(Release Date: February 28, 1986)
OH GOOD HEAVENS, THERE IT IS AGAIN! I never knew such odors could come from living things.
This brings us to the subject of our review today: House, the 1986 Haunted House movie that always makes me feel better about my own situation. That's not because the terrors faced in House are actually worse than those I am facing in my own living space. No, no, no... Watching House simply reminds me to face the horrors with an equal amount of humor to help it all pass with a smile. It's all about Attitude in this case.
That's because House is very funny and shows its roots as a story that came from the mind of Fred Dekker! If you're familiar with the name Fred Dekker, you've got a good idea what kind of humor is going to be found in House and, like most Dekker projects, this one has almost as many fans as it has detractors, but for fans of comedy horror in the vein of Evil Dead II, this one should raise the corners of your mouth a time or two. Okay, okay, it's not quite Evil Dead II! But filtered through the screenplay of Ethan Wiley, enough of that crack-up Dekker-style horror humor flashes like blood-red neon on the screen. Naturally, with Sean S. Cunningham as the producer, Steve Miner as the director and Harry Manfredini as the composer (meaning, the repeat-offenders behind several Friday the 13th flicks), you can imagine that the film will at least try to be horrific to go with the comedy.
Our stor(e)y focuses on Roger Cobb (William Katt), a horror novelist who has seen better days. His son Jimmy (alternately played by Erik Silver and Mark Silver) has vanished without a trace, which has caused his marriage to actress Sandy Sinclair (Kay Lenz) to go straight down the tubes, he hasn't had a hit novel in too long and he risks alienating his horror fans with his next book (a memoir of his Vietnam War experiences) and to top it all off, his aunt (who raised him like a son) just hung herself in the house he grew up in.
So, yeah, things do tend to suck lately!
Roger tries to make the most of it and moves back into the old homestead in spite of the fact that his son disappeared from the place, his marriage started to disintegrate there and his Aunt Elizabeth (Susan French) just died in it. Interesting choice. Did I mention that his dear old aunt was also convinced the place was haunted? Well there was that, too. At first, however, three things are keeping him from finishing his book... his overly friendly neighbor on one side Harold (George Wendt, his super-hot neighbor on the other side Tanya (Mary Stavin (who frequently shows up unannounced in his pool wearing very little) and a repeating anxiety about his memories of war buddy "Big Ben (Richard Moll). Things are only getting worse from there.
You see, it's not long before crazy Aunt Elizabeth starts to look a little less crazy. Ghostly apparitions start to appear, objects begin to move on their own and things begin to go a little bit more than "Bump" in the night. The problem is that as Roger starts to realize these things are happening most everyone around him thinks he's crazy... and they might be right. Soon big, bloated freaky monsters start to walk Rog's house looking like a cross between something you might see on stage at a Gwar concert and something out of H.R. Pufnstuf! Roger finds a huge demonic ghostly creature in the closet (it should just admit it), Harold thinks he's quite insane for running outside in his Army Gear and talking about Monsters! Roger shoots at one of the freaky presences, he's investigated for using a firearm inside the city limits. Roger tries to impress Tanya as she emerges in a tiny one-piece from his pool and a surely dead ghoul reaches up and grab his leg. The guy can't win! And that new book isn't going to finish itself!
Today, as when House was released, it's hard not to watch with a sardonic grin on the old puss just hoping you'll see a supernatural battle between "Norm from Cheers" and "Bull from Night Court" with a few Greatest American Hero jokes waiting in your quiver to be lobbed sarcastically at the screen. In truth, House is the kind of movie that might lend itself well to such ribbing as it does just as much cracking all its own. Even some of the more frightening moments are tempered by a truly ridiculous sight or a deadpan joke. The scariest characters (such as a certain Skeletonized visitor played by Curt Wilmot) are likewise almost as comical in appearance as they are nightmarish to look upon. Such a take on filmmaking helps to make otherwise contemptible moments of cheap startles palatable, as they all fit into the overall farcical nature of House.
On the other hand, there are some serious moments in the film (it's hard to make a sub-plot about a missing child particularly funny) as well as some legitimate thrills and chills and very creepy moments. There are also some well-done special effects (or, at least, illusions) and cool-looking monsters to go with the strange ideas that Dekker and Wiley have thought up. In addition, Cunningham, Miner and company appear to be well aware of their budgetary restrictions. Scary/ Funny encounters with some crazy stop-motion monsters (realized by the creature effects crew of Backwood Films) are used sparingly and only remain on-screen for the time needed to emphasize their impact (and the laughs that may go with it) but never to hang around for too much scrutiny.
Lest this start to sound like a "Rave Review", let me qualify that this is all relative. What we're dealing with in House is a movie that sets out to be lots of fun with its jumps and giggles and never attempts to pretend that it's Poltergeist or even The Amityville Horror. Because of this, it's easy to say that House succeeds at what it sets out to do. However, it's equally easy to point out that this film might not have worked without the comedy angle. It's not that House actually uses the humor as a crutch, but it's hard to imagine this one working on any of the same levels that more serious horror offerings like The Sixth Sense or Jacob's Ladder might (in spite of the underlying similarities) no matter how much polish went into the script. This covers most of the criticisms that could be hurled at House. It's illogical in many places, but it's a supernatural horror comedy, what do you expect? It relies a bit on slapstick, but that's the name of the game sometimes. It has a few jokes that fall flat, but lots of comedies do. The special effects aren't always perfect, nor are they usually very realistic, but what do you want for three million bucks? It's a comedy, folks!
Again, to really appreciate House, one must be somewhere in the subdivision of Dekker's sense of humor, which is always well thought out, but often esoteric. Wiley (an effects man himself) also has a somewhat specialized style that may have trumped Dekker's own and still had to be translated by director Steve Miner. If this type of humor isn't your thing, you're very likely to think House is either stupid or just silly. And at times you may be right. Others will find it both scary and funny and might even be revved up for House II: The Second Story. Now, if you don't like THAT one, you can blame Wiley. He directed and wrote all of the first sequel. After that the series (such that it is) goes a bit more than crazy, as if haunted by the ghosts of some other film saga.
Three and one half Stars out of Five for House, the New World Pictures release that balances laughs with frights and redeems itself by merging the two into a single monstrous whole at the right times. If nothing else, House can give you more reasons to laugh when you're faced with the potentially horrific things in your own domicile. Like Bengal Cats! Good grief are those little beasts bad animals. SO bad! What's that-? Oh NO! Damn it, Worsie, I haven't even finished paying that off yet you little-! Bad Kitty! Bad Kit- HEY! Get out of there, you! Are you serious? Oh, no, BADDIE! How did you- Come down from there, right-
Sorry, folks, I have to go now. You know, once in a while I think about maybe just... I don't know... leaving the back door open so these little monsters can just... take a hike or something. You know, I hear there are Coyotes in the area this time of year! But no, no... I can't do that. The last thing I want to do is go to prison for cruelty...
I'll see you in the next reel!
Hmmm... no, that doesn't sound right!
Through the Looking Glass and into the Pool!
No... not there yet... um...
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That should do it.
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