Basement of Horrors: House Retrospective (Part 1)

I love Halloween. For me, October is simply an excuse to binge-watch a bunch of horror movies from yesteryear and distract myself from the real horrors of the outside world. And, like all of us this year, I really needed cheering up. It’s been proper ugly out there of late. There’s fuckface von Clownstick Donald Trump, often criticised for rubbing salt in national wounds and with the Kavanaugh debacle still raging on, he’s firmly rammed the saltshaker down our collective throats – then there’s Theresa ‘dancing-the-electric-boogaloo-like-a-praying-mantis-with-Parkinson’s’ May, playing a literal game of chequers with Brexit, or something just as bonkers that makes me groan every time I read an article about it. Months of scary headlines about looming cuts, UFC fighters bouncing outside the Octangonal ring like Mario to clobber people over the head…it all just makes you want to call it quits and weep constantly.

That’s why there’s horror movies. I see them as a way of strengthening your Professor X-like mind defences against the true terrors outside your house. So it’s no surprise that horror currently reigns on TV: From American Horror Story to The Walking Dead, zombies, vampires and ghosts are becoming more and more prevalent on screens. With 17.3 million viewers, the season five premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead was the highest-rated show in cable television history. (Little factoid there for you. You’re welcome.)

And it isn’t just TV – horror movies are also being produced at a rapid pace nowadays – look over your shoulder and up pops another Conjuring film, or another instalment in the SAW franchise – given the low production costs of horror and suspense entertainment, it’s no mystery why horror-based entertainment continues to be produced. What is less clear, however, is why people are so captivated by watching it. What is the psychology behind fear, and why are people drawn to thrill-seeking entertainment?

Well, I don’t have the answers for you. What am I, a psychologist? Myself – I like to be scared. I like to escape the day-to-day life of things, curl up like a purring kitten and stick on something to transport me away from the crazy world we live in today. Last year I made some videos regarding the countdown to Halloween – STORGY’s Basement of Horror, celebrating obscure or underrated horror movies. Some were good, some were bad and some were downright Lon Chaney (Phantom of the Opera Chaney, at any rate) This year, we’ve been busy bees indeed putting together a horror anthology called Shallow Creek, so I haven’t had the time to make new videos…

BUT!

There has been time to watch Arrow Film’s House quadrilogy. That’s right, each week leading up to Halloween I’ll be writing up a retrospective of the ‘ol haunted house tale.

Confession time: I saw this poster years ago when I was just a wee nipper and it terrified me. The gruesome image of a floating, zombie-like hand with protruding bone out of the wrist socket, ringing a doorbell will forever haunt me…it would only be later on in life that I came to the understanding that unfortunately, like many of the old 80’s ‘video nasties’, the box art was much scarier and intimidating than the actual film itself. I’d never watched any of the House movies until last week. I was very surprised by what I saw.

In 1983, with two successful horror sequels under his belt (i.e. Friday the 13th Part 2 and Friday the 13th Part 3-D), Steve Miner began work on Godzilla: King of The Monsters, which would have been the first American-made Godzilla movie. You may scoff at this, but at the time it was big news. I can only compare it nowadays to James Wan announcing a Critters reboot. Hey, a guy can dream. After securing the character rights from Toho but for various reasons, Steve Miner’s Godzilla film sadly never took off. We did get a sweet Jamiroquai soundtrack theme song in the 90’s though…remember that song? ‘We’re going Deeper Underground…’

clean up on row E

Then sometime in 1985, Miner got his hands on a script by Ethan Wiley for House. Based upon a short Twilight Zone-inspired story from Fred Dekker (writer of Night of the Creeps and Monster Squad – ‘Wolfman’s got nards!’), a screenplay for a feature length film was made. Miner got in contact with Sean S. Cunningham (dir. of Friday the 13th) who kindly agreed to finance the project. The result? House…a silly film that’s more fun than terrifying. The acting is ludicrously over the top, so don’t go into it like I did expecting an 80’s gruesome monster movie. It does have monsters in it, (great prosthetics for the time and stop motion animation) but it’s more Sam Raimi Evil Dead and Peter Jackson Braindead than The Amityville Horror.

House is the story of war veteran turned horror author Roger Cobb (played by William Katt) who is at a bit of a crossroads in his life. His novel is a best seller, but he wants to veer away from the horror genre and write about his experiences in Vietnam. Unfortunately, he’s suffering from writer’s block, dealing with the disappearance of his son and a shit ton of PTSD. Roger’s Aunt unexpectedly commits suicide, and he becomes the sole inheritor of her estate. Rather than sell it off, Roger decides to move in and focus on writing his long-delayed book.

That V neck though…

Straight off the bat, I got the idea that House was unsure of what demographic the filmmakers were targeting; was it a straight forward creepy horror flick? Or a strange horror comedy? I think the producers went way too overboard on the comic relief aspect (with quite a lot of jokes failing to hit the mark) and tried to do too many things at once. An example of this early on is when Roger goes back to his aunt’s house – there’s a scene between our weary author and the real estate owner in a shed. The real estate guy is nonchalantly gesticulating as he talks with a harpoon gun and accidentally fires it, sending a metal spike thudding into a pillar right next to Roger’s head. The real estate owner asks like nothing’s out of the ordinary when this happens. Roger doesn’t mention anything, but looks on in derpy-face mode, a little incredulous that he nearly just had his head harpooned. They walk into the garden and Roger has a flashback to the day his son went missing. It’s this type of fractured ‘laugh one minute, disjointed serious horror trope the next,’ that derailed my sensibilities.

Does the house come with this painting? If so, take my money now.

House had the potential in being an effective, scary horror film. There’s the missing child element, a house feeding on Roger’s survival guilt, flashbacks to ‘Nam and a broken marriage that could have been explored fuller, but instead the supernatural components are stripped away to make way for some light hearted gags. I know there’s people reading this now thinking, ‘But that’s what House is all about! It’s meant to be like Return of The Living Dead, Tremors or The Evil Dead, but I really think one of the film’s weaknesses is that it tries to pack too much in the running time and lacks a certain sense of identity. And I was also watching this for the first time through the eyes of a weary, jaded  thirty-five year old. Not the eyes of an innocent, sweet nurturing if albeit horny teenager.

As Roger attempts to write his Vietnam book, he recalls his experiences of the war, including an unhinged war buddy named Big Ben (Richard Moll) who was injured in the jungle and pleaded with Roger to kill him before he could be taken prisoner. Roger didn’t, fleeing to find help and is traumatised by the memory of Ben being taken away for torture as he watches on helplessly. At 12.00pm every night he’s interrupted by strange noises and finds a creature in a closet that springs out to claw him to death. As you do.

THE RENT IS DUE, BITCH.

There’s a variety of creatures in House, all of which were designed by the late James Cummins. Cummins was primariy involved in creating sfx such as Jaws 3D, The Thing, Enemy Mine and The Slumber Party Massacre 2. Although some of the effects could have been improved with some dramatic lighting and cinematography (the climax of the film involves Roger battling a full rubber suited Big Ben that hasn’t aged well) there’s a winged skeletal creature that appears later on when Roger is scaling down a rope into another dimension that still looks pretty good. The stop motion part with this winged creature from hell was made by Mark Sullivan, a matte painter and visual effects artist – and you’d likely see some of his other work in House II: The Second Story, The remake of The Blob and RoboCop. Anyone getting into the stop-motion animation field should definitely check out Sullivan’s work, as it’s a testament to the special effects of the time.

There’s a shoe-horned sub plot involving a sexy neighbour wedged into proceedings to pull in the hormonal teenager, and an appearance by Cheers regular George Wendt as Roger’s nosy neighbour Harold, which adds a strange but heartfelt Bromance factor, but it’s unfortunate that William Katt didn’t get the same recognition as Bruce Campbell for the Evil Dead series, as he delivers the same type of camp kitsch as the Man With The Chin. However, it’s the eponymous house that’s the real star here: like a precursor to the original Silent Hill PlayStation game, the house manufactures physical manifestations of Roger’s personal demons and guilt. It may be flawed in a lot of ways, but a reason to love House, with all its faults, is the fact that the movie has an old-fashion charm and playfulness that you just don’t get nowadays. As I was watching, I appreciated the time and effort displayed with the puppetry, animatronics and prosthetics used throughout the film There was no need for big movie stars and you got the feeling that the filmmakers were experimenting as they went along. This production brought together one of the best creative teams that the ’80s would ever see, resulting in a film that is highly imaginative and full of heart, even if the gags are a little too ‘wah-wah’ for this reviewer.

A bit of fog lighting and some strobe lighting, you’ve got yourself a modern day masterpiece

Still, if you’re a fan of Return of The Living Dead, Fright Night, Evil Dead, Tremors and Braindead, you may want to check out the original House to see how things were done without digital effects and CGI back in the 80’s.

Check back with us next week for House II: The Second Story

Retrospective by Anthony Self

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