Director and Producer Sean S. Cunningham has never really played coy about his earliest beginnings in film. Following upon the success of The Bad News Bears, he and screenwriter Arch McCoy saw fit to rip it off with Here Come the Tigers, another foul-mouthed comedy about an unruly little league baseball team. And following the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, Cunningham called up his screenwriter Victor Miller and said, “Halloween is making a lot of money – let’s rip it off” (actual quote), and Friday the 13th was born.
With his producing role on the first of what would become a four-film series, it’s hard not to look at House as an attempt to recreate the do-it-yourself monster approach consisting of equal parts horror and comedy that Sam Raimi took with the first two Evil Dead films. Built upon a foundation of sincerity, but chock full of schlocky and fantastical creature designs, both the Evil Deads (well, more so the latter) and House want to horrify and disgust but also titillate and muse its audiences in equal measure. House star William Katt describes House as the perfect gateway horror film for the young – something that boats horrific imagery, but nothing so deadly serious that they would be left traumatized. And he’s right. That’s the level of horror the unsuspecting can expect from the first of four House films.
Unlike Here Come the Tigers and Friday the 13th, House manages to establish its own identity thanks to its off-kilter tone; though it borrows its concept about a guy who ends up battling demons/monsters/somethings in an isolated environment, it’s willing to be more playful with its horrific imagery, in gross contrast to the very bloody and at times mean-spirited set pieces that littered the Evil Dead series (including the very stupid Army of Darkness). And it definitely gets points for highlighting a post-war condition that hadn’t yet gone by its official title: post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite the very playful nature with which House is presented, its lead character, Roger Cobb (played by Katt), is carrying around a lot of spiritual demons. Not only did his time in Vietnam see a fellow soldier (Richard Moll) killed in action, but he’s also dealing with the disappearance of his young son and the subsequent toll it took on his marriage. His effort to stay in his late aunt’s palatial Victorian house to work on his new book – a non-fiction look back on his time in the war – awakens either the ghastly creatures that live behind its doors, or which live inside his mind.
Directed by horror veteran Steve Miner (the first two Friday the 13th sequels; Halloween: H20; the atrocious Day of the Dead remake), House is a mixed bag of humor that doesn’t quite work and horror that’s intent on being more foamy and cartoonish than outright terror. For some folks this is enough, as House definitely has its fans, but for others weaned on Ash Williams cutting off heads of the possessed in similarly amusing situations, it just ain’t enough. House boasts some of the same ingenuity and unorthodox creature designs, but very little of the darker gore gags. The practical creature effects and creations are definitely creative and impressive considering House’s modest budget, but moments like these are unfortunately too few and far between. Although, credit definitely goes to the zombified soldier which stalks Roger during the third act, as it’s a legitimately excellent creation, right down to his articulated facial features. House perhaps could have used more of this and less of the behemoth woman demon with pearls — aka, more of an emphasis on actual terror.
Following the surprise success of House, distributor New World Pictures was quick to green light House 2: The Second Story, which boasts perhaps the greatest title of all time. Unfortunately that’s about all it boasts, as House 2 is borderline unwatchable, dialing down whatever horror was present in the first film and amping up the humor, turning it into something more akin to the first Troll.
This time around, the action is set in a house that looks like something from an unused Indiana Jones set, complete with spooky basement that houses a literal crystal skull (holy shit). This skull resurrects a ghost cowboy, or something, who is the most depressed ghost I have ever seen in film, and I think he coughs dust or something. Bill Maher shows up playing a gigantic asshole, which Bill Maher manages to do quite handsomely (and this is coming from someone who legit loves Bill Maher). Keeping the Friday the 13th connection going (with returning producer Sean Cunningham), Lar Park Lincoln (Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood) plays a kind of unlikable lead opposite far more likable Arye Gross (Minority Report), who together engage in a plot that can’t even be broken down because it makes very little sense.
To be followed by two sequels.
The House films are friggin’ weird, but there’s no denying that’s part of their appeal. The first two films — though their levels of quality can be debated — remain the two most beloved and will make you feel right at home haw haw sorry!