While 1980s comedy horror series House may not have been greeted with quite the same fanfare as other similar offerings from that era (many may probably be unaware it spawned a fourth film), Arrow Video have forged ahead and put together yet another great-looking Blu-ray set, complete with the usual informative and carefully compiled supplementary material. First film aside, it’s just a shame that the actual producer and creative godfather of the series (Friday the 13th originator Sean S. Cunningham) didn’t provide the kind of memorable horror franchise worthy of this lovingly restored high-definition treatment.
The first and strongest entry by far offers an intriguing premise which essentially combines a traditional haunted house yarn with the debilitating manifestations of PTSD. Cult horror novelist Roger Cobb (William Katt) returns to his childhood home following the suicide of his disturbed aunt who resided there. Using the trip as a means of finding some headspace to write his long-awaited next novel based upon his real life escapades as a soldier in Vietnam, he’s also eager to find his young son who mysteriously disappeared in the property a couple of years previously. House’s USP of humour and chills hasn’t aged particularly well, although the rubbery monsters that plague Cobb weren’t much cop even thirty years back.
Devoid of any real gore, director Steve Miner does manage exceedingly well at sustaining the tension throughout (helped, in large part, to an unsettling, strings-heaving score from Friday the 13th composer Henry Manfredi). The Nam flashbacks are still fun and the titular property remains suitably imposing. The film’s comic relief, Cobb’s meddlesome neighbour (played by Cheers’ George Wendt) is also a welcome addition. Old fans will undoubtedly enjoy revisiting this film (William Katt’s obscenely deep open v-neck sweater certainly trumps Michael Douglas’ similar clobber from Basic Instinct) but the notion that things going bump in the night may just be a figment of the writer’s active and disturbing imagination is never satisfyingly explored.
Other than using a haunted house as a springboard to launch a bizarre and often incoherent mix of horror, time-travel, slapstick and fantasy, House II: The Second Story has zero in common with its predecessor. This time around a young dude reanimates the leathery old corpse of his great-great grandfather so they can retrieve a fabled crystal skull. Director and screenwriter of the first film Ethan Wiley doesn’t possess the same storytelling knack as Miner and attempts to compensate by throwing everything he can at the screen to see what will stick. Little does, including the ill-conceived animatronics and stop-motion effects. The film’s only saving grace is the late Royal Dano, a veteran western B-movie star, who offers up a spirited turn as the crusty, gun-slinging ‘Gramps’. Elsewhere, divisive US political pundit Bill Maher crops up as a sleazy record label owner and another Cheers alumni John Ratzenberger puts in a cameo.
Unfortunately, the makers of House III were unable to entice Ted Danson to put in even the most fleeing of appearances. This may have been due to the film being a standalone, unconnected horror which was retrofitted to the franchise for UK audiences after it was made (well, some of the action does take place in a house). This schlocky wannabe Elm St sees a grizzled detective (Lance Henriksen) haunted in his subconscious by the serial killer he helped apprehend. After an initial balls to the wall horror set piece where the villain (played with hammy relish by the late B-movie maestro Brion James) attempts to break free from the electric chair, we’re then offered the usual stalk and slash machinations with a couple of well-designed visual effects thrown in.
The fourth and final film in the series is by far the worst. Katt returns as Roger Cobb, albeit briefly, this time having managed to find a new wife and sire a teenage daughter in the seven years since the original film. The story is even more threadbare this time around as Cobb’s weaselly younger brother tries to wrestle control of an old family house that sits on some kind of sacred Native American spring – graveyards having already been mined for this genre. Shot like a cheap, over-lit 1990s TV movies, the film is almost unwatchable and the makers seem to derive enjoyment from presenting something which is wilfully nonsensical. Chances are that anyone who has seen this will only be able to recall the infamous ‘pizza face’ scene, which is yet another moment which doesn’t make one iota of logic within the context of the film.
Adam Lowes | @adlow76