AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO in the HOUSE: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION BOXSET
RUNNING TIME: 95 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Author Roger Cobb has just been separated from his wife Sandy, their only son Jimmy disappeared without a trace, and his aunt Elizabeth committed suicide by hanging. On top of everything else, he’s been pressured by his publisher to write another book. To the chagrin of his fans and publisher, Cobb plans a novel based on his experiences in Vietnam, instead of another horror story, as a way to purge himself of the horrors that he had experienced while there. He decides to live inside his aunt’s house to write instead of selling it as recommended by the estate attorney, but after moving in his aunt and son start to appear, monsters turn up in the closet, various implements about the house come to life, and his Vietnam flashbacks increase….
Considering I write for a website called Horror Cult Films, I do very much call myself a horror fan [though I spend as much time watching all sorts of other movies too], but for some reason none of the films in the House series had been watched by myself prior to receiving review copies of Arrow’s definitive box set of the franchise, something that definitely needed rectifying. Therefore unlike probably many readers, I’m going into these films blind, much like I did with the two Takashi Miike trilogies that have been recently reviewed by Yours Truly. House seems to be generally regarded as not really being a classic but still a fun mixture of scares and laughs that many have a lot of love for, and I guess I’d pretty much agree with that. It only occasionally becomes genuinely frightening, and only occasionally becomes genuinely hilarious, so it may disappoint some first time viewers who shouldn’t expect something anywhere near the quality of, say, Fright Night. It also gives a slight impression of being originally intended as a serious, disturbing and very psychological look at trauma before the filmmakers partly gave up on the idea and decided to play much of it for chuckles. However, the combining of Gothic horror, goofy humour and rubber monsters is full of that great 80’s charm and it even has a good performance from William Katt [who’s required to be in nearly every scene] which was a real surprise.
It’s a busy week for Doc regarding screeners this week so he’s only going to do his ‘background information’ paragraph for House, but of course the special features on the discs of the sequels will provide much of that if you want to know more about the films! House was originally intended to be a segment in an anthology film inspired by Twilight Zone: The Movie, and Fred Dekker’s story was totally serious. When director Steve Miner’s [of two Friday The 13th instalments] plan for an American Godzilla film in 3D fell through, Miner considered an expansion of House as a feature, though Dekker was reportedly shocked – though not in a bad way – when he read Ethan Wiley’s screenplay which added the monsters and the humour. Despite the recent success of Ghostbusters and Fright Night, several studios were unsure about the mixing of chillls and chuckles, and turned the project down before New World Pictures picked it up. House was shot fairly quickly and cheaply around Mills View, a Victorian style home in Monrovia, California, and at Ren-Mar Studios in London where a two floor interior house set was built instead of the usual one floor one for low budget productions. The closet monster was constructed by the special effects crew in one mammoth 27 hour session because they all had to move out of where they were based [just above a shop] because the local fire department understandably objected to them having ten tons of acetone, the highest legal amount being one ton! The classic body bag scene was thought up on the spot and the original ending of Roger battling monsters in a swimming pool abandoned when it didn’t look good. Garnering surprisingly good reviews for a horror film, House was a major hit, though none of the sequels made anywhere near as much of an impact.
You’ll see what I mean about House initially appearing to be a serious piece with its opening scene where, after a nice lengthy pan around the house, we see a young boy delivering some groceries. One thing that director Steven Miner [I think most horror fans will agree that he’s a decent but unremarkable filmmaker] does really well here is to give us a sense of geography, with both the outside and the inside of the house quite well mapped out for the viewer. It’s something many modern horror directors tend not to do so much, preferring I guess to surprise the viewer. The bizarre paintings on the walls are also a good touch. The boy enters a bedroom and a nice pan to the right reveals that the house’s owner has hung herself. It’s quite a shock. Fast forward some years and we soon work out that the boy was our hero Roger Cobb, who’s now a successful horror writer, and is introduced as an adult signing books for some rather weird fans. He then feels the need to put on some loud music and pretend to his estranged wife, soap star Sandy Sinclair, that he’s got a load of mates round playing poker rather than being on his own. And he already has nightmares linked to when he was in Vietnam. We soon learn that his son drowned and these early flashbacks aren’t really obvious as flashbacks for a few seconds, a good way to indicate that the past continually haunts the present. “It was the house that did it” says Aunt, the woman who died in the opening scene. Roger still opts to live in the house to write One Man’s Story:A Personal Account Of The Vietnam War, and the stage seems to be set for terror of both the physical and the psychological kind.
Well, that’s not really what we get, for the most part. Roger has more Vietnam flashbacks, which don’t really convince much but which serve their purpose, and sees ghosts of his kid and aunt [one funny touch has him make his son disappear by turning him off with the TV remote, though it contradicts the rules set up elsewhere], plus a rather hideous monster which looks like the offspring of the final form of The Fly and Poltergeist 2’s Vomit Creature appears in the closet and Roger narrowly misses being hacked to bits by flying tools. Jimmy seeming to be trapped in a miror is an eerie touch. However, it soon just becomes an excuse for lots of silly gags and it becomes apparent that this is all the film’s really going to consist of – which of course is fine if you don’t wish for much else. There is one brilliant bit where Roger is being chatted up by Tanya his curvaceous neighbour while he’s trying to bury a monstrous version of Sandy – she looks horrible too, resembling one of the Killer Klowns From Outer Space – and her hand [which of course the girl doesn’t see] keeps crawling out from under the blanket she’s in. It’s both amusing and unsettling in the manner of the very best horror comedies. And Katt, despite sometimes to wear a V-neck sweater [with nothing under it] whose ‘V’ reaches near his navel and which could be the most horrifying thing in the movie, plays many of these moments well enough for the viewer to wonder whether he’s imagining all this. He visibly carries out most of his own stunts too. I can’t help thinking though that all this goofery jars somewhat with the themes of Vietnam trauma and guilt which re-assert themselves towards the end, though those aspects do end up providing just a bit of weight even if the emotional payoffs aren’t as strong as they could be.
There are lots of great little touches and moments though, even if the thing doesn’t really cohere and feels rather patched together. Tanya dumps her three year old son on Roger for the evening, the kid grinning when Roger is told he’s babysitting for the evening and realises his neighbour hasn’t popped over to spend the evening with him, and there’s some genuine terror, nice humour [“How would you like to play with a nice plastic bag”?] and some real warmth in the following few scenes flowing quite naturally from each other, the young actor, who happened to be Miner’s son, having been well instructed by his dad to react in the best way to everything. A few plot threads do end up being abandoned. The model, makeup effects and costumes, by a small company I’d never heard of known as Backwood Films which include some folk who would go on to be big successes in the world of special effects, are pretty good though and compare favourably to those in bigger budgeted productions of the time. Cinematographer Mac Ahlberg gives everything a slick polished sheen which makes the film look more expensive than it is, though perhaps he favours brightness a little too much – just a bit more darkness here and there may have made things just a little more scary – though this does mean that when Roger ventures into [ well, I suppose we can call it the Other Side as Poltergeist was a clear inspiration for this movie though of course he’s also going basically inside his own head ] the closet the enveloping black is quite a shock.
The sometimes familiar TV cast generally do fine – George Wendt, delivering many of his lines in a nicely deadpan fashion, stands out as an initially annoying neighbour who soon becomes seemingly Roger’s only friend and ends up helping him in his ghost hunting, and Richard Moll gets his chance to chew up the scenery in his usual manner. Harry Manfredini provides an unsurprisingly Friday The 13th-like score with lots of violin, cello and synthesiser. A song that begins with the words: “Feeling better, now that we’re through” is used very appropriately in one scene. In the end House seems more like anything else a kind of dry run for Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn – there’s no way that Sam Raimi wasn’t inspired by it as some scenes and even visuals are extremely similar. Of course Raimi did it much better, and House does have quite a few shortcomings, but I still had a good time watching it and in the end in a picture like this that’s the most important thing, hence my star rating that should indicate that the hoary old term “more than the sum of its parts” probably applies to House very much. It’s the kind of film that you’ll probably find yourself sticking on after a hard day at work far more often than many better ones in your collection. And the ’15’ rating is a little harsh in this day and age – there’s the odd severed monster head or arm but hardly any blood. I reckon many kids would love it. And look out for a crew member’s arm in one shot!
I’ve read on certain message boards about Arrow’s Blu-ray of House being misframed. As I hadn’t seen House before, all I can say to that is that through almost constantly watching movies throughout most of my life I think I have a reasonable idea of framing and if House had looked “off” I would have probably noticed. The picture is a little softer than usual for Arrow’s high standards but I doubt this low budget film has ever looked better. The somewhat excessive brightness in places seems intentional. Arrow have replicated the Anchor Bay DVD’s special features and added a ‘making of’ documentary. The audio commentary featuring Miner, producer Sean S. Cunningham, Wiley and Katt has quite a few passages of silence but is a nice easy going talk track and provides some good information and eveen some gentle mockery. Miner talks longingly of the days when filmmakers were allowed to make a film without studio executives being around all the time and to just get on with it. The documentary, which is over an hour long, collects together much of the cast and crew and only sometimes replicates stuff from the commentary [and there’s one instance of contradiction – listen out for it]. It covers all aspects of the production, focusing especially on the special effects which was certainly fine with me. While you rarely get much criticism or complaints in something like this, it does seem like House was fun to make and that fun certainly made its way onto the screen and made up for some of the film’s flaws. Then there’s an archival promo which has some interview bits and shows some scenes being filmed though perhaps would have shown too many highlights of the film if seen in 1986, plus some stills.
*Audio commentary with director Steve Miner, producer Sean S. Cunningham, actor William Katt and screenwriter Ethan Wiley
*Ding Dong, You’re Dead! The Making of House – brand new documentary featuring interviews with Steve Miner, Sean S. Cunningham, Ethan Wiley, story creator Fred Dekker, stars William Katt, Kay Lenz, and George Wendt, composer Harry Manfredini, special make-up and creature effects artists Barney Burman, Brian Wade, James Belohovek, Shannon Shea, Kirk Thatcher, and Bill Sturgeon, special paintings artists Richard Hescox and William Stout, and stunt coordinator Kane Hodder
*Archival making of
LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS:
*Brand new 2K restorations of all four films
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*The House Companion – limited edition 156-page book featuring new writing on the entire House franchise by researcher Simon Barber, alongside a wealth of archive material