Director: Steve Miner
Writer: Fred Dekker (story), Ethan Wiley (screenplay)
Starring: William Katt, Kay Lenz, George Wendt, Richard Moll, Mary Stavin, Michael Ensign, Erik Silver, Mark Silver, Susan French
15 | 1h 33min | Comedy, Fantasy, Horror
Budget: $3,000,000 (estimated)
For many kids of the 1980s House was a memorable movie indeed.
To begin with it had one of the most eye-catching VHS covers of the entire decade, and for those who remember the original theatrical trailer, the movie screamed ‘rent me!’ to any practical effects junkie scouring the horror section for their next visual fix. I remember the cover and the trailer, but I didn’t see House until just recently, and as an adult I was somewhat underwhelmed.
Still, the movie went on to spawn three sequels, and for all you appreciators baying for my blood, please hear me out. This is not a bad movie, and if I were watching through a nostalgic lens I would probably be raving about it the way I did The Gate. Both of those movies ride a tenuous line between horror and fantasy that leaves you wondering who exactly they were made for. House has been given a 15 certificate. Like The Gate, it may be considered too scary for a peewee audience, but too ridiculous for any adult horror fan, and it certainly doesn’t feel like a movie that thrill-seeking teenagers would be clamouring for in a market dominated by cynical, sex-orientated slashers.
The story for House was devised by Night of the Creeps director Fred Dekker, which may give you some idea of the comical, larger-than-life antics on offer, but without the adolescent sex appeal to prop it up in the minds of its target demographic, it seems like something of a commercial misfire—although its haphazard presentation and cavalier approach to convention may speak to the film’s cult appeal in the minds of many.
Produced by Friday the 13th‘s Sean Cunningham—a man renown for aping other successful formulas to devastating financial effect— House is a derivative of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, with a dash of The Amityville Horror thrown in for good measure, but it’s biggest influence seems to be Sam Raimi‘s Evil Dead sequel Dead by Dawn. Like Dead by Dawn, House features a series of schlocky practical effects that prove charmingly goofy, but the movie lacks the splatter to fully indulge its target audience, its zany comic touch proving much too tepid for a generation weaned on the likes of Jason Voorhees— ironic, since director Steve Miner also brought us Friday the 13th Part II, arguably the purest slasher of the entire series.
House tells the story of Roger Cobb (William Katt), a popular author who retreats to the house where his aunt committed suicide in order to work on his latest novel. After the strange disappearance of their young son, Jimmy (here played by twins), Cobb has grown distant from his famous ex, Sandy Sinclair (Kay Lenz), and has become somewhat reclusive, which comes as no surprise after seeing the gaggle of obsessive weirdos who turn up to his book signing. For pure in-your-face grotesquery, they are probably the scariest thing in the entire movie.
Of course, that is the least of Cobb’s problems, and it soon becomes clear that all is not right with his new abode as a series of increasingly real visions threaten to push him over the brink. That’s until he discovers his son alive and well and trapped in another dimension, one to which the spooky suburban mansion acts as a gateway. Sound familiar?
To be fair, the movie is pretty colourful, in spite of its markedly imitative template, and while the practical effects are unlikely to win any awards for originality, a sub-narrative involving Cobb’s stint in the Vietnam war is very much welcome, particularly when he is drawn back into the fold to rescue his firstborn from a not-so-familiar friend.
That friend comes in the form of an ex-platoon member looking for revenge after being left to suffer on the battlefield. The war demon known as Big Ben is a wonderful conception. A giant monstrosity hellbent on revenge, he represents the movie’s visual apotheosis, putting much of his decidedly cutesy latex brethren to shame as he stalks the surreal corridors in search of a child’s blood.
Other than that, the movie fails to offer any real scares, and the Vietnam scenes are so cheap and maudlin they only serve to trivialise one of the most destructive wars in modern history. They also appear to be filmed in somebody’s front garden, but the trite characterisation and two-bit battles are irresistibly second-rate, resulting in the most lightweight case of post-war anxiety ever committed to the big screen.
Cheers’ George Wendt offers some welcome comic pedigree, with sultry neighbour Tanya (Mary Stavin) providing the eye candy as Cobb wrestles with morbidly obese zombies and irrepressible cupboard monsters in full combat regalia. This is the kind of R-rated movie they simply don’t make anymore—the kind that essentially seem to be marketed at young children—and as an adult I was neither scared nor particularly amused by the movie’s colourful shenanigans; apart from a few graphic soundbites, it’s hard to imagine how it ever qualified for such an explicit rating.
In the end, the movie is a watery stew of weakly imitated formulas that fails to fully ignite any of its commercial taste buds. Still, House works as a slice of 80s hokum that is guaranteed to stir the nostalgia juices, and that in itself is a special quality most movies can only dream of.
Intent on rescuing his kid from the grips of a vengeful Vietnam zombie, Cobb steals one of his grenades and buries it deep in his exposed ribcage before watching him explode into a confetti of undead pieces.
Most Absurd Moment
After being attacked by a hideous cupboard monster which seems to come and go as it pleases, an increasingly desperate Cobb sets up a whole host of cameras with the intention of capturing his domestic tormentor. This time the monster doesn’t disappoint, but when Cobb’s string-on-the-door-handle approach backfires, he is forced into a series of army rolls that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has absolutely no real-life tactical training.
Most Absurd Dialogue
Spying the neighbourhood’s newest addition, neighbour Harold (Wendt) decides to break the ice.
Harold: Hey, It’s great to have a new neighbour. The woman who lived here before you was nuts. Biggest bitch under the sun. Just a senile old hag really. Wouldn’t be surprised if someone just got fed up and offed her. Know what I mean?
Roger Cobb: She was my aunt.
Harold: Heart of gold though. Just uh, a saint really. And uh, such a beautiful woman, for her age.
Did I come to this movie too late? It seems so, and as a consequence I probably have no right to summarise, but here goes: a quite audacious blend of Poltergeist, Dead by Dawn and Platoon, House is not without its fascination, and while the movie’s finale offers the odd visual treat, this one is best reserved for the rose-tinted annals of juvenile nostalgia. Still, House raked in more than five times its $3,000,000 budget, cementing Cunningham’s reputation as one of the most successful imitators of the VHS arena.
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