Tuesday, October 8, 2013

House (1986)

(R, New World Pictures, 92 mins., release date: February 28, 1986)

"Believe it or not, he's crawling the walls
He never thought he could feel so free-eee-eeeaked..."

Overburdened author Roger Cobb is having trouble getting both his career and his personal affairs in order. He's trying to make the transition from cheesy if popular horror titles to something more autobiographical, but too many inner demons have stalled his momentum. Cobb has recently been willed the house he grew up in after the suicide of his Aunt Elizabeth. Could her mysterious death have dampened his drive? Or is it something else, be it the dissolution of his marriage to a working actress, the unsolved disappearance of his son or the palpable grief over the death of a comrade during the Vietnam war?

Roger moves into his abandoned former home to find peace and solitude, but stranger things are about to happen. Something in this house knows his every weakness and unless he can conquer his fears, Roger's troubled mind might just be foreclosed permanently.

From the creators of Friday the 13th comes House, a deadpan, lightweight riff on the possessed house genre which borrows liberally from both the supernatural Amityville saga and the phantasmagoric A Nightmare on Elm Street. William Katt, The Greatest American Hero himself, suffers a fate worse than prom night with Carrie White as the beleaguered hero. The house preys on his subconscious gradually, beginning with the ghost of his aunt (Susan French) warning him to get out of the house for the sake of his own free will, all the while fashioning the noose around her neck. Recurring visits from grotesque creatures turn personal once they assume the form of Sandy (Kay Lenz), the soap star from whom he's currently divorced.

And his slipping grasp on reality is tested by levitating garden tools, a mounted marlin flapping loudly against the walls and the insistent snooping of his new neighbors, corpulent busybody Harold (George Wendt, TV's Norm) and vivacious knockout Tanya (Swedish pageant queen Mary Stavin).

The tone as adopted by director Steve Miner and screenwriter Ethan Wiley (based on a story by Fred Dekker, author of Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad) is one of somnambulant, stoic surrealism. Roger cracks early when he mounts a line of cameras to capture a gross poltergeist whilst dressed in his aged camouflage and runs out of the house, gliding down the front porch in premature victory only to find Harold standing startled. The awkward if well-meaning Samaritan tips off Sandy to Roger's madness and calls the cops after hearing a shotgun blast he assumes to be Roger attempting suicide. Alas, it's just Roger's mind, and the machinations of his Victorian digs, playing tricks on him.

House is very reminiscent of the concept for Stephen King's 1408, which became a movie in which John Cusack himself played a disillusioned writer spending time in an eerie isolated environment which plays practical jokes at the expense of his psychology. That Mikael Håfström film was a more earnest, roller coaster-style thrill ride that Steve Miner, who had directed the same year's Soul Man with C. Thomas Howell in blackface, doesn't quite predict. Instead, the movie jumps from one comical commotion to the next. Roger has to dispose a dead body whose dismembered hand crops up at the worst possible moments, namely when Tanya arrives asking him to babysit her son Robert. Alas, it's not so extreme he needs to call Bruce Campbell for back-up, instead buttressed with covers of R&B staples "You're No Good" and "Dedicated to the One I Love."

Roger's scattered memories of the Vietnamese tour of duty which he's trying to translate to literature finally make sense by the final act, when the bony zombie of a captured grunt named Big Ben (Richard Moll, TV's Bull) is revealed to the source of Roger's deepest anxiety. The reckless, overeager soldier is still stewed that his brother-in-arms didn't kill him before the enemies put him in torture camp. The stakes suddenly become too high for Miner to deal with, as the previous events have all been tinged with sardonic, sitcom-style inconsequence. Never mind the rubber-bodied Ben looks like a wimp compared to Kane Hodder's hulking Jason from Friday the 13th Part VII, to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance (the legendary stuntman himself worked on this project).

House is the diametric opposite of the portentous family dramas found in any of the three Amityville adventures from prior. The heroically V-necked William Katt doesn't quite give the impression of someone gone completely unhinged, even when he frets over possibly killing his demure if caring ex-wife. Like Wendt and Moll's supporting characters, the handsome small-screen Superman plays the King-style lead with enough reserve to keep the film's comedic tone afloat. And House is primarily a farce when you get right down to it, not particularly nightmarish but genial and ghoulish enough to have become enough of an item that it spawned three sequels, the most extreme of which was the unofficially-titled third entry The Horror Show from 1989.

Watching it now, I confess that I find House less charming than fellow Class of ‘86 horror-comedies Night of the Creeps, TerrorVision, April Fool's Day, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Luckily, there is a modicum of slight if smirking gallows humor and many subtle touches of insanity to entertain. And Steve Miner seems proud enough of it to have made a rare appearance in world of DVD bonus features, recording a group commentary with Katt, Sean Cunningham, and Ethan Wiley. Alas, you need to seek out the OOP Anchor Bay edition for this addition, as Image Entertainment's "Midnight Madness Series" reissue drops every single extra from the older release, even the Percy Rodrigues-narrated theatrical trailer.

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