Nothing succeeds like success, and any edifice which defies expectation to rise significantly higher than anticipated is sure to inspire similar monuments. Released in February 1986, Steve Miner’s House grossed over $22 million against its modest budget, at that time the biggest movie to come out of New World Pictures, opening the door for House II: The Second Story.
Surprisingly, with contemporary horror defined by the unstoppable killers of innumerable sequels, A Nightmare on Elm Street having already taken its third trip around the block while Friday the 13th was scoring six deep slashes, the second knock at the door of House bravely opted to relocate to the same territory as John Carpenter intended for his Hallowe’en films, that each should be entirely standalone, tied by theme rather than characters.
That the only Hallowe’en film to follow this plan was the third, Season of the Witch, poorly received at time and resulting in The Return of Michael Myers for the fourth film in 1988 was a lesson only half demonstrated at the time, but had that and The Second Story been better received history might have played differently, but with both created by debut directors, albeit with broad horror experience, neither Hallowe’en III nor House II were adequate successors to what had gone before.
Originally released in August 1987 and now remastered on Blu-ray for the first time by Arrow, in the accompanying documentary It’s Getting Weirder writer/director Ethan Wiley states frankly “It is a regret I didn’t have more time to work on the script,” having been only given two weeks by producer Sean S Cunningham to turn in a working draft.
Having written the first film based on an idea by Fred Dekker, Wiley was the obvious choice to write the second and with practical experience on the creature crews of both Return of the Jedi and Gremlins he was in a good position to push to also be assigned as the director of House II, bringing with him his former boss Chris Walas who recalls the production as having “no money but big hopes.”
Moving not only to a new property with new residents but also a new genre, where House deftly mixed comedy and horror in a cleverly structured story of regret and redemption, The Second Story is technically more ambitious but narratively less sophisticated to the point of clumsy, a supernatural action adventure where the stakes are relentlessly lowered by the persistent refusal of the two leads to take anything seriously.
Reeking of the eighties in all the wrong ways, Ellen‘s Arye Gross and Fright Night‘s Jonathan Stark are Jesse and Charlie, incomprehensibly best friends, while their respective girlfriends Kate and Lana (Lar Park Lincoln and Amy Yasbeck) are a record label A and R agent and a budding popstar hoping to curry favour and land a contract.
Researching the life of his great great grandfather, the explorer and adventurer Jesse McLaughlin, Jesse comes to believe that the crystal skull he discovered on his travels may be buried with him so opts to exhume the grave and is most surprised to find not only that the crystal skull is in the coffin but that it has conveyed eternal life on his somewhat decayed Gramps (Royal Dano).
Wackiness ensues as the power of the skull opens portals in the mansion in which Jesse, Kate, Charlie and Lana are staying, visitors from other times drawn to the power of the skull and seeking to possess it for themselves, cavemen, Aztecs and Gramps’ sharp-shooting zombie rival Slim.
The humour heavy and forced and the dialogue clunking with exposition, the shift from a working man grieving for the loss of his son of the first film to two unmarried couples composed of spoiled rich kids reduces the depth of the characters, the film first desperately trying to sell Jesse and Charlie on a charm which they haven’t yet earned then making them more hideously unlikeable as it goes along.
The men asses and the women shrews, while House II may pass the letter of the Bechdel test it fails in intent, Kate and Lana storming out of the house midway through the film never to be seen or mentioned again, the third named woman the helplessly drunk party girl Rochelle and the fourth the mute sacrifice played by Devin DeVasquez credited only as “virgin,” their collective purpose solely to establish that the guys are straight.
Fortunately, a veteran whose credits encompass the classic westerns Gunsmoke, Rawhide, The Virginian and Bonanza as well as Something Wicked This Way Comes, Killer Klowns from Outer Space and Twin Peaks, Royal Dano is effortless even beneath the heavy prosthetics, easily the best thing in the film.
What the script and pacing lack is at least partially made up for by the huge sets and the animatronics and puppetwork which bring to live a baby pterodactyl and the undeniably cuteness of the caterpuppy, though even remastered the picture is soft throughout while in certain shots such as Slim’s zombie horse the difference in quality between the different elements in the frame is only made more apparent by the restoration.
The package completed with a commentary, trailers and archive electronic press kits transferred from degraded VHS but featuring brief interviews with John Ratzenberger and the late Royal Dano, absent from the main documentary, House II is a victim of the cinematic curse of the crystal skull, and while Stark may look on it fondly as “a family horror movie” the architecture of this house is sadly nowhere near the standard of its predecessor.
House and House II: The Second Story are available on DVD and Blu-ray from Arrow Films on Monday 11th December