Don’t Open the Door – USA, 1974

‘The Postman always rings twice. Terror knocks only once.’

Don’t Open the Door is a 1974 American horror film co-produced and directed by S.F. Brownrigg (Keep My Grave Open; Scum of the EarthDon’t Look in the Basement) from a screenplay by Frank Schaefer and Kerry Newcomb. It is also known as Don’t Hang Up and Seasons for Murder. It stars Susan Bracken, Gene Ross, Jim Harrell, Larry O’Dwyer, Hugh Feagin, and Rhea MacAdams.

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A young woman, Amanda Post (Susan Bracken), is summoned to the house in which she grew up to attend to her dying grandmother Harriet (Rhea MacAdams). The place holds bad memories for her; as a child, she witnessed the murder of her mother there, and the mystery assailant was never caught.

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On returning, she encounters three sinister individuals: Dr. Crawther (Jim Harrell), who refuses to admit the sick woman to hospital and insists on administering her medication himself; Judge Stemple (Gene Ross), a corrupt local magistrate, and Claude Kearn (Larry O’Dwyer), curator of a nearby museum, who is angling to inherit the old lady’s collection of antique furniture, garments and jewellery.

Amanda gives the three vultures their marching orders, only to find herself targeted by a menacing phone pervert who knows her every move…

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Review [may contain spoilers]:

If you find Brownrigg’s Don’t Look in the Basement (1972) and Poor White Trash Part II (1973) too depressingly claustrophobic then you may prefer Don’t Open the Door, a murder-mystery that’s a little less stifling than his prior work.

This time we’re treated to glimpses of the outside world, and in one heady moment a small-town high street; quite a contrast to the earlier films, whose leading ladies may as well have been living on Mars for all the social contact they enjoyed.

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The shooting style is a little airier too. While most of the action takes place in a rambling old house, the camera is allowed a few surprising flights of fancy. One might even wonder if Brownrigg (or cinematographer Robert Alcott) was influenced by the more adventurous camerawork found in Italian horror (after all, Bava’s Blood and Black Lace and Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage passed through Southern drive-ins in the early 1970s).

A scene in which the heroine ascends an ornate spiral staircase is conveyed by a camera craning upwards through the centre, and when she enters the attic, a domed, blue-tinted room illuminated by sunlight through huge red-paned windows, the spirit of Mario Bava is almost palpable.

Indeed, colour is vivid throughout the film, with certain scenes revelling in bright, hallucinatory hues. From Amanda Post’s colourful modern day dress sense, to the gorgeous interiors of the house and nearby doll museum, there appears to have been a concerted effort by Brownrigg to shake off the squalor of the first two films.

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One thing that remains a constant in all of Brownrigg’s cinema is the music. Robert Farrar’s score has some lively interjections of buzzsaw guitar, interspersed with a ‘chamber-rock’ ensemble comprised of drums, bass guitar and electric harpsicord, but fans of his work will be glad to hear that he still insists on his trademark, the muffled flutes, a regular feature of his sound that delivers a heady dose of mystery, sadness and resignation.

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Storywise, Don’t Open the Door is perhaps too sparsely decorated, and elements such as the menacing telephone caller are required to shoulder more screen time than they can really handle. Nevertheless, the telephone scenes are comically sleazy and without doubt the high point of the film. After repeated conversations have terrorised poor Amanda into a state of jittery obedience, the mystery caller (have a guess…) browbeats her into making “…the sounds… that you make… when you are making love!” It’s a blackly hilarious scene, made even more so when Amanda’s embarrassed attempts to comply nudge the unseen pervert (his hand stroking a half-dressed little-girl doll) to a grotesquely feverish orgasm.

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To begin with, Amanda appears more than equal to the task of seeing off the jackals circling her grandmother’s death-bed, but she soon begins to crack when subjected to the phone calls. Her breakdown accelerates faster when the caller says that it was he who murdered her mother. The spacious old house becomes a suffocating death-trap, and in a frenzy of melodramatic giggling and psychedelic montage Amanda becomes the third Brownrigg heroine to lose her marbles.

Nurse Beale in Don’t Look in the Basement descended into hysteria and survived thanks to the intervention of a lobotomised male patient; Helen Fraser in Poor White Trash Part II sank into catatonia and seemed destined to live in the Pickett shack; here, Amanda Post loses her mind through exposure to a phone pervert and murderer. This puts Brownrigg’s work at a fault-line running through the genre.

On the one hand, in a genre generally designed to appeal to young males he places strong yet sensitive females at the centre of his films; on the other hand these women pay for their initial displays of strength and autonomy with degradation and madness.

However, I would cite the gentler than average mood of Brownrigg’s horror films as the best guide to his sympathies, and although his female leads always crack under pressure there’s no sympathy at all for the aggressive or threatening males: the plight of the woman is the director’s sole concern.

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Personally I would be glad to watch another five movies made in this idiom by the same cast and crew, but it’s not hard to see how Brownrigg’s work slipped from favour in the drive-ins. There simply isn’t enough violence or spectacle for an exploitation sales-pitch, and the gory massacre that brought his debut film to its alarming conclusion seems far, far away in this talky and restrained psychological tale.

Don’t Open the Door is probably the least gloomy, most aesthetically pleasing of Brownrigg’s films (it’s certainly his most colourful), but it still remains obstinately down in the dumps. The potential for cult appeal depends on whether you have space in your viewing habits for a cocktail of melancholy music, cheapskate production values, character over incident, and an ineffable sensation of sadness seeping from every frame. If you do, then Brownrigg is the man, the Deacon of Downbeat; if you don’t, you’ll probably fall asleep.

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Shooting took place for three weeks in the historic town of Jefferson, Texas, most notably at The House of the Seasons, W. Austin Street (from which the film gained its original shooting title The House of the Seasons). So-called because the upper floor has tinted windows representing the four seasons (green for spring, amber for summer, red for fall, and blue for winter), it was built in 1872 by Colonel Benjamin H. Epperson, a prominent lawyer, political leader, and president of the Memphis, El Paso Pacific Railroad.

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Filming also took place at the nearby Doll Museum and Jay Gould’s Atalanta Railroad Car. This luxurious 88 foot-long custom rail carriage with mahogany, maple and silver interiors, in which 19th century rail tycoon Jay Gould travelled with his family and servants, has been a proud feature of Jefferson’s tourist industry since the 1950s.

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The film played a few dates in the South as Don’t Hang Up and Seasons for Murder, after which it sat on the shelf until 1979, when Capital Films Corporation retitled it Don’t Open the Door (maybe hoping that a little bit of magic would rub off from the financially successful Don’t Look in the Basement).

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Finally, a little conjecture. A flashback after the opening credits, showing Amanda’s mother being stabbed to death and her daughter finding the body, appears to have been shot and inserted later (if I’m right, probably just prior to the 1979 retitling). The film’s otherwise thorough end credits make no mention of the actress playing the mother, nor the young Amanda, and instead credit two characters who are nowhere to be found in Don’t Open the Door; ‘Local 1’ and ‘Local 2’.

In a film this minimally populated, even a passer-by would catch  your attention, yet there are no incidental characters to whom these names could apply. I suspect that Locals 1 and 2 bit the dust when footage was removed from an early version of the film to make room for the new material. In addition, the flashback murder seems trendily reminiscent of Halloween, that most prominent horror hit of the late 1970s.

Stephen Thrower, HORRORPEDIA

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  • Original Theatrical Trailer
  • Horror Trailers
  • Bio on S. F. Brownrigg
  • Anamorphic Widescreen Enhanced for 16×9 monitors

Other reviews [may contain spoilers]:

“Director S.F. Brownrigg makes great use of shadows in the old house, and even if most of the cast and characters aren’t really the most convincing thespians you’re likely to encounter on the screen, at least the movie is interesting and moves along at a relatively decent pace. The film also successfully pulls you in through its use off strange imagery….” Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop!

” …throws in some decent camerawork here and there, but the budget is low, the film is dark, dreary and oppressive without really being scary or building any suspense and his own uninvolving, talky script never elevates this over the ordinary.” The Bloody Pit of Horror

“A sense of sexual depravity makes this unpleasantly compelling.” John Stanley, Creature Features

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“This simple stalk pic is generally okay, but is weakened by a meandering pace that alternately picks up steam and then pulls back without reason. Although laidback, it’s watchable, due to lead Bracken who delivers a good performance as the harrassed blondie. Not to mention the whole thing boasts at least one fun mallet-clubbing death.” The Terror Trap

“Despite having these few distinguishing merits, the flick is more or less a perfect cure for insomnia.  Like Brownrigg’s Don’t Look in the Basement, this flick is a sluggishly paced and light on surprises and blood.  There’s way too much of the movie that is all build-up and no payoff.” Mitch Lovell, The Video Vacuum

” …a potently bizarre, creepy and curiously old-fashioned film which is, perhaps, only let down by occasionally becoming unfathomable in its quest of the genuinely strange.” Hysteria Lives!

Cast and characters:

  • Susan Bracken – Amanda Post
  • Larry O’Dwyer – Claude Kearn
  • Gene Ross – Judge Stemple
  • Jim Harrell – Dr. Crawther
  • Hugh Feagin – Nick
  • Annabelle Weenick – Annie
  • Rhea MacAdams – Grandmother

Release:

The film was first shown on 3 May 1974 in Paris, Texas.

Trivia:

The film’s working title was The House of the Seasons

Wikipedia | IMDb

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Categories: 1970s, Horrorpedia review

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Gene Ross plays a character named “Judge” in both Basement and Door and had an extensive career in TV throughout the 80’s.

    James Harrell would turn up in the wonderfully comic scene as the chainsaw store owner waiting on a crazed Dennis Hopper in Texas Chainsaw Pt. 2.

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