Steve Miner’s an unsung hero of cult ’80s movies, having earned his stripes working on Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), before getting to direct the first two sequels of the latter. He went on to make Warlock (1989), Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998), and Lake Placid (1999), before segueing into TV with the likes of Psych and Eureka.
His third movie was comedy-horror House (1986), which isn’t particularly well-known outside of the US. It’s flown under my radar for decades now, although the poster with a disembodied hand pushing a doorbell causes a flicker of recognition. It was probably one of many VHS covers that caught my eye in the horror aisle of my local Blockbuster.
One of the great things about Arrow Video is they not only satisfy niche tastes, but can introduce audiences to obscure films they didn’t catch first time around. Unfortunately, opinions from both groups tend to be poles apart, because nostalgists are satisfied to relive hazy VHS memories in gleaming HD (overlooking the shoddiest of low-budget productions), whereas everyone else can’t help comparing these artefacts to better movies of the era.
Roger Cobb (William Katt) is a famous horror novelist, whose life’s been tainted by genuine horrors. His young son went missing after he returned home from a tour of Vietnam, leading to him separating from his actress wife, and whose old aunt (Susan French) has just committed suicide. In shades of The Shining (1980), Cobb decides to move into his late aunt’s empty Victorian abode to write his next book, which will be a raw account of his experience as a G.I. Unfortunately, the house is haunted by ghouls and critters that drove his poor aunt to her grave, who make their presence known to her famous nephew…
I wish the story of House was as succinct as the above, but the script by Gremlins F/X effects artist Ethan Wiley is clearly the work of a beginner, and the direction from Miner isn’t much better. There are so many weird lapses in Cobb’s thinking that it kills your ability to invest in the crazy situations being presented. A lot of that is down to badly-timed flashbacks, and no attempt is made to differentiate the present from the past, either through a colour filter or make-up to make Katt look a decade younger. It caused me a lot of confusion for awhile.
For instance, Cobb mentions to a realtor that he grew up in his aunt’s home, then flashbacks I presumed were of a young Cobb were actually of his son. So why was he living in his aunt’s house as an adult with his child? And considering his aunt was aware the place was haunted years ago in that same flashback, why does he think it’ll be a great idea to move into the house now? And why did his aunt commit suicide only recently, if she’s supposedly been living with these ghosts for years? Didn’t she grow accustomed to them?
House does a poor job of setting up its simple premise: a horror author suffering post-traumatic stress faces paranormal activity in the home of his late aunt. There are also some very random moments that don’t make much sense, or suggest intriguing things that are never returned to. I laughed at a moment when a realtor absentmindedly shot a harpoon at Cobb’s head mid-conversation, which embeds itself inches away from his face in a wooden pillar. The realtor’s so nonchalant about almost killing a famous client that it suggests something is very wrong with him, or he’s someone to take note of… but his character’s never seen again! It was just a throwaway gag?
In another moment, Cobb wears army fatigues while arranging a bank of cameras intending to capture a monster lurking in a closet on tape… but when he pulls open the door by tugging on a rope he bolts from the house and runs out into the garden in broad daylight. There was just no need for that reaction. It may sound trivial, but there are too many moments when Cobb does something illogical, so you stop believing in him as a realistic person. He’s too inconsistent and stupid; a badly written character in an amateurish script that doesn’t know how best to handle a decent premise that marries The Shining to The Evil Dead (1981).
House wants to tie together the notion that Cobb’s suffering from PTSD and this haunting is maybe a symptom of his troubled mind, and not the work of ghosts and ghouls. Or the paranormal is somehow feeding off Cobb’s mental state. It’s a workable idea, but the script doesn’t do any of it justice. We know the house is genuinely haunted, because his aunt experienced strange events and she certainly wasn’t suffering from PTSD. If they wanted to create some kind of ambiguity about what’s real and what’s in Cobb’s head—up until the point his affable next-door neighbour Harold (George Wendt) witnesses a rubbery closet monster for himself—then they should’ve studied The Shining more.
Afterwards, I considered that Cobb’s imagination is leaking into reality, which explains some of the creatures he encounters, but not much is made of this during the story itself. And if that was the intention, wouldn’t you have Cobb realise this fact and fight back against his internal demons becoming literal ones?
One thing that’s of debatable merit is the fact much of House happens during daylight hours, which is unusual for a haunted house movie. Or most horrors in general. Often for good reason. I appreciate it when a scary movie tries to provoke chills from situations happening during the day, as it’s a big challenge for the filmmakers and can give audiences a feeling that you’re not safe anywhere. I always think of the scene in Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) when the phantom Reverend Kane visits a family’s house on a beautiful summer’s day before a rainstorm. There’s something very disconcerting about supernatural shit happening during a time one assumes people are safe from otherworldly creatures one associates with the night.
Unfortunately, House isn’t interested, or capable, of being scary at any time of the day. It’s too goofy to leave you peeking at the screen between your fingers, as most of the “ghosts” are just stuntmen in cheap costumes and expressionless masks. It would have helped matters if the scary moments happened after sunset, to differentiate the flashbacks to the present-day, give us a feeling of time passing, and to hide the low-budget effects and costumes. The best of the demons is “Big Ben” (Richard Moll), a zombie version of Cobb’s comrade from ‘Nam, who unsurprisingly appears at night in the finale.
House is a hard movie to take very seriously, but I don’t like the defence it’s a horror-comedy and thus intentionally ridiculous. It doesn’t work like that. Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II followed only a year later, and is an infinitely scarier and funnier version of the trope where someone’s under siege from the paranormal, not to mention more inventive with its camerawork and horror elements. House is almost like Steve Miner got access to someone’s large house, George Wendt owed him a favour, but he realised none of the crew wanted to work at night, and had to tone everything down so it wouldn’t get slapped with an R certificate.
HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY (1987)
The first sequel, House II: The Second Story (1987), blows its best joke on the title. Well, I presume that’s a play on words with “storey”, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was unintentional. Sean S. Cunningham retained the rights to House after its release, and it made financial sense to try and create a horror franchise. None of the original actors returned, so writer Ethan Wiley (pulling double duty as director) was forced to go in a new direction with an unrelated story and characters.
Trying to developing an anthology of films, under the “House brand”, reminded me of the original intention behind the Halloween franchise. Halloween II (1981) famously only continued the story of Michael Myers because the success of John Carpenter’s movie demanded a follow-up. The unrelated Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) was indicative of what they originally wanted to do, but its failure at the box office suggested the studio continue on with Michael Myers.
House II again opens on a weird flashback, where a married couple are murdered by the corpse of a cowboy in their home, moments after sending their infant son Jesse away. 25 years later, Jesse (Arye Gross) is all grownup and moving back into his family’s old mansion with his girlfriend Kate (Lar Park Lincoln), later joined by friends Charlie (Jonathan Stark) and Lana (Amy Yasbeck). While rooting through old items in the basement (did none of the subsequent homeowners clean out their shit?), Jesse finds old photographs of his great-great grandfather (Royal Dano) holding a crystal skull, and decide to dig up his ancestor’s grave to retrieve and sell the antiquity. After their successful grave-robbing, Jesse and Charlie discover that ‘Gramps’ has been reanimated by the magical skull and decide to take him home.
Comedy tries to ensue.
You can already tell that House II is less interested in the horror elements of the previous movie, which were undercut by its bright lighting and goofy tone. It seems that Ethan Wiley decided to lean into the silliness of House, at the expense of anything that could provoke any chills up the spine. It’s strange that House II (and the franchise at large) are marketed as horror-comedies, when this sequel is closer in tone to an action-adventure fantasy. It’s Poltergeist (1982) meets The Never Ending Story (1984), only much worse. Jesse later realises that each bedroom leads to a different time or place, so it’s not long before we’re in a jungle environment and Aztec temple with animatronic creatures like a baby pterodactyly, a “caterpuppy” (half caterpillar, half puppy), and a caveman.
If this all sounds fun and entertaining, it’s sadly not. It’s actually a huge disappointment that House II doesn’t attempt to be scary, as the increased budget of $3 million could have solved some of the first movie’s problems. It does look more cinematic, but it’s still trying to do too much with too little. I like the idea of a “haunted house” with portals across Time and Space, but because the script is so aggressively unfunny and tonally inconsistent I rapidly lost interest. This is one of those movies where you realise it’s not what the cover sold you on, then you spend the next hour checking your watch and eyeing the fast-forward button.
There are a few areas House II does a decent enough job with, if you’re being kind. The friendship between Jesse and Charlie comes across onscreen, as the actors have a good rapport together. It’s certainly a more ambitious movie in terms of the visuals, too, with Wiley’s F/X background and Filofax undoubtedly coming in handy. John Ratzenberger also cameos as a nosey electrician called Bill, who’s also a “part-time adventurer” and gets temporarily involved in the adventure without batting an eyelid over the insanity of the situation. He’s such a pleasing screen presence that it was clearly a huge mistake to focus on Gramps, when Bill clearly gives the story some of the fun it’s striving for. I’m not sure how intentional it was to get another Cheers alum involved, following George Went’s supporting role in House, but it would have been hilarious to continue that tradition with Ted Danson and Shelley Long in the next two instalments. Sadly, they don’t.
House II is a bad movie, largely because it does a poor job building on a half-decent idea and makes terrible creative decisions. I’m not sure why they made this one even lighter, but that’s the mistake it dies by.
HOUSE III: THE HORROR STORY (1989)
At first glance, House III: The Horror Show appears to get the franchise back on track because it’s not aimed at kids like House II. It’s also not as goofy as the original, which is appreciated, and there’s no “haunted house” aspect to the story, which isn’t.
A sizeable chunk of the action still takes place in a family’s home, but that’s a tenuous connection to House. Unsurprisingly, House III is something of a misnomer. The Horror Show was produced by Sean S. Cunningham, directed by James Isaac (who went on to make Jason X), and was financed by pre-selling it overseas as “House III”. They had to make good on their commitment, so it was marketed as a sequel to House in foreign markets, but not in the US. This was a weird business development that caused furrowed eyebrows in American video stores when House IV arrived in 1992, having apparently skipped House III!
The Horror Show will also remind some of Wes Craven’s Shocker (1989), which has almost exactly the same premise.
Detective Lucas McCarthy (Lance Henriksen) catches notorious serial killer “Meat Cleaver Max” Jenke (Brion James), but not before his partner’s arms have been lopped off and a young hostage decapitated — in two unintentionally funny moments. Jenke’s killing days now over, he’s convicted of over a hundred murders and sentenced to death by electric chair. Lucas goes along to witnesses the execution, perturbed to find that it takes multiple jolts to end Jenke’s life, then starts seeing disturbing visions that suggest Jenke has returned from beyond the grave to make his life hell. Or is Lucas just hallucinating because of the trauma involved in capturing this psychopath? I think you know the direction this takes…
This film has the same producer, cinematographer, and composer as the previous two House instalments, and a chunk of the story takes place in the McCarthy residence as the focus of Jenke’s afterlife mischief, so you can vaguely understand why it was coopted as a House sequel. But it’s fundamentally about Jenke, as a supernatural boogieman, targeting the cop who brought him to justice, now he’s somehow imbued with Freddy Krueger-like abilities to twist perception of reality. It’s not a haunted house movie in any real sense.
Still, for what it is, The Horror Show isn’t a total piece of garbage. I’m a fan of Lance Henriksen, accepting he’s one of those actors who’ll take any job that comes his way to pay the bills, and he doesn’t always do a fantastic job. I don’t think his heart was in this one, but it’s still good to see him onscreen. I was more engaged by him than William Katt and Arye Gross, anyway.
Brion James was a prominent character actor of the 1980s whom I’d long forgotten about, but was best known for playing replicant Leon Kowalski in Blade Runner (1982). He does a decent job here as a cliched madman, in a role that mostly required him to use his 6’3″ frame to look imposing, although his effort are tarnished by giving Jenke a high-pitched laugh straight from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.
The scares are mostly delivered thanks to loud noises (the first is literally a moment when a cat leaps out of a kitchen cupboard), but I appreciated some of the gore effects The Horror Show delivered — most notably the grotesque way Jenke’s body bubbles and contorts when he’s electrocuted.
There’s definitely some crossover with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), both in terms of how Jenke can make McCarthy “day dream” frightening scenarios that makes him doubt his own reality, but also in how he needs to be brought into physical form to destroy him in the end. Jenke even seems to “possess” a boiler in the basement, which is where Freddy’s glove was famously kept.
One assumes the filmmakers were just influenced by Nightmare and wanted to do something more visually imaginative, but Wes Craven was simultaneously making Shocker (about a serial killer who continues his crimes after being electrocuted to death) so it just seems very odd that these two projects have so much crossover. It’s almost like Sean S. Cunningham, a peer of Craven’s in the 1970s and ‘80s, heard what Craven was up to and wanted to beat him to the punch. Horror Story did have the advantage of being released six months before Shocker, but it made $1.7 million compared to Shocker’s $16m.
Regardless, both were flops.
HOUSE IV: THE REPOSSESSION (1992)
A truer sequel than the previous two movies, House IV: The Repossession sees the marginal return of Roger Cobb, hero of the first House. Only, there’s no mention of him being a world-famous horror author, and the haunted house is a different wreck in the desert that his late father owned. He’s also suddenly married to a woman called Kelly (Alien Nation’s Terri Treas), they have a daughter called Laurel (Melissa Clayton), and we meet him chatting with his unscrupulous half-brother Burke (Scott Burkholder) about what to do with their late father’s dilapidated pile. This is the same man, right?
Roger wants to honour the oath he made to keep the rundown house in the Cobb family, whereas Burke wants to sell it, but after Roger’s killed in a car accident the disagreement is passed onto Roger’s widow, who was dismissive of the old house but now sees it as a connection to her late husband and his ancestry.
It’s really all a slightly convoluted excuse to get us back onto familiar turf, with a story that at least tries to capture the original movie’s sense of horror and lunacy. The previous sequels were tonally wide of the mark, but House IV at least feels like something from the same franchise. But it’s still just another mess in terms of plot and logic, as Kelly and Laurel move into the house and comes under “attack” from supernatural disturbances. For a long time you’re wondering if the house is built on an old Indian burial ground, prompting inevitable comparisons with Poltergeist, and that’s not entirely false.
It transpires that Roger himself is behind the haunting, and is doing a terrible job of trying to warn his family about something dodgy going on with his stepbrother. It doesn’t make sense to do this by transforming yourself into a pizza and scaring the crap out of your spouse, when she’s trying to enjoy a meal with your grieving daughter one evening.
There’s really no clear rhyme or reason for half of what goes on in House IV, although my attention and expectations dipped so much during the movie that it caught me off-guard with a relatively good twist involving the exact circumstances of Roger’s death. The main problem is that scenes where Kelly and Laurel are being frightened by weird shit happening in the house don’t make much sense if it’s Roger who’s behind them. The story only really starts to come together, or have some fun, when it turns into a supernatural Home Alone (1990) with two Mafia hitmen prowling around and being made to hallucinate they’re insects. Or that the Cobb’s have a guard dog with a lamp shade bolted to its head. Don’t ask.
While House IV has a link to the original film (even if it ignores several things established about Roger’s character), and remembers that the first House became a cult because it delivered lots of ridiculous imagery, it’s not really about very much. It fails to come up with a reason for much of the middle section to even be happening, and things get slightly desperate when the story comes to involve the mob wanting to buy the ramshackle house to dump toxic waste there. And did I mention the godfather figure with dwarfism? Twin Peaks had just broken into pop culture around this time, which is the only explanation I can think of. There’s a sense that all of these movies just take the spine of a traditional haunted house movie, then bolt on weak imitations of things that worked in better movies.
Despite having more in common with the original, House IV went straight-to-video, and presumably performed so poorly that everyone was spared House V.