A History of Don’t Films | Part Two: Too Many Don’ts to Do
Welcome back to part two of my history of DON’T films. We’re kicking things off with everyone’s favorite decade, the 1980’s: Ten years defined by Chernobyl, Huey Lewis, rampant cocaine abuse and, most importantly, movies with DON’T in their title.
1980 proved to be a banner year, offering horror fans not one, but two DON’T films. The best known is the New Jersey lensed Don’t Go In the House, featuring a Norman Bates style Mama’s boy who kidnaps women and incinerates them with a flamethrower. I mean… damn, that’s rough! In his favor the director Joe Masefield only showed one protracted torture scene, but for critics and UK censors that was enough. Lead actor Dan Grimaldi gave his all in what was practically a one man show. Grimaldi went on to achieve a degree of fame playing both Parisi twins on The Sopranos. House boasts an interesting score from eclectic composer Richard Einhorn, who also scored Shock Waves (1977) and 1981’s The Prowler. Edward L. Montoro’s Film Ventures International (Grizzly, Day of the Animals) distributed the film with the tagline, ‘You have been warned,’ and it became a profitable grindhouse staple. Unfortunately, Montoro embezzled all the profits from his movies and vanished with the cash in 1984. He’s believed to have lived out his days in Mexico under an assumed name. House also landed on the UK’s Video Nasties list, because chaining up terrified women and cremating them alive with a flamethrower will do that.
1980’s second DON’T film, Don’t Answer the Phone, also earned a spot on the UK’s Video Nasties list. This one’s the tale of a psychopathic Vietnam vet, porn photographer, necrophile who likes calling into a psychologist’s radio show. It contains a lot of misogyny and sexual violence, making it a mean, ugly and uncomfortable film to watch, but distributor Crown International still managed to book it into grindhouses and drive ins for years.
You may be wondering why you DON’T see our friends at Hallmark Releasing popping up. Well, in 1980 Hallmark reinvented itself as Georgetown Productions. They reteamed with Last House on the Left producer Sean Cunningham with an eye on the holiday horror trend started by Halloween. The boys from Beantown struck gold by financing a little opus titled Friday the 13th. Paramount studios snapped up the rights, handing everyone involved a huge profit. Georgetown Productions’ head honcho Steve Minasian went on to produce Pieces (1982), Slaughter High (1986) along with one more DON’T film, which we’ll get to later.
1981 proved to be another double header for DON’T films. The best, or worst, depending on your mood is Don’t Go In the Woods, or Don’t Go in the Woods… Alone. This mountain set slasher film was shot on an insanely low budget. Watching it you’d assume director James Bryan was a filmmaking novice, but he’d previously helmed a slew of 1970’s hardcore adult films including the spot-on Beach Party parody Beach Blanket Bango and the surprisingly ambitious and technically solid High School Fantasies.
Don’t Go in the Woods is a film that dares to be dumb, embracing every cliché in the slasher playbook. That’s what makes it such a hilarious funfest, packed with bad gore effects, community theatre acting, post synched sound, a grating synth score and a truly bizarre closing credit song. I loved it.
The same year’s Don’t Look In the Attic is an Italian film originally entitled La Villa delle Anime Maledette—The Damned, which is quite a mouthful. It’s a hybrid ghost story, slasher film that stayed on the bottom of double and triple bills… where it belonged!
1982 only gave us one DON’T film—the made for television Don’t Go To Sleep. This is a surprisingly grim ghost story with a solid cast led by Dennis Weaver (Duel), Valerie Harper (Rhoda) and the always entertaining Ruth Gordon. It’s a far better and creepier than you’d expect from an 80’s MOW.
The final title from the golden age of DON’T films takes us full circle. 1984’s British holiday slasher entry Don’t Open Till Christmas was produced by Hallmark Releasing’s founder Steve Minasian! This film reverses Silent Night Deadly Night’s killer Santa trope by having a Christmas hating maniac slaughtering St Nicks across London. Why some of those jolly fat men are found in porn studios and peep shows is beyond me. The film suffers from a flawed premise. There’s a certain transgressive thrill in watching Santa go homicidal in films like Tales From the Crypt—maybe it’s a ghoulish extension of the old ‘naughty or nice,’ trope. But, seeing Jolly Old St. Nick castrated in a filthy men’s room, hacked to death at a peep show and burned to death in a chestnut roaster just feels wrong. On the plus side we get a brief appearance from beautiful Caroline Munroe (Starcrash, 1978), but there’s just not enough of her to wash the taste of all those dead Kris Kringles away. Don’t Open Till Christmas is a mean-spirited film that just isn’t fun, scary or sexy.
Don’t Open Till Christmas was distributed by the notorious 21st Century Film Corporation, who also distributed 1983’s The Deadly Spawn. I heard some real horror stories about them from Spawn’s John Dods and Ted Bohus. The floundering company was eventually bought by Cannon Films’ Menahem Golan, who’s Lambada fiasco, The Forbidden Dance put it out of its misery.
Don’t Open Till Christmas marked the end of the DON’T era. A smattering of DON’T films followed in its wake, like the 1998 TV movie Don’t Look Down, or the terrible Master P. directed Don’t Be Scared (2006), and 2008’s unimaginatively titled Don’t Look in the Cellar… come on guys, seriously? Vincent D’Onoferio (an actor I love) reused the title Don’t Go in the Woods for his 2010 horror musical. That film is a hot mess, with some memorable moments. It’s the kind of movie 80% of viewers hate but 20% absolutely love with no middle ground.
And no DON’T list would be complete without 2016’s Don’t Breathe, and its lesser, but still pretty darned entertaining 2021 sequel Don’t Breathe 2. Breathe is the kind of no holds barred, unrelenting horror film that does DON’T proud.
And for our final entry there’s 2015’s sequel Don’t Look in the Basement 2, directed by S.A. Brownrigg’s son, Anthony Brownrigg. This follow up is entertaining, with an interesting premise cleverly connecting it to the original. The Brownrigg clan started the whole DON’T parade, and they ended it on a high note. A big thumbs up to Anthony for doing the old man proud.
The concept of Putting DON’T at the front of a film’s title never really died—it just slowly lost steam due to the lack of things left not to do. Doors, windows, doorbells, attics, phones, basements and woods had all been used. I think that only leaves Don’t Open the Closet, and Don’t Look Under the Bed. If you want to use those, knock yourself out… they beat the hell out of Don’t Ring the Doorbell.
In closing let me say that the best DON’T film is one that was never actually made. Edgar Wright’s fake trailer Don’t is spot on, and absolutely brilliant. If you haven’t seen it… DON’T MISS IT.
Huge thanks to Adrian J. Smith at moviesandmania.com for his well-researched article on Hallmark Releasing.
And DON’T forget to check out my latest novel DOMINANT SPECIES, published by Severed Press.