Director: Ethan Wiley
Screenplay: Ethan Wiley
Cast: Arye Gross as Jesse; Jonathan Stark as Charlie; Royal Dano as Gramps; Bill Maher as John; John Ratzenberger as Bill; Lar Park Lincoln as Kate
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #116
Haunted house horror....to a cuddle Cata-Puppy and undead cowboys? Remembering my initial warning to myself that the House series jumped off the rails from the first sequel onwards, I was prepared for The Second Story to switch the pace up greatly. Its still, like the first film, a comedy with elaborate practical effects but it's entirely to question House II qualifies as a horror film at all. Thankfully, rather than what happened with Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), producer Sean S. Cunningham and those involved decided to make the series an anthology of separate stories immediately from the first film. This doesn't neuter how drastic the changes in tone would be between films, but it at least gives a chance for this particular sequel even if it took a drastically different direction from before.
Urban professional Jesse (Arye Gross) returns to his family home only to learn of a crystal skull his great-great-grandfather acquired, leading him and his friend Charlie (Jonathan Stark) to encounter said great-great-grandfather (Royal Dano) when they open his grave to find said skull. Left immortal due to its power, he's far from angry about the near grave robbing but appreciative of his great-great grandson finally removing him out of his grave after a hundred years. The story in which random figures of different time eras, including Kane Hodder as a caveman with the physic of a pro wrestler, attempt to steal the skull through various pocket dimensions that pop up in the house is really a boy's own fantasy adventure that just happens to have a little salt on it. Baring one use of the word "fag" which dates a minute of the film to its time badly, the film could be shown to children but also appeals to me as an adult because it never becomes morose and dumb like it's surface could suggest. I usually find this type of twee happy adventure cinema from the eighties intolerable. Born in 1989, nostalgia for the era is nonexistent, with the added issue that growing up in Britain there's a visible cultural different between me and these type of American films which would've raised me as a miserable bastard, gladly popping the balloon of love of the era like a killjoy and preferring the horror and cult films from the time with an edge. But I openly confess House II was heart-warming and fun. The rubber reality of the first film returns with a vengeance, with complete disregard for realism with elaborate effects, surprisingly elaborate effects for what would've been a small budget film I can't help but praise. Where a door in Jesse's new home leads to a prehistoric environment where dinosaurs and giant rodents co-exist, and in the another you can stumble into a Western abruptly.
Instead of chills alongside the laughs of the first film, its sweet and full of slapstick farce, able to get away with material I would find sickly and emotionally cheap in another context. The Cata-Puppy, alongside a baby pterodactyl, the later the stereotypical puppet which causes mischief as in many a family film, would've been irritating in any other film, but immediately they stand out here due to how there's adults in the lead to bounce off them. As practical effects they, alongside everything else in the film, is treated as if this is still a horror movie like before, firing on all cylinders in terms of the quality of the animatronics and practical effects. The humour as well is also funny, helping to not only make such strange inclusions rewarding, the Cata-Puppy legitimately adorable and deserving its own plush toy for fans to collect, but emphasise that this is still a little bit more mature about its romp rather than playing to cheap laughs meant to aim for children.
That in particular is a big reason why I don't like some films from this decade outside of the eighties or am indifferent. Admittedly the eighties still allowed for more mature films aimed for children to take place but people forget that even in a film as notirously grim as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), you still had Short Round and Kate Capshaw's entire performance added as "hijinks" and laughter for families. There were still a lot of cases of utterly annoying stereotypes of children and bland, white collar families peppered between the more realistic ones. (Even more accurate depictions could've lost translation to a Brit like myself as American culture of the time, even if imported, would stand out drastically from us). Here, there's an immediate success in having two adults in the lead to bounce this madness off, a straight man in Arye Gross and his comedic sidekick in Jonathan Stark to follow. Neither of their characters of perfect and its for the better in emotional engagement. Royal Dano as Gramps, an old guard of classic Hollywood cinema in elaborate makeup, makes up a trio for fun, adding as much to the proceedings in charisma even if his character spends most of the time sat or laid down.
House II at least scores legitimately with an extended sequence. One which manages to completely disconnect from real world logic with a cameo by John Ratzenberger, playing a professional adventurer and electrician, frankly terrible as an electrician but surprisingly well versed in parallel universes and proficient with a sword he always carries in his toolbox. It's the sequence, involving a Mayan sacrifice being interrupted, where you either hate House II or like it, managing to be hilarious and gleefully strange at the same time for those who are the later. It's within sequences like this, or teaching an undead cowboy how to drive a modern car, that I came to fully appreciate House II. It really doesn't qualify for a horror review in the damned slightest; barring a couple of undead characters, it only makes sense to have covered the film because it's in the midst of the House series. But considering both its prequel, which was also good, and where the franchise sadly drops off in the third and fourth entries, this will turn out to be the best of the quadrilogy for me. Because what usually breaks out a rash for me is actually fun and sweet to experience in this context, including the cheesy happy ending. The sort of film, including the prequel, that younger viewers could get into horror during their childhood and still have spice to them an adult like me can appreciate. Having never seen them for the first time until now, because of their creative decisions and hard worked craft a film like House II is utterly rewarding.