and the only misogyny is that radiating from Donny.
Ultimately, Don't Go In The House is an odd beast that doesn't really fit in any boxes. It falls between respectable horror and flat-out exploitation movie, but boasts enough unique qualities to make it worth a look.