This week’s Monday Morning Movie Review is a double feature: I’m reviewing the comedy-horror flicks House (1986) and the even goofier sequel House II: The Second Story (1987). While the films share a name and both take place in odd houses, the two storylines are completely independent of one another.
The first flick, House, is the scarier of the two, and only lets on that it has comedic elements a bit further into the movie. The premise is that a Stephen King-esque author, Roger Cobb, is taking possession of his eccentric aunt’s old home in order to find some solitude for writing his next book, his memoirs about his service in Vietnam. At midnight one evening after moving into the old mansion, he opens a closet door, only to be assaulted by a terrifying creature with multiple faces.
Soon, other strange creatures make themselves known. When humorously left watching his ridiculously hot neighbor’s song, the child is nearly captured by two creepy gremlins. His ex-wife—an attractive soap opera starlet—is transformed into a hideous, bloated hag with bright red fingernails.
Ultimately, Roger finds his way into a terrifying nether-world that is linked to the house; it is in that world—which resembles the jungles of Vietnam—Roger finds his lost child, Jimmy. They return to the real world, only to be followed by Big Ben, Roger’s war buddy who blames Roger for not killing him, rather than being taken captive by the Vietnamese.
This film seemed far darker and spookier in tone that the sequel. A lost child, a destroyed marriage (the two are related), traumatic Vietnam War flashbacks: these all lend a more serious air to House, though there are certainly humorous moments (Roger’s new neighbor, Harold, is George Wendt of Cheers fame, bringing some additional comic relief to the film).
Where House really shines, though, is the creature effects. The ex-wife-turned-hag is terrifyingly hideous. Big Ben looks like the cover of an Iron Maiden album. The monster-in-the-closet is particularly gruesome. The creepy gremlin kids are never shown for long, as they are running around the house, but they are scary—especially their sinister eyes.
House II: The Second Story
House II: The Second Story is tonally much different from the original. It really ramps up the comedy, while still preserving attention to detail in the creature effects. The story involves two buddies, Jesse and Charlie, who decide to move into (and party in) an ancestral home in Jesse’s family. They bring along their girlfriends, and commence to throw a party.
Before the partying, though, Jesse and Charlie discover a photograph of Jesse’s great-great-grandfather holding a crystal skull with jewels for eyes. Naturally, they decide to defile Jesse’s great-great-grandfather’s grave, figuring he was probably buried with the skull.
When they do dig up the grave, a corpse attacks them. It turns out the corpse is Jesse’s ancestor, Gramps—the very same man from the picture! Gramps is dismayed that his body has not been rejuvenated by the skull, but quickly forgets about it, as he’s happy to be up and moving at 170-years old. Gramps parties with the boys, then regales them with hours of tales of the Old West.
Among the tales is the story of the house, which is constructed from the stones of an Aztec temple. Gramps implores the boys to protect the house and the skull. When the skull is placed on a mantel in the center of the house, it shines, apparently opening up the house as a portal to other times and dimensions.
That leads to all types of hijinks—pre-historic at first. A caveman (played by the stunt coordinator, Kane Hodder) punches Gramps and grabs the skulls, and the two boys run into a room that has become jungle. While there, they bring back a caterpillar-puppy and a baby pterodactyl, who become new pets for the gang.
After getting the skull back from the caveman, the boys then have to retrieve it from a group of Aztec warriors who are about to perform a ritual sacrifice on a babe.
In the midst of all of these shenanigans, there is a massive, 1980s-style Halloween party going on, complete with Bill Maher playing, essentially, himself—a smarmy ass. I did a double-take, but it’s amazing how Maher was just as beady-eyed and condescending then as he is now.
These are two very different movies. House II is almost relentlessly goofy—like Weekend at Bernie’s, but with monsters and interdimensional foolishness (there’s a great scene where an electrician comes over and notes that “what you have here is a hole into another dimension”). I love that kind of wackiness, but it’s not for everyone.
On the other hand, House is far spookier and serious in tone. It actually took me a moment to realize that there was a comedic quality to House. Much of that has to do with the William Katt‘s portrayal of Roger Cobb, who begins the film as a very sober-minded author looking for some peace and quiet, but who has to act goofy in certain scenarios. The first time he’s acting comedically, I completely missed it.
Objectively, House is the better movie. The script is very good, and the creatures are so well done, they’re terrifying. But House II is not without its charm. The stuff with Gramps caring for a baby caterpillar-dog is silly, as is the interdimensional hopping, but it’s a fun movie. It doesn’t take itself seriously at all.
If you have to pick just one, though, check out House. I actually think it would have been better without the comedic elements, and just played straight as a horror—and a drama. The subplot about Roger losing his son is really well done, and explains much of Roger’s current predicament when the film opens.
Either way, happy viewing!