Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Don't Go Home Again

Susan Bracken as Amanda Post in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR (1974).


Many an emotional support dog has been cuddled to death and there's inflation in the Play-Doh industry now that The Donald will take office as the 45th President of the United States. But rather than engaging in this display of full-on wussiness or mindless twitter tantrums, let's take the time to reflect upon the many lessons we have learned from the 2016 election.

1) Everyone keeps using the word "Fascist" but nobody knows what it means.

2) Everyone keeps using the word "Socialist" but nobody knows what it means.

3) It doesn't matter whether you're a Republican or Democrat, neither party has a sense of humor.

4) We have forgotten all of the important lessons about freedom of speech that THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT taught us.

5) Facts have no place in the mainstream media.

6) Next go round, the presidential debates should be moderated by STEVE WILKOS and RUDE JUDE. Or at least have an all-star panel hit a giant gong whenever a candidate starts to go off topic or says something stupid.

7) Celebrities are too busy riding around in limousines and getting their assholes bleached so their political opinions don't mean much to working folks.

8) We live in a democracy where everyone's vote should count. Unless you voice support of a third-party candidate, then you'll be promptly drawn and quartered.

9) Prejudice and bigotry will absolutely not be tolerated unless it's directed at the white working class, Southerners, Christians or anyone who doesn't subscribe to the standards of Berkeley.

10) The election results are all Boris and Natasha's fault.

11) America's rallying cry of "Give me liberty or give me death!" has been replaced with "WAAH! I'm offended!"

12) I could totally take RACHEL MADDOW in a bar fight.

And speaking of lessons, the heroine of today's movie learns the important lesson THOMAS WOLFE taught us, that you can't escape your demons by leaving home and you can never go home again. Today, we're starting off this Regional Horror Movie Bonanza in my native state of Texas with DON'T OPEN THE DOOR directed by low-budget auteur S.F. BROWNRIGG.
I could find very little biographical information about Mr. BROWNRIGG other than he cut his teeth on military training films before striking out on his own with distinctive drive-in classics such as DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT, KEEP MY GRAVE OPEN and SCUM OF THE EARTH (aka POOR WHITE TRASH 2). At one point he wanted to make a sequel to TODD BROWNING's FREAKS but, alas, this project never came to be. BROWNRIGG's films may have been made on a shoestring budget, but they have a distinctive style, sleazy atmosphere and dedicated performances.

Feisty Amanda Post (played by SUSAN BRACKEN, daughter of comedian and frequent PRESTON STURGES leading man, EDDIE BRACKEN) departs Dallas to return to the small town of Allerton after receiving an anonymous phone call that her grandmother is ill and dying. Upon her return, Amanda discovers her grandmother drugged into a comatose state and a conspiracy by local doctor, Dr. Crawther (JIM HARRELL), sinisterly congenial Judge Semple (BROWNRIGG regular GENE ROSS in a deftly understated performance) and museum director Claude Kerns (LARRY O' DWYER) to acquire the house for themselves.
But the sketchy good ol' boy gang is no match for a strong-willed Texas gal and Amanda's more than ready to open up a good ol' fashioned can of whoop-ass.
Returning home re-opens some old wounds for Amanda as well. Seems thirteen years ago, she witnessed her mother being murdered by an unseen assailant.
And the killer was never caught.
She enlists the aid of her (sometimes) boyfriend Nick (HUGH FEAGIN) who fortunately happens to be a doctor, but before she can get to the bottom of any nefarious schemes, she begins receiving a series of increasingly threatening obscene phone calls.
The journey home to face her childhood demons leads to a new series of unsolved murders, forced phone sex and a descent into madness for our heroine.


Amanda Post (Susan Bracken) in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.


DON'T OPEN THE DOOR is my personal favorite of BROWNRIGG's grassroots oeuvre and his most stylish. With its canted angles, expressionistic shadows and saturated colors its a marriage between European arthouse and drive-in grindhouse. If MARIO BAVA and TOBE HOOPER got drunk and had a baby and it would look like DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.
Maybe I'm just a sucker for the winning combination of '70s film stock and creepy harpsichord music, but DON'T OPEN THE DOOR is a favorite of mine, combining elements of proto-slashers like BLOOD AND LACE (1971) and BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) with elements of Southern Gothic (the return home to face past trauma, the battle over a coveted estate, the corrupt courthouse gang, desire contorted into sexual deviance). Not to mention there's a feminist subtext!

The male characters in the film all try to manipulate or browbeat Amanda into submission. Claude and Judge Semple even present a sexual threat. Ironically, it's seemingly meek Claude that is the more overt danger as the film quickly reveals that he's the perpetrator of all the mayhem in the film, having been perversely obsessed with Amanda's mother and now transfers his obsession to Amanda. Judge Semple openly leers at Amanda upon first meeting her and alternates chauvinistic bullying with come-ons.  Nick is more of a well-meaning knucklehead, but even he is dismissive of Amanda's hysteria rather than listening. And it never goes well for the Doofus Boyfriend Who Never Listens in a horror movie. Amanda is far from a whimpering victim, however, and any attempt to bully or control her is met with a razor-edged tongue-lashing.


Amanda Post (Susan Bracken) faces off against Judge (Gene Ross), Dr. Crawther (Jim Harrell) and Claude (Larry O'Dwyer) in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.


CARL JUNG thought that the home in dreams symbolized the self, our individual personality. The battle between Amanda and the male characters for her childhood home could be interpreted as her fight to remain true to herself against domineering men who want to coerce her into becoming a more submissive, traditional woman.
Judge patronizingly remarks, "Pretty little thing like you all alone in this rambling old house...but you're a big girl now..."
Like Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Amanda is not interested in being a "lady."
The childhood home takes on extra symbolic significance for Southerners as we tend to place a lot more value on home and familial history than folks in other parts in the country. Your history -- and your family's history -- is a big part of who you are. After all, as WILLIAM FAULKNER once wrote, "the past is never really dead."

JUNG also thought that the childhood home in particular symbolized the maternal womb. Judge Semple attempts to control Amanda both by threat and by sexual come-ons. Claude harbors an obsessive sexual desire for Amanda, not as a romantic partner but as an object that he can possess. Male exertion of control over the female body was (and still is) a hot-button issue at the time and the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down the year before the film's production.
Dolls are also a dominant symbol in the film, often juxtaposed with Amanda. JUNG thought if a person dreamed of playing with dolls, they were trying to come to terms with something from their childhood or an infantile aspect of themselves. Naturally, Amanda's journey home requires her to confront childhood trauma that she has tried to run away. JUNG also believed dolls could be interpreted to mean an immature attitude towards the opposite sex. This hits the nail on the head with Claude. He has never learned to relate to women in a mature way and regards them like the dolls and mannequins he surrounds himself with: things that he can dress up and pose any way he waits, but have no will of their own.
"Go on back to the museum and play with your mannequins, Claude," Judge sneers. "I don't have time for your nonsense right now."


Amanda Post (Susan Bracken) in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.


So is this the tragic story of an outspoken, headstrong woman driven to madness THE YELLOW WALLPAPER style by The Patriarchy?
Not entirely.
The first time I watched DON'T OPEN THE DOOR, I thought Amanda was too tough a cookie to crumble so easily. But Amanda's inner demons (that thing you can't escape by running away from home) are responsible for her fate as well.
We never learn many details about Amanda, except that she's an amateur photographer. But it's implied that she's still deeply wounded by the loss of her mother.
Amanda keeps everyone at arms length and doesn't trust anyone. And hey, I can relate. I consider myself a pretty good judge of people which is why I don't like any of them. But no one is an island - we all need to have someone that we trust and can rely on.
She even perceives Annie (DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT's ANNABELLE WEENICK), Judge Semple's former paramour who places the anonymous phone call to Amanda alerting her about her grandmother, as a potential enemy rather than an ally.
In fact, Amanda's paranoia causes her to suspect everyone EXCEPT the actual culprit. I always thought it was strange that she didn't suspect Claude. You would think that mannequin he dressed up to look like her murdered mother would be a pretty big red flag, but maybe she dismissed him as a suspect since he's an emasculated weirdo type.
But hey, everyone knows wimps are the most dangerous, hostile people of all!


Claude (Larry O'Dwyer) shows Amanda (Susan Bracken) the mannequin he has dressed to look like her murdered mother in DON'T OPEN THE DOOR.


That brings me to another theme in the film, perception versus reality. In the opening scene, Annie walks down a long, narrow corridor and into what appears to be a train car where the Judge sits reading a newspaper. We hear the sounds of a moving train on the soundtrack. After a fight, Annie runs and exits. Brownrigg cuts to an exterior shot revealing that the characters were actually not in a moving train car, but in a train car converted into a house. So what gives with the train sounds? BROWNRIGG cuts back to the Judge inside. He walks over to a cabinet and reveals a recorder playing a tape of train sound effects.
"All aboard," he smirks, as the plot of the film kicks off.
It's pure BERTOLT BRECHT. It not only draws attention to the conventions of the medium, but calls to challenge the perceptions of the audience.
Perception versus reality pops up throughout the film. Dr. Crawther, wandering through the museum late at night, believes he is passing a mannequin dressed as Amanda's mother. The figure begins to move revealing itself to be Claude dressed as Amanda's mother!
Later, Amanda believes a sleeping figure in a bed to be Nick, but it is actually a mannequin.
The Judge even quotes LEWIS CARROLL to Amanda, foreshadowing her fall down the rabbit hole.

BROWNRIGG's work, much like the work of many Southern storytellers, is infused with a downbeat fatalism. In DON'T OPEN THE DOOR, Amanda, like many a Southern Gothic heroine before her, is finally overcome by her tragic history and loses her mind. That may be the most frightening thing of all in the film: death is bad enough, but being robbed of your sanity is much, more worse. And the fact that you were doomed from the beginning is worst of all.

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