Director: Steve Miller
Screenplay: Fred Dekker and Ethan Wiley
Cast: William Katt as Roger Cobb; George Wendt as Harold Gorton; Richard Moll as Big Ben; Kay Lenz as Sandy Sinclair; Mary Stavin as Tanya; Michael Ensign as Chet Parker
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #115
So begins a film franchise with an exceptionally odd tone between entries, producer Sean S. Cunningham having made his name with the likes of The Last House on the Left (1972) and Friday the 13th (1980) before beginning House. All with the director of Friday the 13th Part II (1981) Steve Miner at the helm and with the story from Fred Dekker. Ironically it's the entre least like the others, House III: The Horror Show (1989) that was the sole film I had ever seen of this series before, during a period when DVD was a new thing and my parents rented and bought discs from a long gone company known as Global Video. So to investigate a series which for the most part is more the ghoulish haunted house variety barring that entry was always going to be a curious prospect. The series even in terms of the other films is known for its shifts in tone, the original House as drastically different from the 1989 sequel as you can get. It's the cinematic equivalent of a funhouse thrill ride, one in which divorced writer Roger Cobb (William Katt) finds himself living in his late grandmother's home only to soon realise its maleficent nature, openly trying to torment him with bizarre sights.
The film's openly a spectacle first, which is as much about letting its special effect creators flex their muscles as it is a movie with a story. But I can openly appreciate it in this case as this is a film which tries its best in doing so. Noticeably, as much a virtue as it's a potential hindrance, is how much the story's trying to bite off in terms of plot within only a ninety minute running time. Tackling a character in the centre divorced but still connected to his actress wife. Whose son mysteriously disappeared years ago. AND was a Vietnam War veteran, finally much to his publisher's chagrin putting his hit horror literature aside to exorcise his experience on paper, the ghost of a soldier he was with called Big Ben (Richard Moll) to be amongst the many monsters haunting him in his new home. It's as ambitious as you could get for what is popcorn horror cinema, especially as this openly embraces a rubber realism of eighties American horror movies where, with practical effects, you anything no matter how weird it is. With the house itself an openly evil entity that can manipulate reality in whatever way it wants, the film has carte blanche to try anything and that thankfully means, whilst it can feel like vignettes rather than a cohesive narrative, that you boarder on actual surrealism here even if its pop surrealism. Where behind the bathroom cupboard mirror there's an alternative dimension with stop motion flying monsters and a fleshed out Vietnam flashback you can step into. Where one's wife turns into a monster and back again, causing emotional distress to the hero. Where various, inexplicable creatures suddenly leap at your closet.
The film openly plays a lot of this up for humour, succeeding particularly with the drawn out ones such as Cobb having to hide a body from police called to his house, tense and humorous at the same time. A significant factor which also adds some humanity to these special effect scenes is that William Katt as the lead is great, utterly likable in the main role and also good with his comic timing comedic timing. Paired with George Wendt as his neighbour Harold, who Cobb first dismisses than starts to bond with as he lets him in on the strange activities in his house, the duo carry the weight of the film on the shoulders well together, keeping it connected with their warmth as characters. The only complaint with House is how easily it wraps up all its plot threads by the end so cleanly. I find that films which do this, for the sake of happy endings, do undercut the qualities they had before. House would've succeeded more in taking a bit more time with its ending, including the final confrontation with Big Ben and various subplots to deal with, having more of a sense of being hard earned with what happens than being a little abrupt and contrived in the final product. That however, especially with how House II: The Second Story (1987) continued in its own quirky direction the virtues of the first film, doesn't detract from the good in the original House.