By Richard Winters
My Rating: 5 out of 10
4-Word Review: He burns his victims.
Donny (Dan Grimaldi) is a grown son living at home with his mother (Ruth Dardick) and suffering from the nightmares of his childhood where she would routinely burn his arms on an open flame every time he misbehaved. When she dies he decides to use his new found freedom to pick-up women at random, bring them back to his place and then burn them to death with his blow torch. Afterwards he dresses the corpses up, puts them into a bedroom where he routinely visits them and has ‘conversations’.
The film uses its low budget to great effect by becoming a grainy, starkly realized journey into a madman’s mind. The large, rundown 21-bedroom home that Donny lives in and has now become the Strauss Mansion Museum in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey offers a terrific backdrop. The decayed, rundown interior becomes a motif to Donny’s deteriorating mind. The faded color matches the grim subject matter and even the sound, which has a constant popping noise like it was taken from a corrupted tape, gives off an eerie feeling like listening to muffled dialogue from a secret, underground source. The cold, gray, wintery landscape adds even more to the bleak ambience.
Director Joseph Ellison seems intent on forcing the viewer to get inside the killer’s head and understanding things from his point-of-view. Instead of having a robotic, evil killing machine we get an overgrown man-child, so tormented from his upbringing that he is unable to know right-from-wrong and burns his victims under a misguided notion that it is somehow ‘cleansing’ them from their sins. The surreal dream done along a lonely beach in which Donny sees his victims come back to life and who drag him down a hole is well captured with just the right amount of atmosphere that easily makes it the best moment in the movie.
Some viewers have found the scene where Donny burns a woman alive inside a metal room while she dangles from a rope to be ‘repugnant’ and ‘going too far’ and has helped the movie achieve a notorious reputation. The scene though is really not all that graphic. We never see the victim actually burned just the lighted blow torch coming towards the screen and then it cuts away. The masks worn by the burn victims isn’t any different from those worn by dead decomposed bodies in other films, so it’s really more what’s implied that upsets some people than what is actually shown.
The film’s only real drawback is that it is much too similar to William Lustig’s Maniac that starred Joe Spinell and came out at around the same time. Both film’s deal with killer’s that have a severe mother complex, hear voices inside their heads, dress the bodies of their victims up, store them in their homes, have ‘conversations’ with them and even harbors visions of them coming back to life to seek revenge. The similarities between the two movies are so striking that they come off like a carbon copy to the other, which seriously hurts the tension because you feel like you’ve seen it all before.
My Rating: 5 out of 10
Released: March 28, 1980
Runtime: 1Hour 30Minutes
Director: Joseph Ellison
Studio: Film Ventures International
Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video