I have fairly vivid memories, as a small child in the mid-eighties, of entering the then-commonplace local video rental shop (the Clevedon branch of Ritz video I believe was mine!) and, whilst choosing a She-Ra compilation or the latest Disney offering to rent, experiencing the unsettling yet hard-to-resist urge to take a sidelong glance at the VHS covers on display in the Horror section. You know it’s a bad idea as it’s very likely the plethora of terrors watching you from those particular shelves are going to take another starring role probably that very night in your dreams, doing whatever your imagination sees fit to muster up to terrify you – yet still, you sneak a peek…and for me, the one that always stuck in my mind was Steve Miner’s 1986 offering, ‘House’ (produced by the ‘Friday the 13th’ franchise’s Sean S. Cunningham).
Funnily enough, the cover art work and promotional photographs are rather understated for the film – there’s no monstrous or ghostly form staring back at you, reaching towards you or grasping threateningly onto some hapless human; merely a fairly subtle image of a worm-eaten detached hand, sideways-on, gently pressing a doorbell button. But for some reason, this image always frightened me particularly as a youngster – maybe because at that kind of age your home is where you feel most secure and happy, and you have little experience of the world outside. Armchair psychoanalysis aside, it always bothered me more than any other image in the ’18’ section that I could quickly peer at whilst following my family past it (although I do remember the ‘Fright Night’ one really giving me the willies too).
Anyhow, as I grew older I made a mental note to one day watch the bugger just to see if it really was as terrifying as I imagined it might be. It turns out it wasn’t…but in it I discovered a fantastic black comedy which fast became one of my all-time favourite scaries. Happily, it has in the years since its release acquired a richly-deserved firm cult status, and last month we reached the thirtieth anniversary of its release in US cinemas. What follows is a short love letter to ‘House’ and why I believe it’s such an excellent, sadly sometimes-overlooked horror film which is vital to the genre and to the appreciation and study of it.
‘House’ follows the story of Roger Cobb (played by William Katt in an understated, engaging performance), a well-known novelist and veteran of the Vietnam War, and his grapplings with both the varied manifestations lurking in his childhood home and the deteriorating state of his currently very troubled mind. Cobb finds himself returning there after learning of his aunt’s death (by apparent suicide) to spend some time alone to work on his new book – this one, to his fans’ chagrin, a memoir of his war experiences. He has become estranged from his wife Sandy (Kay Lenz), and we also find that, tragically and inexplicably, their only son disappeared some time ago, from the outdoor pool of the House itself. Whilst reluctantly entering into an acquaintance with neighbour and fan Harold, Roger experiences a series of run-ins with horrific monsters, possessed wall ornaments and even sentient gardening tools as he submits fully to the effects of his psychological trauma harking back to his war memories. He must learn to battle these demons of both types head-on if he wishes to find his son Jimmy and be reconciled with Sandy.
For me, that’s the main beauty of ‘House’ – the fact that it can be taken two ways. Firstly, it can be enjoyed with gusto on a superficial level as a joyful 80’s horror filled with some impressive, suitably unsubtle scares, bat-shit crazy creature designs typical of the era and a hefty slice of good-natured humour – the ‘closet monster’ is pretty special and still gives a good convincing fright today, and the chimney-flue kids are also creepily unforgettable! The hag-like monstrosity Cobb’s ex jump-scares into (lovingly since dubbed ‘the Sandywitch’) delivers laughs aplenty, especially during Roger’s frantic attempts to hide her dismembered body parts from sexy neighbour Tanya. And forgive me, but the oh-so-quiet, understated horror which is emerging in the 2010’s (i.e. ‘The Babadook’, ‘It Follows’ etc.) is all well and good, however sometimes it’s just a joy for any fan of the genre to occasionally revel in these kind of off-the-chart gruesome monsters and general thrill-gratifying silliness; ‘It Follows’ can cleverly make someone walking appear unsettling, but ‘House’ just for starters includes the image of a giant winged skeleton firing a shotgun – you just can’t argue with a film like that in my opinion!
Yet, on the flipside, ‘House’ does have a serious undertone which offers an alternative interpretation, and this is what sets it apart from many other 80’s horrors with a ‘critters in the house’ or ‘home invasion’ theme. It is of course abundantly clear that Roger is experiencing a form a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder brought on by the horrific events he witnessed serving in Vietnam, particularly with regard to the guilt he feels at having deserted his comrade Ben and left him at the mercy of the enemy deep within the jungle. The House only exacerbates this, and we are free to assume that Jimmy didn’t literally disappear – Roger has simply become so distanced from his wife and son as a result of his mental health problems that they both feel lost to him. ‘House’ brilliantly marries these two interpretations and the viewer can choose to take the film lightly or as something deeper and more evocative.
Aside from this main reason I believe the film to be a corker, it also boasts several other general plus points such an excellent, typically heavy-on-the-cheese 80’s horror incidental music, and notably uses the sassy Betty Everett track ‘You’re No Good’ (one of my favourite songs included in any film ever). Add to this the menacing performance from Richard Moll as Big Ben and the ever-likable George Wendt (Norm from ‘Cheers’) as Harold, you have an all-round superb horror flick sewn up tightly by Ethan Wiley’s imaginative screenplay. It’s great to see that it’s appreciated in a cult following capacity but I certainly think it deserves to be seen by a broader audience and loved more widely as the smart, chilling, knowingly bonkers horror-comedy it is. I’ve also found through ‘House’ that it’s a good idea to catch up with those old VHS covers that shook you up as a little’un – in them you may discover true horror greatness!
‘I’m gonna say it again – you’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good, baby, you’re no good..!’