Film Reviews

Vietnam, PTSD, Divorce & Child Death Somehow Add Up to Laughs in Steve Miner’s House

This October, we’re challenging ourselves to watch at least one horror movie a day. Today’s theme is haunted house comedies.

Remember Scream 2‘s film class scene, ya know, the one you where WB-approved actors fire off impossibly snappy Kevin Williamson dialogue in a freewheeling conversation about the best movie sequels of all time? Jamie Kennedy keeps doing impressions, first Arnold, then Brando, and we all laughed because it was 1997 and Kennedy’s Cinderella ride of fame hadn’t hit the pumpkin stage yet. Joshua Jackson, looking like he literally just walked off the Dawson’s Creek set, is in there as the class idiot whose suggestions are all booed down by Sarah Michelle Gellar, Timothy Olyphant and the nameless extras.

The centerpiece punchline of the whole scene comes when Jackson, in his bid to definitely crown the king of horror sequels, triumphantly declares “Alright, alright. House II: The Second Story.” The rest of the class reacts as if they would love nothing more than to murder him right then and there, maybe frame Ghostface for it.

Two things:

  1. That scene seriously set me up for disappointment when I got to college and took film classes where the professors were, like, super professional and never once threw out their lesson plan to just let us talk shit about bad movies or throw wadded up pieces of paper at our designated Joshua Jackson. WTF, actual college teachers?
  2. [Slowly raises hand in shame] I actually agreed with Jackson.

Seriously, what’s so great about House? The guys – director Steve Miner, producer Sean Cunningham, composer Harry Manfredini – who made the first couple of Friday the 13th movies wanted to branch out into comedy, and they thought an Ethan Wiley script (adapted from a Fred Dekker idea) about a PTSD-suffering, Vietnam vet horror novel writer going crazy in his deceased aunt’s haunted house was the proper vehicle for that? To top it off, they threw in “Oh, also, his young son recently disappeared.” Pass. Hard pass, in fact. That strange, mixed up combo of drama and comedy clearly shouldn’t work.

Found him!

Now, House II: The Second Story, that works. A sequel in name only, it’s an action-adventure western comedy where the titular house isn’t so much traditionally haunted as it is a gateway to different dimensions. Our hapless heroes (Arye Gross and Jonathan Stark) wander into prehistoric times and come back with a pet pterodactyl and catapup (caterpillar-crossed with a dog, especially a pug) and later save an Aztec princess from being sacrificed. There’s a cowboy zombie nicknamed “Gramps” hiding out in the basement. He’s being hunted down by a cowboy zombie nicknamed “Slim.” They’re each after a crystal skull with jewels in the eyes. Lar Park Lincoln and Amy Yasbeck are also around as the 80s girlfriends, one all business, the other all party. Kane Hodder shows up in a gorilla suit.

Plus, snarky, punchable-faced, late-80s Bill Maher! Whether that registers as a good or bad thing depends mostly on your opinion of Bill Maher, but it certainly adds to the 80s vibe.

[Steps back to re-read the draft to this point] Hold on. Did I really just say House II works and then proceed to describe what sounds like the wonkiest movie ever? And did I really just say House doesn’t work mostly because it’s too ambitious with its attempt to merge serious horror with slapstick comedy?

Damn nostalgia goggles. What I meant to say House II is the one I watched and loved as a kid, but the first House probably is the better movie. Then again, House II has Royal Dano’s Gramps and House does not. I might still side with Jackson this.

In House (1986), William Katt, who once described the film as “Arsenic & Old Lace meets The Shining with some scary monsters thrown in,” plays Roger Cobb. His first two horror novels, the hilariously titled Blood Dance and Sword of Bad, have him on the path to a Stephen King-like career, but he’s run out of ideas. His next book, One Man’s Story: A Personal Account of the Vietnam War (gonna have to work on that title), is supposed to be his autobiographical cure for writer’s block, but he’s getting nowhere with it.

So, when his aunt commits suicide he moves into her home for some quality “isolation” time. He’ll surely just clickety-clack away in the quiet confines of her spacious home. Instead, he mostly has Evil Dead II-like slapstick bouts with monsters. Turns out, being back in the same home his own son mysteriously disappeared from some time back wasn’t the best recipe for his sanity. The house is super haunted, helping to turn his tortured Vietnam memories into tangible creatures he has to contend with, some of which are big, rubber, cartoony creations…

…others similarly big, but far more effective in eliciting scares instead of laughs.

The scene of the film, for me, is when Cobb coaxes his suspicious neighbor Harold (the reliably affable George Wendt) upstairs to see the scary monster in the closet. Cobb is around 70% certain the monster is real and not just in his mind, but he needs Harold to help him get to 100%. Harold, meanwhile, seems increasingly certain that if he doesn’t get out of there soon Cobb might just skin him and turn him into a lampshade. What happens next is included in the below video, starting at roughly the 5 minutes, 40-second mark:

Well, whatta ya know – Cobb was right, after all.

Except, of course, the film never really leaves that to doubt. It’s clearly all real, but be it the monster in the closet or the annoyingly persistent decapitated hand of a zombified ex, Cobb is too scared to let anyone else see what’s happening in the house until he’s so desperate he needs help. This creates much of the comedy and Katt plays Cobb’s increasingly unhinged mental state to perfection.

The plot eventually twists itself into some unfortunate knots to work the missing son back into the story, and there is an unmistakable oddness in treating PTSD in a sometimes comedic context. However, Katt’s performance, fun supporting turns from the likes of Wendt and Richard Moll, quality, mid-80s creatures effects, and the ultimately rewarding mix of comedy and horror elevates House into a rightfully beloved artifact of its era. If you want a genuinely serious horror movie directly referencing Vietnam, there’s always Dead of Night. For something lighter, there’s House.

As for House II, well, I’m going to cover that in a separate article later today.

Here’s What Else We’ve Watched So Far:



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