House (1986) — Back when haunted houses were fun

“Solitude’s always better with somebody else around, ya know?”

Justin’s Rating: All this talking has made me kind of light-headed.

Justin’s Review: Most of the time, I see haunted houses as ordinary construction projects turned over to moody teenage spirits, augmented with dark powers and questionable room design. It’s the only good explanation I can come up with why a house — a building whose express purpose is to play host to soft fleshy beings — is always so upset that some human family wants to actually live in them. Instead, this house wants to be left alone, to sit in the shadows and listen to angst metal at top volume, perhaps emerging from its shell once in a while to order pizza and then consume the pizza delivery guy’s immortal soul.

House, a 1986 comedy-horror flick, is aptly described as Evil Dead-lite. The actual scares are few and far between, unless rubber monster masks that look like something out of Ghostbusters frighten you (and if they do, Linus has a blanket you can borrow), but the absurd dark humor pops over to visit far more often. It’s not as gory as Evil Dead, nor is the protagonist as classic as Bruce Campbell’s Ash, but it does enjoy some of the same freedom to mock and twist the genre to simply entertain the audience.

It’s actually pretty great.

Roger (William Katt) has about five hundred burdens too many, even for a horror star/victim. He’s a horror writer, for one, and in a scare flick that’s practically sending out bold invitations to Satan in calligraphy. He’s also a Vietnam War vet, who had a mildly troubling experience over there that was more goofy than traumatic. His son was recently abducted. He’s just gone through a divorce. He wears the most bizarre V-neck sweater that plunges right down to his shirtless belly button. And, for kickers, his aunt committed suicide in the house he grew up in, which she claimed to be haunted. So what’s a guy to do, other than hug a pillow and cry salty tears deep into the night? No! You move back into the house that killed your aunt and kidnapped your son!

Roger’s slight instability makes for a great main character. Between bouts of bad acting, he gets some classic scenes that shows how he’s almost as off as the house itself. I specifically point to a scene where he’s working on digging a grave for a decapitated monster, and seems to get additional pleasure for beating the tar out of its still-squirming torso. He’s a guy who’s just dumb and suicidal enough to want to live in an obviously possessed mansion — and the house almost doesn’t know what to do with him.

As I said previously, this isn’t a very scary haunted house. This is a house that didn’t do a lot of in-depth boning up on the whole Amityville genre, and so mostly pulls its tricks from whatever loose knowledge it can gleam from trick-or-treaters. Floating axes, a wriggling mounted swordfish (which was far ahead of its time in 1986… now, if only it sang), monsters that talk in helium voices, and quaint “scary” portraits everywhere that actually have more of a calming effect than a terrifying one when people glance at them. The dumb house and the off-kilter Roger make a good pair, and almost enjoy their playful dueling.

I did like the tiny bit of originality shown when Roger discovers the numerous portals around the house that connect to some sort of soundstage demon dimension. I delighted in seeing Cheers’ George Wendt as Roger’s affable next-door neighbor who tosses in a few great asides and Night Court’s Richard Moll as a teed-off soldier. And any movie that has a guy with full knowledge that he’s living in a haunted house actually accepting a babysitting charge to watch a youngster for an evening is a movie that deserves my hard-earned dollar. It’s not perfect nor sporting a big budget, but House is a decent vacation spot for the troubled soul.

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