To make a successful film within a popular genre with a demanding fanbase can be difficult enough; to make a successful film which spans two genres can be a hundred times more difficult, especially when the genres in question, horror and comedy, would seem to be mutually incompatible, but then not everybody has the keys to Steve Miner’s House.
Originally released in 1986, two years after Joe Dante‘s Gremlins, it would not be true to say these were anywhere near the first films to mix the two – Mel Brooks had resurrected Young Frankenstein a decade before while Roman Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers bore the subtitle Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck seven years before that – but between these two films and 1985’s Fright Night it was the eighties which established the horror comedy mashup as mainstream entertainment and box office gold.
Now released on Blu-ray by Arrow in a 2K restoration from the original film elements, House was Miner’s third film but he was already a horror veteran, having worked in various production and editing capacities for Wes Craven on Last House on the Left and for Sean S Cunningham on Case of the Full Moon Murders and the first Friday the 13th film before he took over the reins for the second and third parts of that franchise as director
Normally any haunted house story is only as strong as the house itself, but while undeniably elegant and luxurious, the late nineteenth century domicile situated in Monrovia in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles County which served as principal filming location is neither atmospheric nor particularly individual in character, well kept as it sits in its perfect lawn in a nice neighbourhood.
Fortunately, Miner cast as his leads two established television stars known for easy comedy and drama big enough to fill those empty rooms, The Greatest American Hero‘s William Katt, no stranger to the big screen or horror having played in Brian De Palma’s Carrie, and Cheers‘ George Wendt, a performer whose career would later bring him back to comedy horror with stints in Los Angeles and Edinburgh in Re-Animator: The Musical.
Katt is the successful horror novelist Roger Cobb, still touring the bookstores on the paperback edition of his last novel a year on, and his agent is telling him the publishers need something new before the end of the month or they’re going to want the advance back. What Roger is working on is not likely to please them – his memoirs of the Vietnam War.
Recently separated from his wife, soap opera star Sandy Sinclair (American Graffiti‘s Kay Lenz), Roger returns to the house where he grew up under the care of his late aunt Elizabeth, played all too briefly by the wonderful Susan French who also remembered as the older version of Jane Seymour’s character in Somewhere in Time. Hoping the isolation will help him work, instead he finds the house is full of ghosts, the last sighting of his missing son having been in the back garden pool, his aunt having killed herself within those immaculately decorated walls.
Nor is Roger’s concentration helped by the constant interruptions of his ebullient neighbour Harold Gorton (Wendt), a huge fan of his work who has equal admiration for pizza and beer but doesn’t take hints so well, but as Roger’s hallucinations become more vivid he realises he needs a grounded wingman by his side if he is to defeat the house, and nobody is more down-to-earth than Harold.
Aware that he is a flawed individual, Roger tries to compartmentalise his life in order to function, his work in one place, his feelings for Sandy and Jimmy in another, but with Katt’s natural charm shining through he hugely likeable as he tries to do his best, unaware that as a novelist is writing his own foreshadowing.
Starting life as Twilight Zone-styled short piece set in the Vietnam War by Fred Dekker who later wrote and directed Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad, that premise was radically expanded into a feature length haunted house script by Ethan Wiley, who, in Dekker’s words, took what was bleak and dour and made it goofy, and it is the strong architecture of Wiley’s script upon which the film is built.
Presenting the oddities of the house in flashback rather than flooding Roger’s arrival with inexplicable and narratively implausible events it leads the audience to understand he has a history with the house rather than immediately asking why he does not run for the door, and while it is apparent from the outset that the film does not take itself seriously, nor does it reveal just how silly it will become, the shocks and the laughs artfully balanced.
With another world within the walls of the house which drives its occupants to madness and in the appearance of the demonic apparitions it is obvious that the work of H P Lovecraft is also present in the foundations and there are later echoes to be found in Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves with its themes of love, loss and redemption in a building which defies the laws of nature.
Given the modest budget the prosthetics and animatronics are truly fantastic, discussed at length in the accompanying hour-long documentary Ding Dong, You’re Dead which contains contributions from Miner, producer Cunningham, Dekker, Wiley, Katt, Wendt, Lenz, artist William Stout, composer Harry Manfredini and many others from the effects crew, while a vintage “making of” offers a closer look at some of the marionettes with the late James Cummins who also worked on Cocoon and Enemy Mine.
Created with little studio interference it is the collective vision of “a house full of nutty people,” as Katt recalls, Miner allowing him to quite visibly carry out some of his own stunts, and this hands-on practical approach which is evident throughout the film is one of the reasons why, thirty years on, it is a House which stands as firm, solid and proud as when it was first built.