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Entries in House [1986] (1)

Saturday
Jan212012

House (1986)

Extreme Home Takeover

I've lost a little respect for Sam Raimi. Until recently, I'd considered 1987's Evil Dead 2 to be the benchmark of horror-comedy. The co-writer/director's story of a man battling evil forces and his own sanity in a remote cabin put a Looney Tunes spin on 80s splatter films. Alternately scary and silly, and brimming with imagination, it changed the way I looked at movies. 

Yesterday, I watched House.

Released in 1986, it stars William Katt as Roger Cobb, a horror novelist and Vietnam Vet battling evil forces and his own sanity in a spooky, old house. It's also a horror-comedy and, for those keeping score, it came out a year Bruce Campbell kicked Deadite ass in the woods. I'm not accusing anyone of theft, and I'm not saying that House is better than Evil Dead 2, but Raimi's novelty and genius are a bit tarnished.

With Harry Manfredini composing the music, Ronn Carroll and Steven Williams popping up in bit rolls, and Steve Miner at the helm of a Sean Cunningham production, House plays like a Who's Who of the Friday the 13th Franchise. But mixed in with traditional jump scares are moments of plain weirdness, such as Roger battling a giant, mounted swordfish and fending off a slimy demon that lives in his closet.* He also imagines his ex-wife, Sandy (Kay Lenz), manifesting as a screeching, gray blob of frizzy hair and razor-teeth--which he chops into pieces and buries in the back yard.

Further complicating the film's tone are the "A" story's serious elements. Following his aunt's apparent suicide, Roger moves into her house to work on a non-fiction book about Viet Nam. War flashbacks coincide with visions of his missing son, Jimmy (Erik and Mark Silver), whose disappearance wrecked his marriage. A good chunk of this movie is pure Stephen King, but those chunks float in a sea of rubber monster limbs, flying gardening tools, and wacky-neighbor gags (George Wendt plays the sports-and-pizza-loving busybody who reluctantly comes to Roger's aid).

You're correct in thinking that this sounds like a mess. But for the most part, it works--largely due to Katt. Whereas Bruce Campbell's Ash character in the Evil Dead movies is basically a cartoon character, Roger Cobb feels like a disturbed and luckless human being. Katt perfectly balances comedy and pathos in ways that transcend Ethan Wiley's screenplay. Even as the movie crumbles around him in the latter part of the third act, the star maintains dignity and believability.

About that crumbling: I would love to visit the alternate universe in which Fred Dekker wrote and directed House. In our world, he merely conceived the story, and it's clear that Miner and Wiley were a bit out of their depth in transitioning from horror to comedy to action. Dekker, you may know, created two overlooked, off-beat genre classics, Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad. Both toyed with genre conventions and infused heavier themes with outright silliness. I'd like to believe that Dekker could've straightened out some of House's kinks, but I'm the king of wishful thinking.

The key to appreciating House's relationship to Evil Dead 2, I guess, is realizing that Miner and Wiley beat Raimi to the punch, but Raimi innovated their innovations. Still, House is a cool little Easter egg hunt for horror fans, and a creepy/funny distraction for casual viewers. 

*A demon that, coincidentally, looks and functions almost exactly like the corridor creature from Hellraiser--another film that House pre-dates by about a year.