Last week I obtained a now rare DVD of the 1986 horror-comedy movie House … and a very nice trip down memory lane it was. Like A Nightmare On Elm Street, Friday the Thirteenth, Hellraiser and other classic horrors, House was popular and successful enough at the time of release that it spawned a succession of sequels. However, unlike those other sequel-churners House is now a largely forgotten film.
Spoiler Alert: The film tells a fairly simple story of a horror fiction writer, Roger Cobb, whose son is missing. The boy has been taken captive by supernatural beings haunting the family house he has inherited. Cobb instinctively knows the boy is somewhere in the house and decides to spend time there writing his new book, an account of his personal experiences of the Vietnam War. The film becomes thematically interesting in that Cobb’s re-accessing of painful war memories coincides with a series of violent hallucinations he experiences in the house. Is he crazy? Is his son really being held captive by ghosts of the past? And … does the loss of his son represent the loss of his own innocence in Vietnam?
The first half of the film finely balances the possibilities of Cobb having a mental breakdown vs the house is really haunted. Surrealist paintings left behind by his suicide-committing aunt contain visual clues that suggest he isn’t alone in his hallucinations. It has overtones of The Shining in its story progression. Unlike The Shining, House’s climax takes away several of these mysteries, which may have served the film better if they’d been left more open to interpretation. Regardless, the film is still really fun to watch. It’s well edited, scored, and shot, is driven by a surprisingly good performance from underrated actor William Katz, who really ought to have taken a career boost from House, but never quite did. And of great help to the film is its humour, which ranges from Slapstick situation gags to well-scripted character subtleties.
I only saw the first House sequel and it was so poor I didn’t even consider the rest, where as with a lot of other horror franchises there’s usually the odd sequel that keeps the flame of inspiration from the original alive rather than stamping it out – Elm St 3 & 4 were good fun, the Friday the Thirteenth sequels were perfect for the late night six pack and pizza gang, and Hellraiser 2 was one of the most viscerally intense gore experiences I’ve encountered in cinema.
Perhaps a decent House sequel might have cemented the reputation of the original, but the film’s biggest weakness is one that has only shown up worse with time – the inconsistent quality of its special effects. One scene has an excellent stop-motion skeletal bird attacking the lead as he dangles in darkness on a length of rope – it still looks good today – but the fat zombie woman with a shotgun looks awful. Some of the other creatures in the movie are fairly well depicted (including a 7 foot tall zombie soldier), but the film makers should have taken a leaf out of John Carpenter’s The Thing, by darkening the sets a little. When rubber creatures are over lit we may get to see them in glorious detail, but it’s often at the expense of just …. looking like rubber. Also rather fake looking, even at the time of release, is the depiction of Vietnamese jungle territory in Cobb’s flashbacks. The foliage appears to be made up of plant species found in the Americas, but it’s a minor gripe.
House very clearly is underpinned by a theme of war-related PTSD and it’s a theme taken quite seriously in parts. I’d be interested to know if screenwriter Ethan Wiley had some personal experience in this respect.