Sunday, January 3, 2016

"Don't Hang Up," aka "Don't Open the Door!" (1974)

Low budget auteur S.F. Brownrigg only made a handful of films over the course of just a few years, four horror films and a sex comedy. His most familiar movie is 1973's "Don't Look In The Basement", having received a wide release in theaters and drive-ins across America, as well as appearing frequently on TV. Filmed around the same time with several of the same actors is a lesser-known film he originally titled "Don't Hang Up", which premiered in Paris, Texas in May 1974. It later got an official theatrical release in 1979 as "Don't Open the Door!", which is the title it appeared most frequently with on home video and on television.

From the film's premiere in Paris, Texas, May 3, 1974
It's true that Brownrigg's films were cheap, and often cheap looking, but that didn't stand in the way of his creativity. "Don't Open The Door" has that same ultra low budget look and feel of its three other siblings, but the level of craftsmanship on hand is obvious from the very beginning, and Brownrigg makes full use of the elements at his disposal to tell his lurid story. The opening shot is of Annabelle Weenick (Dr. Masters in "Don't Look In The Basement") walking down the hallway of a train car while we hear audio effects of a moving train. Then she enters a room to have a conversation with Gene Ross (one of the only actors to appear in all four of Brownrigg's horror films) and we can tell by the windows that they're not on a moving train. So, we think, a train must be passing nearby. Then after they have their menacing confrontation, which ends with Gene Ross smacking her down, Weenick leaves and we see they really were in a train car after all, one that's been converted into a home. Ross goes to a cabinet and fiddles with a cassette player inside a cabinet--he's been sitting in there listening to a tape recording of what it sounds like to be on a moving train. Ross never really breaks the fourth wall, but he seems to be talking to the audience when he says "All aboard." It's a brilliantly conceived scene, and it exemplifies how Brownrigg used simple techniques of editing, sound design and camera work to disorient and unnerve the audience. Even though nothing seemingly significant has happened, the strange undercurrents in the scene make it intriguing enough to pull you into the story. The actors carry the scene well, too--Brownrigg's characters are like people you may known in real life, but they seem to be caught in this weird place between dreaming and waking. There's something larger than life about them, something not quite realistic but not too far from the truth, either.


The opening titles are a fantastic sequence of surreal, strange looking dolls on a black background, accompanied by a very well done 70s-era score, with ominous elevator-music flutes, a dominating bass guitar, and a harpsichord that would be almost Laurie Partridge if it wasn't so spooky sounding. The score goes back and forth between these intricate, jazzy arrangements to stark, percussive stingers. In one of the film's creepiest moments, a sleeping woman is approached by an assailant with a knife occupying the camera's point of view, while on the sound track percussion bubbles with an erratic dual heartbeat.

The use of point of view shots is common in Brownrigg's films, and so are closeup shots that make ordinary gestures seem ominous. Our heroine in "Don't Open the Door" gets a series of sadistic phone calls from an anonymous, whispering man, and one shot is dominated by the spiral phone cord while she is slightly out of focus behind it, the shot resolving itself as she hangs up and brings the receiver toward the camera, close up and in focus. The use of shadows is also tremendous in this film. The villain makes his phone calls from a secret place in the house, hiding in what seems to be a crawlspace or passage between the walls, with his face lit only dimly. Amanda is shot mainly in bright light at the beginning of the film, although toward the climax she, too, is filmed in shadow and darkness.

The house used in the film features this unique tower with multicolored windows. Susan Bracken's character in the film, Amanda, calls it 'the house of seasons'.
The plot allows for a number of familiar but effective scare situations: you're in a big old house alone, you're hearing noises. You're asleep and you awaken with the feeling that someone was in the room with you just seconds before. You're getting threatening phone calls that suggest you're being watched. Susan Bracken makes an unusual heroine for a film like this too, because although she's in a very precarious position, she doesn't show much fear. Bracken, daughter of prolific character actor Eddie Bracken, didn't appear in many other projects. Her delivery reminds me a lot of Melody Patterson in "Blood and Lace": she's extremely headstrong and outspoken, and even when she gets the first creepy phone call, she isn't even compelled to hang up once she realizes it's someone toying with her. She's almost daring the world to do its worst, and boy does it ever.

Bracken plays a character named Amanda Post, who has come to the small Texas town of her youth after she gets a mysterious answering machine message (from Weenick, in the opening scene) warning her that her grandmother is in poor health and needs her intervention. Amanda returns to her grandmother's big old house in Allerton to find her in the care of a shady doctor employed by Stemple (Gene Ross), a local judge who describes himself as the comatose old lady's "attorney". But the wackiest of all is Claude Kearn (Larry O'Dwyer), the curator of a local antique "museum". The film only makes a rudimentary attempt at concealing the fact that Claude is its chief villain; after Amanda makes it clear to everyone that she intends to take care of her grandmother (and presumably claim the house upon her death), she starts getting the threatening, sexually charged phone calls, and the camera depicts Kearn in shadows and closeups, not revealing him immediately but not exactly concerned with concealing his identity either, due to the fact that it clearly shows his distinctive eyeglasses. The obsessed Kearn, we assume, is also Amanda's mother's killer, but we don't understand exactly what his game is until closer to the end. Stemple also seems as corrupt as they come, especially after his violent confrontation with Weenick at the beginning. Both she and Claude Kearn allude to the fact that they know what kind of shady doings Stemple has been up to, but Stemple also seems to be hiding the truth about who killed Amanda's mother.

The real sicko though is Kearn, and the audience wonders why Amanda doesn't identify him as the killer on her own. This film is Larry O'Dwyer's only IMDB credit, but like most of Brownrigg's actors, he was a prominent local stage actor. O'Dwyer strikes a perfect balance between neurotic, angst-ridden freak and menacing, whispering psychopath, his longish hair and wire-rimmed glasses suggesting a demented Ben Franklin, his twitchy face often breaking out into a toothy, unsettling grin. At one point Amanda visits Claude's creepy museum, which has been housing a lot of her grandmother's antiques. Kearn makes it clear he is obsessive about the collection, panicked that she might take the items away. Then he takes her to an upstairs room to reveal to her that he's dressed a mannequin to resemble Amanda's mother, which makes Amanda furious. She leaves angry, demanding the return of all her grandmother's antiques. Instead of calling the state police though, she somehow doesn't understand the implications of Kearn revealing this secret part of himself to her.

But Kearn isn't interested in actually killing Amanda, not even when he drugs her and touches her intimately while she's unconscious. What he really wants is to manipulate and toy with her, to lure her into a game that her mother apparently refused to play. At first Amanda handles her strange phone caller with indifference, but eventually he gets into her head when she starts to realize that she's talking to her mother's killer. In an excruciating scene, he threatens to kill her grandmother unless Amanda engages in phone sex with him. Afterwards, before hanging up with her, he commands her to go to sleep and forbids her to leave the house or use the phone. At this point she doesn't realize he's in the house with her, watching her, but she obeys him anyway.

Amanda's potential knight in shining armor is her ex lover Nick, a physician who follows her to offer support and medical care for Amanda's ailing grandmother. He's interested in winning her back, but we start to feel Amanda's frustration and alienation when she calls him at the hospital after the phone sex incident and he won't listen to a thing she says, not even when she tries to tell him she's in danger. Amanda gradually loses her ability to tell what's real and what isn't. By the time the finale is set in motion, Amanda has suspected everyone of being her strange phone caller--even Annabelle Weenick!--despite the fact that only one person in the cast has shown her a fucking mannequin dressed like her dead mother. As if that clue wasn't enough, Amanda also is tricked into thinking Nick is home with her when she sees a sleeping form in a bed. She later returns to the room to find that what she assumed was Nick is actually a mannequin. Hmmmmm... Her inability to see the truth is what proves to be her own undoing--she ends the film as deranged as Kearn, finally claimed by her tragic family history.

In the end, Brownrigg's story (written by Frank Schaefer and Kerry Newcomb) finds its greatest horror not in the staging of murders, but in the disintegration of Amanda's stability, much like 1973's "Let's Scare Jessica To Death". All four of Brownrigg's horror films dealt with insanity, with no supernatural elements whatsoever, although "Don't Open the Door!" and "Keep My Grave Open" both have a strong phantasmagorical quality to them with extended sequences where Brownrigg indulgently lets his camera linger on certain details and characters, like the scene where Amanda is drugged. Brownrigg doesn't actually let Kearn's face be shown in this scene, even though we know it's him. Instead, we see his hands in closeup on Amanda's body while echoing dialogue repeats on the soundtrack. There is also a fantastic sequence near the beginning of the film where Amanda explores the old house, the camera following her up staircase after staircase until she is standing in the unique tower at the top of the house, surrounded by different colored windows.

These art house moments may have been considered a liability in the long run though, when it was time to market Brownrigg's films to a mass audience. "Don't Look In The Basement" remains Brownrigg's best-known movie, and it's no coincidence that out of all his films, that's the one that moves at a faster pace (with plenty of blood). Although "Don't Open the Door!" is as good of a story as "Don't Look In The Basement", it is nowhere near as widely seen, probably due to its low body count and the unceremonious way that it presents its murders (the chilling flashback death of Amanada's mother at the beginning notwithstanding). It's interesting though that Brownrigg made the choices to be more realistic with the deaths in this film. The message seems to be that even though another person can take your life, another person taking your sanity is even more frightening.




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