Color, 1980, 82/92m.
Directed by Joseph Ellison
Starring Dan Grimaldi, Charles Bonet, Bill Ricci, Robert Osth, Ruth Dardick
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Subkultur (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany R0 HD/NTSC), Arrow (UK R0 PAL), Media Blasters (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
The only pyromaniac disco slasher film to date, Don't Go in the House belongs to the seamier side of that subgenre's early days after Halloween when it began splitting into two camps: audience-pleasing body count films like Friday the 13th, and the one into which this one falls, the grubby psychodrama with a dysfunctional main character killing in the most explicit, harrowing methods possible (see also: Maniac and Nightmare).
Here we have the sordid saga of Donny (The Sopranos' Grimaldi), a construction worker who seems oddly nonplussed in the opening scene when one of his coworkers catches on fire. As we find out in flashbacks, Donny was repeatedly abused by his mother (Dardick), who would hold his arms over open stove flames as punishment. When mom kicks the bucket one night, he decides to celebrate by finally playing his LPs at full volume and then, at the behest of whispering voices in his head, building a stainless steel in the room where he lures a pretty florist home under the guise of meeting mom and then... well, it ain't pretty, and it's one of the most shocking, notorious scenes in sleaze-horror history. It's all downhill for Donny after that as he goes out on the prowl for new victims, slipping deeper into a vortex of insanity.
Bleak, nasty, yet compulsively watchable and certainly difficult to forget, this sick puppy was originally written as The Burning Man and then The Burning before that title got snatched up by another, more traditional slasher film from the same era. Every frame exudes that dark, sinister atmosphere found in New York/New Jersey exploitation films from the same time, coupled with unpolished but weirdly convincing performances and a handful of genuinely surreal shocks involving Donny's undead mother and his growing roster of victims. It should also be pointed out that the soundtrack features some seriously killer disco songs that could wedge into your subconscious for days. Definitely not a traditional happy time at the movies, this is a dangerous but necessary film for those interested in the darker corners of the American slash cycle, and it's also a unique concoction that actually improves with each viewing.
Don't Go in the House first appeared on DVD in uncensored form in 2005 from Media Blasters under its Shriek Show banner, sporting a widescreen transfer at the filmmakers' request that matted off the open aperture version known to VHS collectors. (However, the big burning scene and part of the disco encounter are included as special features in their unmatted form, complete with some uncomfortable frontal nudity.) It looks much better than those murky, nearly unwatchable tape editions, though there's a hefty amount of print damage including a vertical scratch running through the middle of the most infamous sequence. It also includes the theatrical teaser and trailer and, best of all, an audio commentary and video interview with Grimaldi, who professes to not be a horror fan at all and recalls getting the job, the low budget FX work, his relationship with director Joseph Ellison (whose thoughts on the film weren't shared until later with the absolutely essential book Nightmare USA), and having a comfortable with his female co-stars in decidedly uncomfortable circumstances. It's a little odd seeing him be so jovial and relaxed in connection with this film, to put it mildly. (A really dire and legally questionable version also appeared from DVD Ltd., culled from a dated VHS master, and is best avoided entirely.)
Though it opened early enough during the slasher boom to escape the MPAA's wrath (which would have surely demanded substantial cuts even one year later), Don't Go in the House became one of the key titles in British video nasty debacle for pretty evident reasons. Almost four minutes were hacked out for video releases until the 2012 Arrow release on DVD, under its ArrowDrome line. This version is 100% complete, and the transfer also improves in several respects. It's obviously taken from the same film source based on the opening logos and the mild vertical scratch present in part of "that scene," but unlike the interlaced and slightly windowboxed Shriek Show one, it's progressive and takes advantage of the higher PAL resolution with tighter detail. It also occupies the entire frame on the sides, and in motion it generally looks crisper and more like a solid, colorful print. For example, compare this shot from the Shriek Show one and this shot from the Arrow disc. The disc can't compare on the extras front as it only features the teaser and theatrical trailer (along with bonus ones for other line titles like The Funhouse and Dawn of the Dead).
In 2015, German label Subkultur offered a fascinating variant with its own (very limited) Blu-ray and DVD edition of the film, porting over the extras and providing a new HD transfer (with a title card as The Burning). It looks pretty nice albeit a bit soft at times, taken from an excellent quality print with English and German audio and subtitle options. Interestingly, the special features from the Media Blasters disc have been carried over, while the extras menu also offers a very open matte version, exposing the rounded camera edges and tons of extraneous info around the frame. It's not a great way to watch the film for the first time, but if you're a fan, it's a fascinating alternate option. Also included are a stills gallery, the theatrical title sequence, a textless title sequence, a German trailer, a fascinating and very different UK teaser, a hidden BBFC certification card, and most substantially, a 13-minute interview with director Joseph Ellison, who covers his early plans to be a musician, the inspiration of Federico Fellini, his training at NYU, and the state of low budget horror filmmaking at the time that led to his discovery of the treatment for this film. The release is packaged as the second volume in the label's Grindhouse series, which means you get a "view all" option packed with other '70s trailers packed with sex and violence.
However, the biggest surprise in the film's history came with the 2016 Blu-ray release from Scorpion, the first time it's been transferred from the original uncovered camera negative (as The Burning) -- and it's a much longer cut! Now running 92 mins. 6 secs., it's a fascinating extended version that greatly expands Grimaldi's character and features some of his strongest acting, giving this even more of a Maniac or a Deranged vibe than ever before. There are really four major additions, the biggest being a central sequence in the middle of the film with Grimaldi having a breakdown in his house surrounded by his collected charred corpses, including a dash of implied necrophilia. What was originally an odd throwaway bit in the original cut (with Grimaldi simply storming in, screaming, and smacking one of the dead bodies) is now a major part of the film, and it's tough to watch the other cut now without feeling its absence. Also added are a greatly extended confession scene between Grimaldi and the priest, a grim communion ritual with the dead bodies, and a much improved longer version of the final staircase confrontation that plays out far more suspensefully now. (Most of that footage can also be seen in a weird hybrid cut that popped up in 2016 on Amazon Streaming, but all of the violence has been censored including the wholesale removal of the blowtorch steel room murder.) Since this is also from a better source than ever before, the image quality is also significantly improved with an increase in sharpness, better detail in the night scenes, and more natural, strongly defined colors, not to mention far less element damage. The DTS-HD MA English audio also sounds sharper and fresher than ever, especially when it comes to "Struck by Boogie Lightning."
The Grimaldi commentary and interview as well as the trailer are carried over here, but you get some substantial new goodies as well. Actor Robert Osth (real name Robert Carnegie) gets a new 25-minute interview about giving his all to his role as Grimaldi's work buddy, the very low budget versus the big box office returns, the freezing New York winter locations, the "scary" house, and anecdotes about several other cast members (several not professional actors). His story about the disco hair burning scene is pretty alarming, too. "Don't Go in the House... AGAIN" takes you on a 10-minute tour of the Strauss Mansion in upstate New York, with Greg Caggiano from the Atlantic Highlands Historical Society covering the story behind the house from 1893 onward through its near demolition and its current status as the Strauss Museum. Also a self-professed ghost hunter, Caggiano returns for "Ghost Hunting in the Strauss Mansion," a 7-minute primer on the spooky incidents in the house including uncanny footsteps, closing doors, and other oddities, with one room in particular serving as spirit central including a weird story about "stopping" the ghost investigations. In addition to a TV spot, the disc also includes the more familiar Don't Go in the House title card and the drastically shortened theatrical cut of the corpse room scene, which is differently edited and features an alternate piece of soundtrack music. Quite likely to be the final word on an essential slice of indie '80s American horror.