The 1986 horror movie House is at once an anomaly in the genre and the kind of byproduct only the '80s could have produced. It is low-budget but never schlocky, tremendous fun but rarely outright silly. It's a movie of great imagination but with enough of a grounded emotional center to not be totally ephemeral. It gave Fred Dekker his start and demonstrated that producer Sean S. Cunningham and director Steve Miner could collaborate on a project outside of Crystal Lake and find some success. It is a mix of horror and comedy, loaded with practical effects and cast with actors best known at the time for TV shows. It seems like a movie that probably shouldn't work, but Arrow's new Blu-ray confirms that it's a special example of the decade that produced a lot of special movies.
William Katt plays Roger Cobb, celebrated horror author now divorced from his wife (Kay Lenz) after their young son vanished. Roger moves into the house of his aunt who recently hung herself after being driven mad by what she says was the house playing tricks on her. As Roger settles in to write a new book -- this one a personal account of his experiences in the Vietnam War -- the house begins to play tricks on him, too. Strange things happen. Monsters appear. And then things get worse.
Less successful is the sequel, House II: The Second Story, released just one year later. Ethan Wiley, screenwriter of the original film (adapting a story by his college friend Fred Dekker), takes over as director for the follow-up, which takes place in a brand new house with a brand new set of characters. This time it's Ayre Gross and wisecracking best friend Jonathan Stark searching for a crystal skull they believe to be buried in the house that has been in Gross' family for generations. They find it, along with Gross' great, great grandfather (Royal Dano under heavy prosthetics), who has come back to life and tells the boys they must protect the skull against the evil forces who would steal it. Before you know it, the skull is snatched by a dinosaur bird as the house opens up into multiple dimensions, each with its own set of monsters and obstacles to be faced -- none more dangerous than Slim Reeser, another zombie cowboy who will stop at nothing to possess the skull.
House II also leans much more heavily on the comedy side of the "horror comedy" equation, all but abandoning the former in favor of the latter. This is a softer movie, not just because it's more nakedly sentimental in terms of the relationship between Ayre Gross and Gramps, but also in the PG-13 rating and a reimagining of what the house now represents. Here it's more about adventure (there's even a scene in which John Ratzenberger shows up as an electrician and turns out to be a swashbuckling adventurer who's good with a sword, because I guess the joke this time is that there's a different actor from Cheers in the cast) than it is about the house presenting scares. I appreciate that Wiley takes a new approach for the sequel, as I'm sure it would have been very easy to repeat exactly what the first movie did but in a new house (or, even worse, in the same house). But just because I admire his ambition does not mean I connect with the end results.
I don't know that House should have ever spawned a franchise; the sequels have nothing to do with the original except for the fact that there is a house, which could be said of most other movies as well. At the same time, watching other filmmakers attempt to reproduce the alchemy of the original House is interesting, even if it is just House II and most of the people trying to reproduce the first movie were around its production. I'm really glad that Arrow is releasing both House and House II as a single package (I already have Scream Factory's release of The Horror Show and have no real use for House IV, so the first two are all I need...OCD be damned). While House is the one I'm going to revisit several times in the future and I'm doubtful I would ever buy House II if it was released separately, including both movies together makes for a cool education in '80s horror. I like watching as Cunningham tries to turn this into a franchise, I like watching Ethan Wiley move from writer to director and trying to change things up, and I like watching a pair of low-budget '80s horror movies that push the limits of what their resources will allow and pack their stories with really fun effects. That hardly happens anymore, and certainly not in the same way.
Blu-ray release date: April 11, 2017
House: 93 minutes/1986/R
House II: 89 minutes/1987/PG-13
DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English), LCPM 2.0 (English), LCPM Mono (English)
Subtitles: English (SDH)
Blu-ray bonus features:
Archival EPK Featurettes