Franchise Corner Entry: HOUSE
HOUSE *** USA 1985 Dir: Steve Miner. 91 mins
Emerging in the midst of trends for horror comedies (it came out the same year as RE-ANIMATOR and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) and post-ELM STREET FX-driven “rubber-reality” horror, Sean S Cunningham’s light-hearted Bad House movie stars CARRIE’s William Katt as pulpy horror writer Roger Cobb. Pressured by his agent to write more gory paperbacks (check out the stereotype “fans” presented at his book signing!) and grieving over the fracturing of his family unit, Cobb sets out to finally write a book about his Vietnam experiences in the spooky old house he inherited from his late aunt. Tonally all over the place, HOUSE alternates ‘Nam flashbacks with a traumatic missing-kid backstory, cupboard monsters, slow-build attempts at haunted house shtick and an awkward sitcom-horror feel confirmed by the presence of Norm from CHEERS (George Wendt) as a chummy neighbour. The film anticipates the anything-goes mind-fuck lunacy of EVIL DEAD II, as a wall mounted marlin comes to life, Katt is pursued by garden implements, a persistent severed hand threatens a child and Kay Lenz turns into a cackling, fat-suited sub-Henriettta demon hag with a cartoon chipmunk voice. Sadly, director Steve Miner is no Sam Raimi, and there’s a disappointing lack of momentum or gore (the PG-rated POLTERGEIST was grislier than this R-rated movie). The resolution is also grotesquely sentimental. Nonetheless, Katt – whose career never quite took off – is charismatic, Richard Moll makes an impressive walking corpse and at least some of its quirky episodes are amusing.
HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY *** USA 1987 Dir: Ethan Wiley. 88 mins
Conceived as a stand-alone movie following the success of HOUSE, producer Cunningham planned to turn the series into a franchise where each entry would be centered around a different house, though he retained some key personnel: screenwriter Ethan Wiley, cinematographer Mac Ahlberg, composer Harry Manfredini and creature FX genius Chris Walas. The second film, even more so than its predecessor, soft-pedals the horror as Ayre Gross and Lar Park Lincoln move into his ancestral home and end up digging up his mummified Great, Great Grandfather (Royal Dano), whose ownership of an ancient, magical Aztec crystal skull puts them all at risk. Veteran Hollywood character actor Dano is touching as the blustery, sentimental walking corpse, swapping stagecoach stories while insulting Ronald Reagan. HOUSE II has the most eclectic cast of the series, with FRIGHT NIGHT’s Jonathan Stark and sexy, funny Amy Yasbeck a hoot as a would-be showbiz couple and a young, mullet-sporting Bill Maher – expression set to “Permanent Smugness” – as the owner of “Heretic Records”. In a spot of coincidental casting, beloved CHEERS loser John Ratzenberger plays a variation of his TV character as a sword-fighting electrician who gets the movie’s best line. Former Playmate and future SOCIETY sexpot Devin Devasquez provides further eye candy as a rescued damsel-in-distress, and stunt coordinator Kane Hodder (who worked on all four HOUSE movies) pops up at a fancy dress party in a gorilla suit. This turns into a spirited fantasy adventure, with nostalgic nods to vintage monster movies and a range of appealing old-school FX: stop motion dinosaurs, matte paintings, a memorable, rubbery barking caterpillar and a zombie horse are among the stand-outs. Unlike HOUSE, it’s as much influenced by old westerns and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK as it is by earlier horror movies, and it’s worth noting that it’s also a lot more fun than the Indiana Jones sequel that happened to feature a Crystal Skull.
HOUSE III: THE HORROR SHOW (a.k.a. The Horror Show) *** USA 1989 Dir: James Isaac. 95 mins 18 (R)
Sporting more gruesomeness in its first ten minutes than both previous HOUSE movies in their entirety, this movie reunited producer Cunningham with several key personnel from those films but had a tortured path to the screen. Released cut as the stand-alone THE HORROR SHOW in the U.S. and uncut to Europe as HOUSE III, the production sacked its initial director (David Blyth), had its writer (Allyn Warner) remove his name from the credits and, when released, found itself competing against a bunch of other vengeful executed-serial-killer movies. It opens with intense detective Lance Henriksen bringing meat cleaver-wielding, snickering maniac Brion James to justice, but not only does the madman take a long time to die (“All that did was give me a hard on!” he brags as electricity pops his veins), he also vows to terrorise Henriksen’s family from beyond the grave. This he achieves in a very Freddy-like fashion, manipulating reality and hijacking everything from the family turkey to the TV set, where he appears with his own unique “Death-A-Thon”. The trailer made no bones about the film’s brazen riffing on the ELM STREET franchise, and the script shamelessly trots through an assortment of 80’s slasher clichés, from the forced cat scare to the extended scenes of characters wandering down to the basement. It is, however, briskly paced, gruesome fun, with some splendid early KNB make up FX and a show-stopping, unrestrained performance by James, who gets to appear in drag and has the most ridiculous cartoon-like cackle of slasher cinema, alongside a sneer that could stun a badger within a 100 mile radius. Crucially, HOUSE III is also a lot more fun than SHOCKER, which Cunningham’s former collaborator Wes Craven released the same year, and which has a virtually identical set-up.
HOUSE IV (a.k.a. House IV: The Repossession) * USA 1992 Dir: Lewis Abernathy. 92 mins
The final HOUSE opts for vague continuity after the tonally uncharacteristic HOUSE III, and even brings back original star William Katt as Roger Cobb, albeit with a different family to the one he had in HOUSE and now living in his Dad’s “magical” old cobwebbed house.
When Cobb dies in a car accident that also cripples his adolescent daughter, she and his widow (Terri Treas) experience strange phenomenon, with Katt’s sappy spirit trapped between two worlds and reliably wise Native American Ned Romero (aping Will Sampson in POLTERGEIST II) spelling out the house’s origins to pad out the running time. This follows the cuddlier elements of the first two HOUSE films with a TV soap-style portrayal of the Mom-daughter relationship and cloying sitcom characters, notably a goofy, grating housekeeper played by Saturday Night Live’s Denny Dillon. It is weighed down considerably by a bunch of unfunny, sub-HOME ALONE mobster villains, who figure in a grim phlegm-drinking gag that isn’t funny but strangely pre-empts the trend for gross-out bodily fluid jokes in late 90’s teen comedies. Actual horror is notable for its absence – unless you consider Treas taking a clichéd blood-shower to be truly terrifying – and the most inventive thing writer-director Abernathy can come up with is a scene in which a singing pizza (played by Kane Hodder) spits sauce at the heroine. Franchise low-point: a deluge of icky GHOST-inspired afterlife treacle at the very end, leading to a pretty embarrassing final shot.
Reviews by Steven West