Produced by Friday the 13th’s Sean S. Cunningham for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, written by The Monster Squad’s Fred Dekker and directed by underappreciated horror director Steve Miner (who helmed Friday the 13th Parts II and III, along with Halloween H20 and Lake Placid later in his career), House should have been an absolute slam dunk. Yet despite the who’s who of inventive, low budget horror behind the camera, the film is a tonal mess with an incoherent and ultimately nonsensical story.
Popular horror writer Roger Cobb (William Katt) is determined to write a memoir covering his traumatic experiences in the Vietnam War, despite his fans appearing less than enthusiastic about the project. Haunted both by his time in the war and the loss of his son a few years beforehand, he retreats to his newly departed aunt’s house in order to get the necessary peace and quiet he needs to complete his new book. The problem is, the house itself seems to be against the idea of allowing Roger the peace and quiet he needs…
House starts off well enough, with a nicely-timed shock of the discovery of Roger’s aunt’s body, and does well to establish the contrast of Roger’s popularity with the pain and loneliness of his personal life. When we get to the eponymous house and meet his friendly neighbour (George Wendt), who happens to be a fan, along with an alluringly hot resident on the same street (Mary Stavin), it seems like we might be in for a more light-hearted take on The Shining. Yet the daft, inconsistent threats the house keeps throwing at Roger – and his willingness to continue staying there, night after night, despite the obvious horrors within its walls – mark this out as something far sillier.
It doesn’t help that the soundtrack choices are often completely at odds with the imagery and add to the strange tone, or that once we have our explanation for what is behind the evil shenanigans, it doesn’t add up at all and has nothing to do with the actual house. The comedy often falls flat and so much happens just because it makes sense for a scare, rather than for any sensible reason (Wendt popping over for a ‘midnight snack’ being one of the most egregious examples of this, as well as an extended babysitting sequence, the setup for which just doesn’t ring true at all). There’s a few nicely tense sequences, with a standout being a visit to the house by the police when Cobb has just hidden a body, but the few scenes where the tension works are the exception.
There’s some inventive use of practical effects – and even a well implemented, impressive looking matte painting effect towards the end – but many of the prosthetic suits are so poorly done and in such brightly lit conditions that they look awful (one of the most prominent prosthetic suits has the actor’s teeth clearly visible behind the mouth of the suit itself, for example; lit right, this wouldn’t have been an issue). The Vietnam flashbacks, if in poor taste (this is hardly Platoon levels of self-introspection), are reasonably well done given the movie’s limited budget – and do fit in with the overarching plot (eventually), so their appearance is justified, if not sensitively handled.
With an ending that wraps proceedings up far too neatly (nonsensical pre-credits jump scare aside) and another incongruous 60s song over the end credits, it does leave you scratching your head a bit. House did well on its modest budget back in the mid-80s, its weird mix of flat humour and even flatter horror seeming to appeal to movie audiences in the cinema and in the then-exploding VHS rental market, but it’s an incredibly odd film by modern standards. It’s almost as if it wants to say something about PTSD and loss but has absolutely no idea how, then ends up dodging that bullet entirely. That it spawned three (mostly unrelated, story-wise) sequels is perhaps the most baffling aspect of the saga – though of course, it’s on point for both Cunningham and Corman to cash in on a success wherever they could, regardless of whether or not a sequel (or multiple sequels) made sense.
House is a film that I was desperate to see as a kid, but for whatever reason it was one I just never got around to; I may well have judged it differently with the rose-tinted specs on if I had already watched it back in the 80s, but judging it with entirely fresh eyes, it’s really not a film I can recommend watching unfortunately. Beyond a few neat scares and one or two nicely executed scenes, it’s a bit of a mess overall.
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