TCM Underground: He Knows You’re Alone (1980) and Don’t Open the Door! (1974)

Hey, I’m back!  I took last week off for the holidays to catch up on some much-needed sleep.

He Knows You’re Alone (1980)

He Knows You’re Alone is probably best known for having a small, bit role by a then-unknown Tom Hanks.  It’s your standard slasher, one that tries to rise above its material by being metatextual, something uncommon for the genre at the time, opening with a slasher film within a film and a theater-goer being killed in the audience (Scream 2 owes this movie a little, I think).  The movie dabbles with some interesting ideas, talking at length about fear, the nature of fear, and why people choose to be scared in a controlled environment.  It broaches the subject as quickly as it abandons it.  It’s strange that a film with self-awareness would never try to be anything better than the opening fake-out, movie-within-a-movie that it appeared to have been mocking.

Amy Jensen (Caitlin O’Heaney) is a bride-to-be, stalked by a killer who preys on other women who are planning to be married soon.  She sees a mysterious man wherever she goes, and whenever she tries to get someone else to see him, the figure vanishes and the person she confided in tells her that no one is out to get her, that she’s just crazy.

Meanwhile, Detective Gamble (Lewis Arlt), has a personal connection to the string of murders.  His fiance was killed on their wedding day and he’s been hunting the killer ever since.  The killer had gone for years without incident, and now he’s back… with a vengeance!

The killer’s M.O. is apparently killing young women who are about to be married, but he seems to target just about anyone, no matter how tenuous their connection to the engaged may be.  He kills her wedding dress tailor.  He kills a couple of her friends.  Hell, he even kills the college professor that one of her friends is having an affair with.  Tom Hanks survives, though.

There are some interesting ideas, though, that help float the film throughout.  Generally, it’s well-made and has an emphasis on suspense over gore.  The movie has its fair share of killings, but generally not in graphic detail.  He Knows You’re Alone delights in making an audience squirm, not in making them twist in revulsion from the violence on screen.  There’s a nice twist ending that sort of comments on the cyclical nature of violence, even if that twist does seem sudden and wrong-headed in execution.  Out of all the slasher movies that followed in the massively successful wake of the actually-excellent Halloween, He Knows You’re Alone is not the worst.  It’s not one of the best, either, but it’s decent… if you like slashers, that is.  It’s not a genre for everyone, but for fans, it’s an hour and a half of some good fun.

Slasher movies are like comfort food to me.  They’re like pizza.  They vary wildly in quality, with a top tier example being like an award-winning pie at a sitdown place.  On the other end of the spectrum is like a Totino’s party pizza meant for 12-year-olds on a sleepover.  Even a really bad one is still technically edible, even if gives you the metaphorical equivalent of diarrhea afterward.

Don’t Open the Door! (1974)

Predating the template that we now know as what makes a “slasher” film, Don’t Open the Door! most closely identifies with the prototypical giallos from the 70s.  For those unfamiliar (and for those who are, just keep scrolling), a giallo film has all of the ingredients that would later be used by slashers, but the emphasis on these films is on the mystery of the killer, even if there’s really not much a mystery there.  They’re sleazy and exploitative, still, and there are murders aplenty, it’s just that I don’t think filmmakers knew yet that they could just make a movie that consists of a series of scenes where people are stalked and then killed violently, not until those types of movies ended up being incredibly lucrative at the box office.  Before all that, before cheap locations like a summer camp yielded huge box office results, they thought they had to dress all of this violence up in a more presentable package, so as to have some sort of redeemable quality to them.

Susan Bracken plays Amanda Post, a character I took an instant liking to.  She returns home to her grandma’s house when she finds out the old woman is dying and then finds herself in the middle of a bidding war between two men who want the house when grandma finally dies.  Claude is a creepy museum owner with a love of dolls and Judge is a dipshit who thinks he’s a lot smarter than he really is, even saying to Amanda at one point that he can quote great literature–to which she rolls her eyes.

Amanda is scarred emotionally from the murder of her mother that had happened when she was still a child and now she’s getting obscene phone calls from someone who may know something about who actually murdered her.  She doesn’t seem to have any interest in owning the house herself, but the two men, one of whom may or may not be the obscene caller, annoy the hell out of her so she sort of decides neither of them should get it and the house should stay in the family.  She doesn’t scare easy and when she’s met with threats, she responds with sarcasm and anger.  Hell, she’s angry pretty much from the first line she speaks in the movie, annoyed with her doctor boyfriend for a fight they’d gotten into the night before.  But when shit hits the fan, when she realizes the reality of her situation, she falls back on the childhood trauma of her mother being murdered and is paralyzed with fear.

Don’t Open the Door!, like He Knows You’re Alone, places emphasis on suspense over violence, and I thought it was a refreshing change of pace for the genre.  It’s not entirely successful, this movie, but it does have some damn big ambitions and reaches for them–even if it stumbles along the way, it’s admirable to see in action.

Both Don’t Open the Door! (alternately titled Don’t Hang Up) and Black Christmas were released the same year and kind of created the “The call is coming from inside the house!” cliche, except in this one, the poor girl never finds out where the call is coming from.

Next Week: Next week is apparently “Gymnasts kick some ass” week with both Never Too Young to Die and Gymkata.