Film Reviews

“I Put In Everything, Including the Kitchen Sink”: An Ode to the Lovably Insane House II: The Second Story

“I’ve never known how to describe House II in any way shape or form. Somebody says, ‘You worked on this movie, House II. What was that about?’ I go [mimes befuddled expression]” – Chris Walas, Oscar-winning creature effects designer, and guy who is as mystified by House II as everyone else.

The summer of 1987 delivered plenty of movies kids could love. Mel Brooks put out his Star Wars parody Spaceballs. Disney re-released Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Chris Columbus gave us The Adventures in Babysitting. Harry and the Hendersons, Innerspace, Can’t Buy Me Love, Revenge of the Nerds 2, Disorderlies, and The Monster Squad each enjoyed differing levels of success at the box office but would all go on to enjoy long lives on VHS and cable. The very first Ernest movie (Ernest Goes to Camp) was even in there somewhere.

Yet, one movie rose above them all to end the summer as the favorite among 10-to-13-year-olds according to market research conducted at the time: House II: The Second Story. (Yes, the very same House II mocked in Scream 2, but I already addressed that earlier today.)

This historical anecdote illustrates two important points: 1) House II will forever have a nostalgic hold on certain audiences who were right in that narrow age range when they first saw the movie; 2) House II is essentially a kids movie. Sure, it’s the kind of batshit insane kids movie that veers wildly between genres, has plot holes the size of Rhode Island, doesn’t actually feature any kid characters, and could have only been made in the 80s, but it’s a kids movies all the same. Think of it as a precursor Goosebumps movie, just a lot crazier.

The first House, however, is NOT a kids movie. It’s an R-Rated horror show about PTSD, Vietnam, and a parent grieving a lost child while also happening to have some funny encounters with rubber-suited monsters. House II throws all of that away in favor of an entirely new story in a completely different house where each room is a gateway to a new adventure, taking the characters into prehistoric jungles, Aztec temples, and an Old West town. As a result, House II is a film lots of horror fans are quick to dismiss because, well, it’s not a real horror film. I get that, but I just love it too much to care.

The Plot
“This is the story of a magic skull and a haunted house. A story of a man who has lived for 170 years and the great-great-grandson he’s just now meeting for the first time.”

The story set-up for House II is at least in keeping with the first film: an artist named Jesse (Arye Gross, fresh off a supporting turn in Steve Miner’s Soul Man) inherits a house, and shortly after he moves in strange things start to happen. As for the rest? Totally different.

Unlike William Katt’s House protagonist, Jesse hasn’t had any kids yet and he’s not going through a divorce. Instead, he has a caring, if subtly impatient girlfriend, Kate (pre-Friday the 13th Part VII Lar Park Lincoln), and a life-of-the-party best friend, Charlie (post-Fright Night Jonathan Stark), who has no problem showing up in the middle of the night with his own girlfriend (pre-Problem Child/Wings Amy Yasbeck), an aspiring singer he’s hoping to manage to the top of the charts.

Going through the old stuff in the house, Jesse comes upon old documents detailing his great-great grandpa’s adventures in the Old West and Central Ameria. He’s said to have been buried with a priceless, Aztec crystal skull, and with Charlie’s help, Jesse figures they can dig up the grave, find the skull, and see how much it’s worth. They’re naturally stunned to discover the skull has actually given life to ole great-great-grandpappy, who promptly befriends them, has a heck of a time learning how to drive Charlie’s sports car, and is just generally adorable.

Gramps

From the moment Royal Dano, with his expressive eyes and unmistakably sweet-natured Southern drawl, declares, “You can call me Gramps. That’s what your daddy used to call me” you kind of want to hear him talk forever. When he first sees his own reflection and memorably blurts out through tears, “Look at me. I’m a 170-year-old fart. I’m a goddamn zombie” you just want to give him a reassuring hug, he’s so lovable. When he goes through several man-out-of-time comedy bits, like joyfully pulling every tissue out of a kleenex box (“They keep coming and coming and coming”) until inevitably running out (“I broke it!”) you just…everything Gramps does in this movie is straight magic, is what I’m saying.

It’s not hard to see why Jesse and Charlie feel the same way. They get so lost in his stories about the Old West they hardly notice the passage of time and completely miss the sounds of a Halloween party starting on the floor above them.

Everyone working on the film would similarly get lost in Dano’s stories about old Hollywood:

But, with Gramps back as a zombie – and not as a young man as he hoped – he has to hide out in the basement and lean on Jesse and Charlie to help guard the skull against all manner of creatures drawn to its power.

It gets weird. Like, they-end-up-with-their-own-caterpuppy weird.

A bulked out caveman (played by the then-strongest man in the United States) shows up. Rooms turn into passageways to alternate dimensions and time periods. When Gramps’ old partner-turned-nemesis Slim finally appears, his mouth never seems to move because they literally ran out of money and couldn’t afford the complicated prosthetics which would allow him to speak on screen. Jesse gives an I-learned-something-today speech about family to a dinner table seating not just Charlie and Gramps but also a gorgeous woman (Playmate of the Year Devin DeVasquez) they saved from an Aztec virgin sacrifice ceremony, a prehistoric bird with an awesome mohawk, and this little guy again:

OMG, they put a bib on him! I didn’t think it was possible, but he just got even cuter!

And, really, how can you hate on that?

The Production History

House II is also the story of what happens when a 25-year-old screenwriter who started his career in creature effects, gluing on Ewok feet for Return of the Jedi before moving on to Gremlins, comes up with when he’s given two weeks to write a screenplay. That was the tough timeline Ethan Wiley was under because House, which he also wrote, was a surprise hit, and the distributor (New World Pictures) and producer (Sean Cunningham) wanted a sequel out within a year. House’s director, Steve Miner, had already moved on to making Soul Man.

Sensing his opening, Wiley pounced and stipulated he would only return to write House 2 if he could also direct. Cunningham gave in, figuring he could pair Wiley with an experienced director of photography (Mac Ahlberg, who’d been working in film longer than Wiley had even been alive) to basically teach him how to direct on the job. This kind of thing happened a lot in the 80s, and in House II’s case, the film only looks as good as it does because Wiley convinced several of his old bosses in the design world to do the effects for cheap.

Wiley’s far from the only Gremlins creature effects person to later parlay that expertise into a directing gig. Chris Walas, in the middle, did it with 1989’s The Fly II.

Wiley’s creative impulse on the production, from writing to editing, was simple: live like there’s no tomorrow. As he admits on the DVD commentary, “I think part of this movie was I thought I may never get another shot to ever direct again. It may be my only time I ever get to direct. So I’m going to put in dinosaur scenes. I’m going to have swashbuckling scenes because I’ve always wanted to do a swashbuckling scene. I put in everything.” (He was sadly right: he wouldn’t direct again for another 11 years.)

Thus, House II veers wildly between horror, comedy, western, fantasy, action-adventure, and even a little bit of sci-fi. John Ratzenberger as the helpful engineer/“part-time adventurer” dryly notes: “You’ve got some kind of alternate universe in there or something.”

The Review

It’s a real kitchen sink movie that never completely makes sense, but that’s also what makes it so great (or at least endlessly endearing). We are free to indulge ourselves in House II’s supreme silliness, revel in farcical, kitchen-set comedy routines like Jesse trying to hide a prehistoric bird AND a drunk ex-girlfriend from Kate, and get lost in the cuteness of this little thing:

In looking at those pictures, I am only just now realizing that seeing House II at a young age is entirely responsible for me now thinking pugs are the cutest dogs.

However, for all of its easily dismissed eccentricities House II manages to at least kind of hang together as a story about an orphaned boy finally finding a family, albeit a deeply strange one. Jesse’s parents were killed when he was only a baby, shot in the very same house he later inherits (we see all of this in the prologue). So, when he and Charlie go graverobbing and inadvertently come face to face with Jesse’s zombified great-great-grandpa, it’s the first real father figure he’s ever really met. By the end, they share a completely believable bond, despite the extreme absurdity surrounding them. That Jesse’s adopted family eventually includes two fantastical creatures and a virgin played by a Playboy Playmate only adds to House II‘s unique charm.

House II, ultimately, is an absolute vortex of weirdness, an artifact of a long-gone era of low-budget filmmaking with practical props, stop-motion animation, and what-the-hell-did-I-just-watch storytelling. Plot holes abound and it’s only really ever scary for little kids, but I love it.

RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS

Other ways this House connects to its predecessor:

  • A Cheers cast member shows up for comic relief, Ratzenberger here, George Wendt there.
  • A pin-up model appears as a love interest, Miss World Mary Stavin in House, Playboy Playmate DeVasquez in House II.
  • The first movie ends with the protagonist escaping from the house’s supernatural world and back into reality; House II does the exact opposite, leaving Jesse no choice but to escape into the fantasy world
  • Plus, key crew members – casting director, production designer, storyboard artist, stunt coordinator (Kane Hodder), producer, etc. – worked on both films.

Here’s What Else We’ve Watched This October:

Tomorrow: The Autopsy of Jane Doe

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