When Poltergeist hit in 1982, it introduced something new to the archaic haunted house subgenre of horror: Heavy duty special effects and elaborate monsters. Many argue the quality of the trend, and I admit that it had its downsides, but at the end of the day, I’d say the whole thing was worth it just because it gave us House.
Following the death of his aunt (Susan French), horror novelist Roger Kobb (William Katt) moves into her sprawling and supposedly haunted mansion. Roger’s life has been in a downward spiral, as he’s been burdened with memories of not only his years in Vietnam, but of the time when his son mysteriously vanished within the very house he’s moved into. Roger is looking for answers and may very well find them, as all sorts of hideous creatures lurk within the closets and chimneys of the house, and they all want a piece of him.
Director Steve Miner, fresh off his two-film run on the Friday the 13th series, showed that he really had the gumption (do people still use that word?) to make a hugely entertaining monster movie, albeit one disguised as a haunted house film. As a director, Miner is something of a Jack of all Trades, which you can gather just by glancing at his filmography on IMDB. For both better (Friday the 13th Part II) and worse (Halloween H20), the man’s greatest impact has been felt in the horror genre, even though comparatively speaking, his various comedy films, dramas and television episodes dwarf his horror efforts. House is a nice microcosm of everything Miner is capable of as a director, primarily blending horror with comedy, but also working-in great doses of special effects and even some genuine emotional drama.
House is flaunted as a horror-comedy, which it really is. For all the scary monsters and spooky sets that constitute this picture, their suspense is regularly offset by heavy doses of camp and self-awareness, but never to the point of being obnoxious. George Wendt (of Cheers) plays Roger’s nosey but good-natured neighbor and always shows up with a quip just long-enough to be funny, but without overstaying his welcome. Even the primary villain of the film, Big Ben, is played by another ‘80s sitcom icon, Richard Moll (Bull from Night Court). He has a Freddy Krueger-ness to him, though without all the Looney Tunes trappings. And when he shows up as a ghost at the end, he uses a voice identical to the one he used for Two-Face in Batman: The Animated Series!
In my opening paragraph, I made House sound fairly derivative of Poltergeist, which probably wasn’t a fair thing to do. True, House follows in the footsteps of Poltergeist by eschewing typical haunted house picture bullet-points (bumps in the night, creaky doors, vaporous apparitions) and deploying heavy duty special effects that portray the “ghosts” more akin to bizarre Ghostbusters-esque “monsters”, but House does it with its own unique style and approach. At any rate, it never comes off as a “cash-in” on early ‘80s ghost and haunting films like the aforementioned Poltergeist and Ghostbusters, but closer to one inspired by their approach to do something creative and fun.
Ethan Wiley’s screenplay is heavily focused on the single character of Roger to the point of forgoing a supporting cast nearly entirely. George Wendt’s character gets the most face-time outside of Roger, but his scenes are a refreshing balance of “snoopy behavior” and “genuine concern” to make him feel like a likeable personage. The upside of this is that Roger gets a lot of development since he has no supporting players to compete with and William Katt does a magnificent job of energizing him with a perfect mix of manic humor (his “test run” of the camera system), determined curiosity (wanting to capture the creature in the closet), elements of a troubled past (the various Vietnam flashbacks) and a great sense of tragedy and loss (as he laments over his missing son).
I think one of the most frightening moments in the film, and one that gives credence to Miner’s excellent versatility as a director, has nothing to do with any of the monsters. It’s the flashback where Roger’s son, Jimmy (dual role by Erik and Mark Silver), disappears. One moment, Roger is trimming the hedge and keeping an eye on his son, playing with his trucks in the yard. He turns his head for a second, looks back, and he’s gone. Roger runs to the front yard, only to see a car screeching to a start and racing away, filling him with all sorts of panic as he yells for his wife and runs around the side of the house. He then finds Jimmy splashing for help in the swimming pool, jumps in to save him, and he vanishes under the water.
While the part with the pool is where the Hollywood make-believe begins, everything up to that point felt very real and all the more frightening because of it. I’m no father, but the scenario is presented so believably and almost mundanely, brought to life by Katt’s performance, that you really feel a sense of dread and suspense, even though it’s a flashback and you know exactly how it turns out.
The movie isn’t without its flaws, though. As much fun as House is, it is a flick you should never, ever stop to think about. As involved and character-driven as the story is, if you think about it too hard, you open up all sorts of questions and plot holes. So was the house haunted before Richard Moll’s ghost showed up? Did Richard Moll’s ghost create all the weird monsters in the house? If so, then why would he create some that looked like midget husband and wife goblins? If Jimmy was trapped inside the dimension within the house for over a year, what did he eat? If the ghosts in the house were only illusions capable of “tricking” people into killing themselves, and not actually capable of hurting anyone, then how did the monster in the closet scratch Roger up so much?
Just don’t think about it.
House wasted no time in spawning three sequels; the second one being considered “better” by people I want to punch, the third featuring Lance Henrikson battling an evil man-faced roast turkey, and the fourth one bringing back William Katt for a rather forgettable direct plot sequel to this first film. Just skip all those and pick up Anchor Bay’s excellent 2002 DVD set. Oh, and because I couldn’t think of anywhere else to say this, “House” has one of the coolest pieces of video box art ever.