House (1986)

House1

Roger Cobb is a famous horror novelist who just moved into the house of his recently deceased aunt. Roger has a bit of a mixed history with this particular dwelling. It’s filled with fond memories, being the home his aunt raised him in after his parents died. But it’s also the home where his son mysteriously went missing, never to be found, several years ago. Roger’s aunt blamed the disappearance on the house, claiming it was haunted. But Roger has no such compunctions. In fact, he’s so taken with his childhood home that he feels it will be the perfect place to start his new book, a memoir about his experiences in Vietnam.

Unfortunately, while Roger may not hold any sort of grudge against the house, the house seems to have one hell of a bone to pick with him.

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An angry, evil bone.

House is an interesting combination of genres. At its core it’s a story about a haunted house, yes. But it also includes elements of comedy, familia drama and psychology, since Roger Cobb is suffering from PTSD thanks to his time in Vietnam, which the viewer learns thanks to the films many flashback sequences.

It’s that last part there that helps add to the films suspense. Not necessarily because the flashbacks are tense in any way, but because it helps keep the question in the viewers mind of whether what they’re seeing is really a bunch of loony ghosts tormenting Cobb, or if the haunting is just a byproduct of his earlier trauma.

House3Sadly, after all this was over, the invention of the Billy Bass would send Cobb into yet another nervous breakdown.

Despite liking the film, to me, House feels a little…off. But I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way.

Before I continue with that thought, let me start off by saying that this is not the first time I’ve seen House. I’ve seen it multiple times before, many years ago, when it was on the Scifi channel. I swear that station had it, its sequel and Army of Darkness on a regular, weekly rotation. In spite of that, when I saw this come up in my recommendations, I recognized it, but paused. Why? Because I couldn’t remember anything about the film except for one thing: the Vietnam flashbacks. That’s it. I remembered nothing else beyond ‘hey, that’s that movie with the war sets.’ It only occurred to me after the movie was over that seeing the poster made me have  Vietnam flashbacks of the Vietnam flashbacks. I feel like I’ve hit some new form of real-life meta.

Now, why did I bring that up? Well, mostly because that, beyond those flashback sequences, the production values of House are very top-notch. From a monster movie/ creature feature perspective, the film is great. You’ve got demon bats, slimy monster puppets, demon witches and creepy, ghoulish, wide-smiled child-zombies running all over the damn place. And they all look great. It’s a veritable cornucopia of pre-cgi at its finest. Hours worth of sweat and bloody tears were put into the effects of this production and it shows.

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Then Cobb sits down to write and the film shifts back to Vietnam and the scene suddenly looks like a TV set hastily constructed by the nearest Plastic Plants R’ Us warehouse. It’s just so obvious it’s a soundstage (and a brightly lit one at that) that I found it very distracting.

And that ‘TV movie’ vibe is something that I felt was prevalent throughout my viewing. At first, I thought it was simply because I’d seen the movie on the television too damn much in my youth and it colored my perception. But upon reflection, I think there are a couple other factors.

The first part is, of course, the war sets, which float in that annoying uncanny valley of realism. They look okay, but they don’t look ‘quite right,’ and by ‘quite right’ I don’t mean they look or feel ‘dreamlike.’ I mean, they look like they were aiming for either realism or dreamlike and ended up in that weird space in between.

House5It’s called Hazy Yellow.

The second, is the lighting. On most horror films, half the sets are typically cloaked in shadow. It’s either done to add to the films mystique or to be a visual representation of the production’s thrifty-ness by showing their investors how much they saved on their electric bill. But House may be one of the most well lit horror films I’ve ever watched. For once, I have zero complaints about not being able to see what’s going on. Problem is, it’s so good that it feels a bit too artificial. Like, no one’s house has that many lights on at any given time, haunted or not. I guess you argue that the ghosts are fucking with by trying bankrupt him by driving up his lighting bill, but I highly doubt it.

The final factor, and this is admittedly the one that probably really throws me, is that the bulk of the main cast is made up of television stars. You’ve got William Katt, George Wendt (NORM!) and Richard Moll here, all of them delivering excellent performances, all of them giving me the perpetual feeling that this is a made-for-tv movie with an extremely generous budget. Granted, the only one here who feels like they’re going for the slightly-over-the-top TV feels is Moll, but, let’s face it, Moll gives off that feeling in everything he’s in (bless him) and I wouldn’t have him any other way.

House6You are glorious, please don’t change.

So, after all that, is House any good? Absolutely. While it might look like it follows the typical structure of your run-of-the-mill haunted house film, House defies normal conventions. For one, the house in question isn’t what’s actually haunted. Roger is. He’s suffering from war-related stress, the loss of his son, he and his wife are separated, and the only other living family that he had is now dead. Hell, at that point in his life, I’m sure Cob felt the ghosts were a welcome distraction. Then the movie combines Roger’s haunted past with his haunted present and you realize this is not your usual haunted house flick. This is a movie that’s just as much about ghosts as it is about PTSD. Cobb is haunted by the memories of his own past, and the more he tries to ignore them the worse the hauntings get. It is only after he accepts them, that he is finally allowed to fight his (in this case literal) demons. Is it a bit heavy handed in its metaphor? Sure. But along the way the viewer is treated to a bunch of increasingly bizarre ‘ghosts,’ the likes of which you’ve never seen in such films, and a healthy dose of comedy to lighten up the darker undertones. Is it weird? Hell yeah. But it’s also ridiculously charming in a way that you wouldn’t expect, having all those elements thrown in together. It’s different and a refreshing take on your typical ghost story, and after all these years, I still quite like it.

House is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

It has also been released on DVD, both by itself and with its sequel, House II. As far as I can tell, there isn’t a Bluray release for the US, but there is one for PAL territories.

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