Freaky Firsts Day 1: House (1986)
Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.
Director: Steve Miner
Writers: Fred Dekker & Ethan Wiley
Cast: William Katt, George Wendt, Richard Moll, Kay Lenz, Mary Stavin, Michael Ensign, Erik Silver, Mark Silver, Susan French, Curt Wilmot
Plot: Things have been better for writer Roger Cobb (William Katt). His marriage has fallen apart, he’s stuck working on a book about the Vietnam War nobody seems interested in reading, and the elderly aunt who raised him was found dangling from the ceiling in her big, lofty home, victim of an apparent suicide. Cobb returns to the house, where he has flashes to his son’s disappearance in the mansion’s pool some time earlier, the incident that led to his estrangement from his wife Sandy (Kay Lenz) and which Aunt Elizabeth (Susan French) chalked up to her house being haunted. Now alone, Cobb decides to stay in the house that has already destroyed his family to work on his book. As he wanders the house alone, he sees a vision of Elizabeth stringing herself up, warning him to leave before she leaps to her death.
The next day he meets his new neighbor, Harold Gorton (George Wendt, who surprisingly doesn’t offer to buy him a beer). The visions in the house persist until he’s assaulted by a bizarre creature in the closet – an ugly mass that looks like a melted wax figure with claws. Instead of running in terror like a sane person, he sets up video cameras and tries to make the creature reappear, embarrassing himself in front of the neighbor. Harold, thinking Roger is having war flashbacks, contacts Sandy to warn her. Things in the house begin coming to life – a huge mounted marlin, assorted garden implements, and so forth – and Roger arms himself. Sandy arrives just then to check on him, but he sees her as a monster and shoots her. When he realizes what he’s done, he hides her body, unaware that Harold heard the shots and called the police. He nervously dismisses them, feeding them a line about his gun going off while he was cleaning it. Once they’re gone, though, he finds Sandy’s body missing.
The Sandy-monster attacks again, taunting Roger about his missing son, but he manages to use the levitating garden tools to behead it, and… yeah, I know that sounds utterly ridiculous, but that’s what he does, and then disposes of the monster’s body in the backyard in a montage set to Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good.” The body parts keep coming back, though, even clinging to the child of his neighbor when he’s somehow tricked into babysitting. (The boy is nearly taken away by a pair of demonic creatures, but that’s really incidental to the plot.)
Telling him there’s a raccoon in his attic, Roger recruits Harold to help him confront the Thing in the Closet. Harold loses his grip, though, and the monster drags Roger through a portal into his own nightmares, the day in Vietnam when his buddy Big Ben (Richard Moll) was mortally wounded. He finds Ben, who begs Roger to kill him, but Roger can’t do it and flees back through the portal, where several hours have passed and Roger has gotten drunk, which never seemed to happen to him in 11 seasons of sitting in a bar every night. Finding a clue in one of his aunt’s paintings, Roger explores the house and finds his missing son, only to face a horrifying, skeletal vision of Big Ben. Ben’s ghost, it seems, has been behind Roger’s troubles, seeking revenge on his friend for leaving him alive and subject to the tortures of the Viet Cong before dying a brutal death weeks later. The two engage in a chase throughout the house, Roger finally triumphing and blowing up Ben with a ghost-grenade… just as the real Sandy arrives for a happy reunion.
Thoughts: Considering my love of 80s television, I’m really quite astonished that I’ve lasted this long on the planet without ever having seen a movie that starts the nigh-holy trinity of William Katt, George Wendt, and Richard Moll. That said, I’ve known of the existence of House (another Sean S. Cunningham joint) for as long as I remember watching movies. It was one of those horror movie staples on the shelves of the video store, the shelves I would browse even though I knew there was no way my parents would allow me to rent one of these movies and, instead, I’d walk out with Mac and Me or something else that I would be forced to shamefully admit on a blog almost 30 years later. On the first night of my “Freaky Firsts” experiment, when I told my wife I’d never seen it, she dove right in.
William Katt is one of those actors that’s almost impossible to divorce from his more famous roles – in this case, that of a teacher with an alien super-suit on the TV show The Greatest American Hero. Even keeping that in mind, he seems an odd choice to be playing a Vietnam vet in 1986. Admittedly, he was 35 years old at the time, old enough to have taken part in the war, but he has such a youthful appearance that I had to look up his birthday to convince myself he wasn’t pulling a Reverse Dawson.
This film is on the horror/comedy line, something I obviously enjoy. While balancing the creepy story, we get moments of pure slapstick, like Katt’s bumbling lawyer (Michael Ensign) almost shooting him with a harpoon gun and returning a sheepish “oops, did I do that?” look that would make Bugs Bunny proud. George Wendt, a man I will idolize until my dying day for his role on Cheers, brings his good-natured bumbling to the table the minute he appears on the screen, first badmouthing the previous owner of Katt’s house, then backtracking and trying to babble his way out when he learns she was Katt’s aunt. He spends most of the movie this way – trying earnestly to be a good neighbor, but at the same time fouling things up for Katt’s character in pretty much every way imaginable. Richard Moll, best known as the gentle giant Bull from Night Court, hams it up considerably as Big Ben, pulling a performance that’s equal parts manic and goofy.
The sillier aspects of the movie, in fact, go on much longer than I really expected. When Roger first walks away from the Thing in the Closet and the screen cuts to (presumably) the next day, when a truck full of camera equipment arrives, I looked at Erin and said, “Because you wouldn’t just get the hell out?” Before she could blame it on the 1980s, though, we’d already reached the point where Katt was bouncing through the house, into the yard, and shamefully trying to convince George Wendt he wasn’t crazy. And really, living as we do in a post-Big Mouth Billy Bass world, the mounted marlin flailing on the wall doesn’t really send shivers up my spine.
In some ways, the movie tries to do too much. The missing son subplot is sandwiched with the Vietnam flashbacks subplot, and together they sort of weigh down on Katt to the point where he comes across as a sad sack. One or the other tragedy probably would have been enough, and compounding them slightly disrupts that balance between horror and comedy. It’s not enough of an imbalance to ruin the film, but especially towards the end, you can start to feel the pressure of everything coming together, and not in an altogether satisfying way. The reveal of Ben as the big bad is a little disheartening as well, although part of that may simply be because… c’mon, it’s Richard Moll, and no matter how many tough guys he’s played, what child of the 80s doesn’t love that big lummox? More so, though, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. Why target Roger instead of the people who actually killed him? And Aunt Elizabeth clearly thought her house was haunted for a long time – when exactly did he start targeting her? And why her instead of Roger? Sure, this was pure 80s diversion horror at its finest, but to see it fall apart so quickly under just a little scrutiny is somewhat disappointing.
On the other hand, it’s nice to see a movie old enough that a lot of the things we take for granted aren’t yet tropes. There’s a moment, for example, where Roger is fumbling with a bottle of medicine at the bathroom sink, and I was 100 percent convinced there’d be a ghost or a skeleton or some sort of creature in the mirror when he stood up. Not only wasn’t there one, but with my expectations averted, I was totally unprepared seconds later when Sandy arrived and turned into a monster.
This is really indicative of the kind of horror movies we had in the 80s – at least, the ones that hadn’t tuned into the slasher subgenre. Movies like this, like Gremlins, like Critters… even, to a degree, like Poltergeist, all drew on on-school horror elements, but mixed in comedic moments much more freely than filmmakers are usually willing to do today. Modern films, at least mainstream ones, are terrified to legitimately blend comedy elements with terror – we’ve got torture porn and PG-13 demons on the one hand, and on the other pure parody like the Scary Movie franchise. I not only liked this movie, I admire it for recognizing that horror and comedy can co-exist in a way that post-millennium movies refuse to do.
House is neither a horror legend nor a comedy classic, but it has enough traces of each that I sincerely enjoyed watching it. The Halloween season is off to a great start.
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