Picture me: a pubescent boy, somewhere in the late '80s, wandering about the local video store aisles. A burgeoning horror fan, I’m checking out the cover art for all the films in the genre section. My mother was much more strict than my father when it came to renting films, so if I’m with her, I’m likely gonna have to move over to the comedies soon, but if it's just me and dad, I can talk him into the scary stuff. One weekend, me and the old man grabbed House, a movie whose cover features a totally rad-looking severed hand about to ring a doorbell; I had looked at many times hoping the day would come when I could bring it home and watch. That day was now (or then as I'm now remembering it - and come to think of it I don't actually remember that day at all. It's possible it was my uncle who rented it for me and my cousins, but I digress).
The 1980s were a great time for horror movies. With the advent of home video, moviemakers could turn a nice profit with low budget genre movies without needing big theatrical releases. Horror Hounds are a dream-come-true for b-movie financiers as they’ll watch just about anything that promises a little blood, a little gore, and a little T+A.
Slashers ruled the genre with Jason, Michael Myers, and Freddy Kreuger being top dogs but countless knock-offs popped up nearly every week. These were often unintentionally funny but a sub-genre of films that purposefully mixed comedy and horror were becoming quite successful in their own right. With films like An American Werewolf in London, Creepshow, and Re-Animator, audiences could enjoy mixing their frights and their laughs in varying degrees.
It is within this milieu that producer Sean S. Cunningham and director Steve Miner, fresh off their success with the Friday the 13th films. came to make the film whose cover I’d so longingly stared at. Made in 1986, House stands firmly in the confines of the comedy-horror sub-genre. It's a big, mixed bag of films throwing in dashes of haunted house, zombies, psychological thriller, and slapstick into the pot and seeing what sticks.
After his aunt commits suicide in her big, gothic house, Roger Cobb (William Katt - who was right in the middle of his run on The Greatest American Hero) decides to move in. He’s a successful horror author in a bit of a rut and he figures the house will provide some quiet space for him to finally write about his experience in Vietnam (and we get flashbacks a-plenty, complete with Richard Moll, who you might remember as Bull on Night Court, as his psychopathic compatriot and loads of cheap, plastic-looking bushes that stand in for the South Asian jungle). Poor Roger is obviously struggling with PTSD from the experience which is only made worse by the fact that he’s recently divorced due to the stress of having his young son disappearing at that very house! Before he can write a page, all sorts of strange happenings occur including weird noises, freaky reflections, and literal monsters coming out of the closet.
Completing the '80s TV trifecta is Cheers' George Wendt as the nosey neighbor who keeps stopping by putting his nose right in the middle of everything. He’s not any help but he does add in some comic relief. As does some flying tools attacking Roger every time he opens a door.
Coming into the film, I really remembered nothing other than that groovy cover art. Watching it now, some 30 years later, House does not stand up well at all. It's cheaply made, neither funny nor scary, and the whole psychological trauma over war and a missing kid does not mesh well with the other elements of the film. Yet, I can totally see why I loved it as a kid. It's got thrills but it's not so scary it would have kept me up at night. The comedy is dumb and broad which was perfect for young me. The creatures are grotesque and kind of silly, and I would have thought the war scenes were pretty cool.
House was successful enough to spawn three sequels (sadly, only one of them is represented in this boxed set). House II: The Second Story tells a completely different tale, with completely different characters. It's a sequel only in the sense that it too is a comedy-horror that mostly takes place in a house.
If House was all about its hero wanting to be alone, House II goes completely in the other direction, filling the new house with all sorts of people. Jesse (Arye Gross) and his girlfriend Kate (Lar Park Lincoln) move into the creepy old house that’s been in his family for generations. They bring along the goofy friend Charlie (Jonathan Stark) and his girlfriend Lana (Amy Yasbeck). While going through some old papers, Jesse discovers that his outlaw grandfather (Royal Dano) discovered a mystical crystal skull before he died. Jesse and Charlie dig up the grave and find both the skull and the still-living grandfather (apparently the skull grants eternal life, sort-of). The now very ancient-looking Gramps warns Jesse that they must protect the skull for all sort of evil-doers will be coming after it.
Sure enough, they are soon being attacked by a giant mad man and find that one of the house’s rooms leads to a Jurassic-era jungle where they pick up a baby pterodactyl and a giant caterpillar with a dog's head (did I mention House 2 leans heavily into the comedy aspects of its comedy-horror roots?). There are also some Aztec-looking tribesman who are stopped by our heroes just before they sacrifice a sexy virgin (Devin DeVasquez).
Not to be outdone in the classic '80s sitcom actors area, John Ratzenberger (also from Cheers - I hope Shelley Long has a cameo in the third film) shows up for a brief but memorable scene as an electrician/adventurer who helps the gang out of a jam. Bill Maher is there too as a smarmy record producer and Kate’s boss.
It's all a lot of goofy fun in the way only low-budget '80s movies could be. I don’t think I’d watched this sequel as a kid but slivers of memories kept popping up as I watched, especially during the antics of Gramps. The monsters turn out mostly cute and the random bad guys aren’t particularly scary, but the film relies more on jokes than it does on scares so that’s ok, I guess.
Arrow Video has outdone themselves with this set. Both films have been restored in 2K resolution from the original 35mm prints. Both films look really good all things considered. They are both a bit grainy and suffer a bit in the shadow, but the colors are good and the blacks mostly stark. Details are so good you might get drawn out of the films laughing at the dated practical effects. Audio is likewise decent.
Both films come with a new, hour-ish long documentary featuring fun interviews with most of the major players. Then there are vintage making-of spots, trailers, TV spots, and some lively audio commentaries. The set comes in a nice, sturdy cardboard box and a really excellent hardback book filled with color pictures and some lengthy essays about the films.
Both House and House 2: The Second Story are fun, genre films that remind me of those glory days in the '80s when popping down to the local video store was an experience in itself. They aren’t particularly good films, but they have their own sort-of nostalgic romance attached to them. Arrow has done a magnificent job presenting them.