By Jeremy Carr.
The 1980s was a pivotal period for horror films. As low-budget “Video Nasty” provocations steadily faded from America’s grindhouse screens, the down and dirty days of the 1970s were getting displaced by family-friendly creature features and box office-busting franchises. Though there had been historical antecedents for decades, variations on the horror-comedy hybrid were especially in vogue. And in the case of House (1985), and even more so with its 1987 sequel, the cleverly titled House II: The Second Story (the two now released together in a box set from Arrow/MVD (“House: Two Stories”), the horror was swiftly getting cast aside for the comedy, with mixed results.
In House, William Katt plays Roger Cobb, an anxious writer attempting to repeat the success of a recent horror novel with a more personal exploration of his Vietnam War experience. After his disturbed aunt commits suicide (she was senile, maybe, but not crazy), he supplants himself in her ominous home, despite her repeated declarations that the residence is haunted, capable of its own malicious behavior – “It was the house that did it!” she proclaims when something seems awry (with five locks on the front door, she was apparently concerned about what was outside as well). Also contending with a divorce, from his soap actress ex-wife Sandy, played by Kay Lenz, and more tragically, the apparent kidnapping of his son (from this very house), Roger is seeking solitary solace. It soon becomes clear, however – ridiculously clear – that the elderly lady’s words of caution are well-founded.
Hoping to get to the bottom of a series of supernatural assaults, Roger teams with his jovial neighbor Harold Gorton (George Wendt), who just so happens to be a gushing fan of the author’s; strangely, he keeps tattered pages of Roger’s book in his pocket, a nugget of obsessiveness one would assume is in some way portentous but is actually among the film’s least bizarre touches. An affable partner (who kindly shows up at midnight with a six-pack of beer and Chinese food), Harold is not privy to Roger’s torment. He therefore looks at the film’s absurdity from a position similar to the viewer’s, as a distanced outsider trying to make sense of the insanity, observing Roger’s conduct as quite less than normal. His bemused, happy-to-go-along demeanor likewise reflects the fun-loving acceptance of House’s most enthusiastic audience. The madness that unfolds is occasionally amusing, and is even more often simply inexplicable, but the cult that has formed around this picture remains steadfast in its adoring defense.
Managing House’s incredible, if not always successful, shifts in tone is Steve Miner, director of Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) and Friday the 13th Part III (1982). While introducing a host of gruesome, squeaky, too-puppety-to-be-scary monstrosities, Miner is also balancing on a perilous tight-rope of barely grounded character engagement and an onslaught of outrageous randomness. One minute Roger is donning military fatigues, breaking out in a sweat as he relives his wartime fears (that PTSD is played for laughs dates the film even more than its modest effects); the next, he is bashing a wall-mounted marlin with a trophy. At first, Roger’s delusions appear as irrational manifestations of his tortured psyche and nothing more, but then his visions prove more serious. When he imagines that he killed his wife after she transforms into a witch (a “Sandywitch”), it’s possible his psychosis could indeed become fatal.
Katt, who played Tommy Ross in Carrie (1976) and was most famous at the time for his concurrent run on The Greatest American Hero (1981-83), pulls off the erratic oscillation between ham-fisted comedy and a genuine unease rather well, something necessary to keep House from descending into full-on tedious inanity. In addition to the separation and the kidnapping, Roger confronts his traumatic past as he comes face to face with Big Ben (Richard Moll), a now ghastly comrade in arms whom Roger was unable to save during the war. With so much weighing on Roger, aside from whatever craziness the dwelling itself may offer up, there is clearly an inner process at work here, which may or may not influence the household horror. The domestic setting and the thematic touchstones of divorce and a missing child would seem to hinge on Roger’s desire for familial normalcy, though such profound psychological motivation is probably giving the film too much credit.
For as much as House revels in its ludicrousness, there is an essential backstory to hang on to and a protagonist worth following. While the same cannot be said for House II, the sequel actually succeeds its predecessor because it maintains a more consistent, and consistently humorous, objective. Here, the narrative impetus revolves around a magic crystal skull, an ancient holdover from Aztec times. In an opening scene that is scarier than the rest of these two films combined, a young man and woman are murdered by a shadowy figure intent on the iridescent cranium. Cut to 25 years later and we are introduced to Jesse (Arye Gross), who arrives at the home where this assault took place (the slain couple were his parents) along with his girlfriend Kate (Lar Park-Lincoln), his overbearing buddy Charlie (Jonathan Stark), and an aspiring popstar Jana (Amy Yasbeck). Intrigued by some ancestral antiques, Jesse and Charlie embark on some good-natured nocturnal graverobbing, digging up his great-great-grandfather, retrieving the skull, and putting into motion a succession of paranormal events. Played by Royal Dano, the old man is a prototypical prospector/cowboy type, and immediately upon his resurrection, he settles in as the comic relief for a film that doesn’t ever need one. The 170-year-old zombie takes a boozy joyride in Charlie’s 1986 Alfa Romeo Spider; he chalks up the depleting ozone to communism, spins a few western yarns, and even works in a light jab at then president Ronald Reagan.
Situating House II in and around its own distinctly decorated abode, writer/director Ethan Wiley (who wrote the first film) unleashes a barrage of outlandish incongruity. Convoluted gateways of time travel exhume Stone Age barbarians and prehistoric beasts, while Jesse and Charlie must contend with everything from an impossibly cute “caterpuppy” to a sleazy, spiteful Bill Maher in an early film appearance. Their chief ally is Bill, an “electrician and adventurer,” according to his business card, played by John Ratzenberger. While the filmmakers insist the dual Cheers casting was coincidental, Ratzenberger does, in any case, get the best line of the film, stating with the utmost routine and sincerity as he peers through a hole in the wall, “Looks like you’ve got some kind of alternate universe in there.”
Ultimately, House II is very slight in the horror department and is instead primarily committed to a dissonant series of mostly comic episodes. In his Washington Post review of the film, Richard Harrington argues that, unlike House’s prototype, House II is not so much a horror-comedy blend as it is “strictly for laughs.” Neither film is great, but Harrington is right, and House II is the better of the two movies for this very reason. Instead of an uneven conglomeration of styles and genre tropes, at least it is strictly something.
In House II, Arye Gross and Jonathan Stark bumble about like a pair of reluctant yet somehow competent heroes, acting much like larger versions of the children they once were and never really grew out of. To fully enjoy these two films, it helps to have a comparably innocent exuberance, but even that isn’t enough to make them particularly good movies. Though beloved works of ‘80s nostalgia, taken from a critical distance, and viewed for the first time some three decades removed, it’s often difficult to see why they are so widely lauded.
For those devoted, however, the recently issued Arrow Video Blu-ray set will be a welcome release. There are new 2K restorations of each film, each gets its own commentary track, and feature-length documentaries cover the low-budget and low-key making of each film. Cast and crew testify to the free-spirited temperament of these productions, a self-effacing essence instilled on screen, and an all-star team of animators, designers, and make-up artists divulge the secrets behind the anything-is-possible houses of horror and humor. In this regard, seeing what was accomplished with what little they had to work with, the special effects of House and House II are remarkably well-executed. The most distinguished supplement to this collection is a 60-page book by Simon Barber. Writing about the entire House franchise (there were two subsequent films as well), Barber compiles an exhaustive and avidly researched text, with an abundance of detail and a surprising amount of sourced information.
Sean S. Cunningham, director of the iconic 1980 film Friday the 13th and producer of House and House II, commented in 2016 that while he was sure the “slasher wasn’t played out … there was no point in repeating what ten other films a year were doing.” Such a conceding philosophy, augmented by a burgeoning collaborative environment located around southern California’s film-centric college scene, provided the foundation from which these two wildly eccentric movies could emerge. Fed on a steady diet of The Twilight Zone, monster movie extravaganzas, and as a “Craven Realty” sign in the first film suggests, the work of the genre’s luminaries, the filmmakers behind this series brought an all-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to their peculiar endeavor. To be sure, there certainly weren’t ten films a year quite like this.
William Katt notes that one key value of House and House II is that they are good options for parents who want to get their children into the horror genre. That may be true. But still, it would seem this Arrow Video package, as impressive as it is, is generally better than these films deserve.
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Cineaste, CineAction, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Moving Image, and Moving Pictures Magazine.