A Row of Condemned Houses

by Arthur B

The rot set into the House franchise early.
It’s the 1980s, and horror franchises are all the rage, with series like Halloween and Nightmare On Elm Street churning out unfathomable numbers of sequels. Imagine being Sean S. Cunningham, the producer and director of the original Friday the 13th, only to lose the rights to the franchise when you walked away due to your mixed feelings about it, and seeing that franchise rack up sequel after sequel. (As it turns out you’ll eventually get to work with the property again in 1993 for Jason Goes to Hell: the Final Friday and its followups, but you don’t know that yet.) Suppose as a producer you happened to have a portfolio of horror projects which didn’t really have much to do with each other beyond the shared genre. Wouldn’t the temptation to present them all as part of the same series be overwhelming?

Apparently it was, because that’s how we got the House sequence, a disreputable set of films notable mainly for the badass severed hand motif on the movie posters. Arrow Video have actually stooped to putting them out on Blu-Ray. Need they have bothered? Let’s find out.


Roger Cobb (William Katt) is a Vietnam veteran turned blockbuster horror author whose personal history is intertwined with the house of his Aunt Elizabeth (Susan French). As well as being his childhood home after he was orphaned at a young age, it’s the place where his own son Jimmy (Erik and Mark Silver) disappeared under mysterious circumstances whilst visiting with Roger and then-wife Sandy Sinclair (Kay Lenz). So, with Roger and Sandy divorced, Jimmy still not found by the authorities, and both Roger’s agent and his fans kind of hoping he’ll give up on this idea of writing a memoir of his Vietnam years to focus instead on turning out the sort of horror stories he’s made his name with, it’s no surprise that Roger’s in a bit of a slump. (The Vietnam book isn’t making much headway either.) Aunt Elizabeth hanging herself is yet another personal disaster.

With everything getting to him just a little, Cobb decides against selling Aunt Elizabeth’s house for the time being, deciding that spending a little while rattling around the big old house, sleep in his racing car bed, and stewing in his memories is exactly what he needs to get things back on track. (Cobb isn’t brilliant at self-care.) It isn’t long before Cobb starts discovering that Elizabeth’s claims that her house was haunted, and the surreal pictures of Hellish imagery she painted, had a bit more substance to them than he ever thought possible. As Cobb’s behaviour becomes stranger and stranger as a result of the weird manifestations he’s faced with, his jovial neighbour (and huge fan of his books) Harold Gordon (George Wendt) starts to worry about him - and soon both Roger and Harold are drawn into the chaos that lurks behind the closed doors of the house.

All of the House movies sit somewhere on the spectrum between horror and comedy, but for my money it’s this first movie which hits the best balance. There’s some wonderfully Evil Dead 2-esque moments, like the bit where one of Cobb’s uncle’s fishing trophies starts reanimating or the part where the tools in the tool shed come flying at him. However, don’t be fooled - this actually came out in 1986, a full year before Evil Dead 2 made this style of horror-slapstick a hit.

Cobb’s slow descent into increasingly weird behaviour as the stresses of the story undermine him more and more is very well handled - much less of a rapid descent into full clownery than in Evil Dead 2 and sits in a place where it’s just extreme enough to be amusing but just restrained enough that he doesn’t become an unrelatable cartoon. The bits where he’s writing his Vietnam novel gives director Steve Miner the perfect excuse to slip in some beautifully cliched spoofs of Vietnam action movies, as a rather neat way of establishing that Cobb is actually just not that good of a memoirist without subjecting us to actual readings from his book.

Miner doesn’t just go in for juggling scares and laughs, though - some sequences blend the two really nicely. There’s a bit where the spirits of the house dupe Cobb into thinking he’s killed Sandy, and he’s got what he thought was her body hidden in the cupboard under the stairs and is trying to get the police officers that Harold called out of the house before they discover it; the whole sequence magnificently balances farce and dread, and the payoff when Cobb finally kills off the creature masquerading as Sandy after it reverts to its monstrous form is wild. The final revelation of what dark force is actually behind it all finally makes the Vietnam stuff fit into proceedings and ties things together in a way which for once heightens their power rather than robbing them of mystery.

Now, don’t let me overexcite you here: I quite like House, but don’t see it as much of a keeper. It’s a competent enough movie and there isn’t anything enormously wrong with it, and I’m glad I watched it, but now that I’ve seen it I don’t expect to go out of my way to watch it again - it’s light cinematic popcorn to eat and forget. Possibly my impression of it has also become rosier and rosier as a result of the sequels. Friends, the nightmare has only just begun...

House II: The Second Story

The original poster for House II has the tagline “It’s a brand new house with brand new owners”, which is pretty much what you get here: rather than continuing the story of the first film (pointlessly, since matters were pretty nicely wrapped up in the original), The Second Story is thematically connected to the original only by the haunted house theme.

The house this time around has a spooky exterior that is superficially similar to that of the original, but once we get inside we see it’s extensively decorated with Mesoamerican architectural features, which is a little odd. (The house is supposed to be a Mayan temple, which I guess means we’re somewhere in Central America, but given that literally all the characters seem to hail from the USA, including the police, so this is a bit of a confusing point.) We pick up the story somewhere in the late 1950s to early 1960s, when two parents are mournfully giving away a baby to someone else to look after for some reason. Returning into the house after the carers drive away with the child, they are spooked by a noise upstairs; when they investigate, they encounter an honest-to-goodness undead cowboy, who guns them down when they won’t hand over “the skull” - presumably the crystal skull with glittering sapphires that prominently features in the opening credits.

25 years later, the baby boy has all grown up to become Jesse (Arye Gross), who along with his partner, record company talent scout Kate (Lar Park Lincoln) decides to move into the old family house now that the inheritance has come through; they’re soon joined by Jesse’s buddy Charlie (Jonathan Stark) and his girlfriend Lana (Amy Yasbeck), who want to persuade Kate into getting Lana a record contract. Jesse starts poking about in the house and discovers that his great-great-grandfather, an Old West outlaw also called Jesse, originally discovered the crystal skull in collaboration with Slim Reeser.

Jesse and Charlie decide to dig up “Gramps”’ grave, since they have reason to believe that the skull was hidden in there. They’re right - but there’s also an undead-and-loving-it Gramps (Royal Dano), though he turns out to be friendly. Of course, once the skull and Gramps are retrieved, Slim himself (Dean Cleverdon) comes calling again in search of the treasure, and the gang have to stay ahead of him with the help of Bill (John Ratzenberger), an electrician with an unusual level of experience with haunted houses crammed with portals to different areas of space and time…

Ethan Wile directed this first House sequel which follows up the horror-comedy blend of the original by leaning hard on the comedy. Charlie and Lana are obnoxiously loud, in a way which quickly irritates; they’re obviously inserted into the film with the intention of providing comic relief, but they overplay their hand in that way 1980s comic relief typically does. They upstage every scene they are in and wreck any attempt to create atmosphere in the early stages, and I suspect that they’re actually dialled back from the prominence they had in early cuts - for instance, the sequence in which they are introduced just sort of fades out abruptly, as though it kept going for a while but the director decided to just cut it rather than finding some way to actually finish the thought.

In fact, they’re overkill in more or less every respect, to the point where their bid to get Lana a recording contract doesn’t really have any conflict or substantial plot to it - Kate loves Lana’s demo tape so much she summons her boss John (Bill Maher) to hear it, and even Charlie being astonishingly rude to John doesn’t really derail it. The nicest thing you can say about Lana is that she and Kate spend much of the early movie attending to their own business, probably because the scriptwriters couldn’t think of very much for them to do in relation to the main plot, but Charlie is in there all the time and he is constantly stinking it up.

What’s particularly odd about Charlie and Lana as characters is that they are introduced as comic relief when, like I said, the movie is a comedy. I appreciate that comedic stories often need a comedic foil to a more “straight” character, but Jesse is a bit too goofy in his own right to be the straight guy in the duo - in fact, everyone’s a bit too silly for that with the sole exception of Slim. Charlie and Jesse end up coming across as a double act where both of them wanted to be the comedic foil but Charlie decided to escalate it a bit more than Jesse and the rest of the movie did. Then, later on in the movie, Bill the occult expert electrician shows up and is even more overplayed, like Sean Cunningham really enjoyed Ghostbusters and wanted to riff on it.

There’s also the issue that the comedy here isn’t actually that funny. For much of the movie, it’s simply overplayed, but at points it gets outright offensive - in particular, there’s a supposedly hilarious sequence where Charlie tries to teach Gramps to drive his sports car and they end up drinking a lot and driving home, and I’m pretty sure by the 1980s the dangers of drink-driving had become unambiguously well-known so a comedic drink-driving sequence isn’t really that funny. Later we are treated to hilarious (by which I mean awful) zingers like “Don’t be a fag, OK?”.

There’s a bit where there’s a Halloween party in the house that Charlie arranged without telling Jesse because Charlie is one of those “wacky” characters where that translates to them having no impulse control or sense of responsibility or attention span or recollection of what they did five minutes ago. Here, Jesse runs into a woman called Rochelle (Jayne Modean), who kisses him and who he gives every sign of being super into, so naturally Kate gets upset. That’s almost like a shadow of giving these characters a history and motivations and actual decisions to make and consider, but it doesn’t work mostly because the characters are so dismally flat for the rest of the running time. When you’ve established that your characters are cardboard cutouts who do silly stuff solely for the purpose of plot convenience or advancing a joke, we’re not going to buy that they suddenly have complex inner lives when you try to claim that they do later on.

John starts poking around and interrogating Jesse and Charlie about what’s going on in the house more or less pointlessly. There’s a vague reference to him thinking that Rochelle is making all the noise, and I think the implication is supposed to be that he’s trying to prove that Rochelle and Jesse are having an affair so that John can get with Kate once Jesse is out of the picture (or possibly because he’s actually her friend and doesn’t want her to be mistreated like that), but to be honest given that Kate already seems to be convinced that Jesse and Rochelle are having an affair that would seem like pointless overselling. The entire arc seems to be devised solely that Kate and Lana can get written out before the conclusion, which they play no part in, but given that they play such a small role in the rest of the movie anyway I question why they even need to exist beyond the need to pad the film out.

Likewise, I question the need for the movie to exist at all, since it somehow manages to take “House that lets you visit multiple different dimensions and time periods and is the centre of a cat-and-mouse chase between two undead cowboys” and make it boring.

House III: The Horror Show

This is the least comedic of all the House movies, possibly because it wasn’t sure it even wanted to be a House film in the first place: in the US, United Artists thought that simply calling it The Horror Show was better for marketing purposes, but overseas investors had been sold on the idea of another House sequel so it was called House III in overseas markets.

This is one of those movies that comes along as part of a bubble of extremely similar films as a result of the idea percolating around Hollywood and different people wanting to do different takes on the concept - sort of a Deep Impact/Armageddon situation. Like Wes Craven’s Shocker and the otherwise forgettable The First Power, the basic concept revolves around a serial killer who has made a pact with Satan, enabling to return to the world of the living after their execution so that they can get a gruesome revenge on the cop that caught them. (I’m sure there’s plenty more movies with a similar premise, of course, but these were a particularly tight cluster back in 1989/1990.)

This time around, the serial killer is “Meat Cleaver” Max Jenke (Brion James), the cop is Lucas McCarthy (Lance Henriksen), and Max’s campaign of revenge will also target Lucas’s wife Donna (Rita Taggart), their kids Bonnie (Dedee Pfeiffer) and Scott (Aron Eisenberg), and Bonnie’s boyfriend Vinnie (David Oliver); luckily, the McCarthy’s have an ally in dorky eccentric Professor Peter Campbell (Tom Bray), a parapsychologist who bases his work on the idea that pure evil is a sort of electromagnetic force.

Taken as a House sequel, The Horror Show is a classic example of overcorrection: House II leaned far too hard on the desperately cheesy and unfunny comedy side of its horror-comedy blend, so The Horror Show focuses on the horror and dials down the comedy - but it chickens out of cutting out the comedy entire. The result of this is that regardless of whether you take it as an entry in the series or a standalone story, the end result doesn’t quite work. As a House movie, it’s tonally speaking too different from any of the other movies to feel like it really belongs. As a separate thing in its own right, it trips over its own feet - the occasional attempts at comedy are too undeveloped and understated to add anything substantial, but are just prominent enough to throw the atmosphere out of whack and undermine the horror elements.

The fact that you can go through the film and say “OK, that’s a horror bit, that’s a comedy bit, that’s a horror bit” is a problem the film shares with House II: neither movie manages the trick that Housepulls off in its better moments of having horror blending into comedy and comedy blending into horror. This time around, the script was by Leslie Bohem and Allyn Warner - and the fact that Warner had his credit pulled and replaced with “Alan Smithee” suggests that there were some sort of serious shenanigans and disagreements somewhere down the chain between the first draft and the process of actual filming.

The impression I get, in fact, is that the original draft of the script played up the comedy a bit more, but in the process of production the comedy got toned down a lot, to the point where it ends up incongruous. (It’s never a good thing if you’re watching a movie and you’re genuinely not sure whether a particular feature is intentionally comedic or just a bit incompetent.) For instance, Scott is supposed to be some sort of preteen con artist who’s always running these get-rich-quick schemes like he’s a character from some stale sitcom, but they’re so awkwardly handled that anything resembling a punchline is absolutely botched or is flat-out absent.

Max’s depredations are a bit too reminiscent of a low-budget Freddy Kreuger, except without the surreal wit displayed by the Nightmare On Elm Street movies when they were on form. (The best part is probably the part where Max possesses a delicious roast turkey.) Shocker was criticised on the same basis, though it’s a bit more forgivable to rip off Wes Craven when you are, in fact, Wes Craven: House III has no similar excuse. In the late phases of the movie, when the manifestations go completely off the wall, budgetary problems become evident and once again a few too many unconvincing puppets get into the mix. All this, I note, plays out with an emphasis on horror with only occasional attempts at laughs - and given how absurd all the stuff I’ve outlined in this paragraph is, that’s kind of an issue.

Matching the conflicted direction and script is a poor job from most of the actors. Only Henriksen and Taggart really bother to act as such - everyone else more or less phones it in, though given that they are assigned such dull, flat stock characters I can’t exactly blame them for that. On the whole, The Horror Story is a weird, self-defeating movie which feels like it didn’t even want to be made in the first place and hates what it ended up becoming.

House IV: The Repossession

This is actually the only House movie which has any sort of plot connection to the previous movies, with William Katt returning as Roger Cobb. Or at least, he’s playing a character called Roger Cobb - but he shows no sign of any connection to the Roger Cobb of the original movie. Not only does he not show any trace of recalling the events of that film, or his career as an author, but also neither Sandy nor Jimmy are in evidence. (Granted, it’s entirely possible that he never got back together with Sandy in the long run, but you’d think a major formative life event like having Jimmy disappear and then get returned would leave its marks.)

He has a completely different spouse, Kelly (Terri Treas), and they have a daughter together called Laurel (Melissa Canyon) who seems to be at an age where, unless she was Kelly’s daughter from a previous marriage or something (and we see nothing to suggest that this is the case), for the timeline to make sense Roger must have been some sort of bigamist, juggling Sandy and Jimmy on the one hand and Kelly and Laurel on the other.

The hardest pill to swallow in terms of suspension of disbelief, however, is that apparently Roger Cobb had two haunted houses in his ancestral portfolio - the one from the original, and the one here, which was handed down from father to son on his dad’s side of the family for generations. Buried in the basement is some manner of shrine sacred to the local Native Americans (well, OK, sacred to one specific token magical mystical Native American guy, Ezra (Ned Romero), who’s the only First Nations dude the film bothers to hire).

The house is supposedly full of memories for Roger, despite the fact that we’ve established in the first movie that he was raised by his Aunt Elizabeth in her house. One day, when visiting the old homestead with Kelly and Laurel, Roger gets into an argument with his stepbrother Burke (Scott Burkholder), who is not only connected to the Mafia but actually dresses like a third-rate Fredo Corleone cosplayer. Burke, you see, wants to buy up the house for the Mafia so they can use it as a toxic waste dump. (So far as I can make out they specifically manufacture the waste in a toxic waste factory… frankly, I have no idea how they’re supposed to be making a profit out of this, unless they’re working on commission for one of the villains from Captain Planet.)

Roger, however, won’t sell - so a car accident is arranged, in which Roger is killed and Laurel is left without the use of her legs. Kelly is left to deal with his all by herself, the despicably ungrateful Jimmy and the still-estranged Sandy not even stooping to appear in this movie for the sake of mourning Roger. Moving into the old house for no compelling reason beyond Roger’s affection for it, Kelly and Laurel find themselves having to deal with both the Mafia goons and the rowdy spirits of the house.

The story lurches on from there, introducing us to various cartoonish characters and people behaving in weird ways which make no real sense and advance no real agenda. I think we are meant to assume that mysterious housekeeper Verna Klump (Denny Dillon) is involved with the mob in some capacity on the basis that she acts in various surreptitious ways which feel like they verge on the clandestinely hostile - plus she’s got this really thick Noo Joisi accent, as all American gangsters do. As it stands, her presence actually turns out to be much more benign, but in a way which makes her earlier sinister behaviour make very little sense. In fact, the film seems to forget that she exists for about an hour, and when she shows up again towards the end her accent’s gone, like they did reshoots when they decided to make her a goodie and changed her characterisation accordingly.

In the meantime, we meet a range of other interesting characters. For instance, there’s a filler sequence where a singing pizza delivery guy shows up, who delivers a sinister singing pizza, and I’m fairly sure that both of those only sing because it helps them pad out the film a bit more than they otherwise would. Then there’s the head Mafia boss, Mr. Grosso (Mark Gash), who has to have phelgm drained directly from his neck regularly due to the health problems arising from him living in the toxic waste factory, and who punishes incompetent subordinates by making them drink the extracted phlegm.

This is all very over-the-top and silly, but characters we are supposed to take seriously have their own issues. Ezra seems to be a Native American shaman who talks to the spirits but who also lives in a Christian church. That doesn’t come across as an attempt at some sort of interesting syncretism so much as an attempt to narratively have their cake and eat it - they can throw in all the fun of shamanism but throw in enough sops to Christianity to avoid making Jesus sad - and, more to the point, help the film play better in the Bible Belt market.

The movie is especially harsh in its treatment of poor Roger Cobb. Far from having him die with some dignity offstage, instead we get a slow, agonising sequence culminating in a car blowing up with him inside, and then to really drive the point home we get the joy of seeing his horribly burned body inside an oxygen tent as Kelly tearfully signs the consent form to turn off his life support. Were you to be credulous enough to believe he’s the same Cobb as in the previous movie, it’s a really heartless end for the character. I suspect they wanted to get Katt in to justify the movie title but didn’t actually want to pay to use him very much, because whilst he does manifest at the very end as one of the helpful spirits, he otherwise does very little. The final shot of a spirit-Roger transforming into light and zooting off into heaven looks like it was recycled from a UFO movie or something.

Even main characters have their issues. When they first arrive at the house Laurel is using this huge old wheelchair. I appreciate that people can’t always afford top-of-the-line medical equipment, but we’re not talking about someone using a comparatively modern second-hand wheelchair, like it would have been top-of-the-range back in the 1960s or 1970s but is just barely functional now. This wheelchair looks old enough to be an actual, genuine antique, at which point it is surely vastly more expensive to acquire such a museum piece than to use a basic second-hand modern model. Then again, she does seem to dig antiques in general, so maybe it’s a fashion statement, though it’s a fashion statement that seems to cause her enormous inconvenience and difficulty.

On the whole, House IV feels like it started out as an unrelated script and then got extensively messed about with in order to make it a more classic House movie; for instance, Verna really comes across like she was sent by Burke to gaslight Kelly into giving up the house, and then had her motivations and origin rewritten when they decided to make this an overtly supernatural ghost story. The issues with the screenplay by Geoff Miller and Deirdre Higgins are particularly evident when you consider what the actions of the spooks are supposed to accomplish; half the time they seem to be persecuting Kelly specifically, but at other points they seem to be protecting her and Laurel, and there doesn’t seem to be any consistency to what they are trying to achieve. Of course, there can be traction in horror stories about genuinely inexplicable forces whose motives we can’t comprehend, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here - instead, the spirits do seem to have an actual motivation, but the movie loses track of what it’s supposed to be from scene to scene.

The previous three House movies had, astonishingly, actual theatrical releases, despite the fact that they resemble made-for-TV or direct-to-video fare. This one actually was released straight to video, but somehow manages to fall short of the standards of that field. It was billed as a grand return to the style of the original movie, but its horror aspects are too toothless and its comedy aspects too mirthless to measure up. Thankfully, the series died out after this one, and not a moment too soon, because by this point whatever merits the first movie possessed had comprehensively departed.

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Comments (go to latest)
Bill at 12:24 on 2017-10-23
George Wendt, John Ratzenberger--I wonder why they couldn't get Rhea Perlman for the third movie.
Raymond H at 12:20 on 2018-06-27
You missed one. :3

"Sweetie? Daddy's going to make a horror movie. What do you think would be really scary?"
"I dunno... maybe... like... a mirror... that eats people... or a piano... that eats people... or a futon... that eats people... or a..."
[And twenty minutes later Nobuhiko Obayashi had a complete first draft. That's a true story.]
Ichneumon at 21:08 on 2018-06-27
@Raymond H: Great, incredibly bizarre movie. It's worth noting that it's actually a really oblique metaphor for the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however; so, in spite of its campiness, there is a core of harrowing seriousness.
Raymond H at 23:19 on 2018-06-27
Really? They never mentioned that in the Criterion Collection interviews. They all said it was just their attempt at breaking away from the stagnation in whatever-the-Japanese-equivalent-of-Hollywood-is and making something fresh and unique. Y'know, fer da kids.
Ichneumon at 04:28 on 2018-06-28
There's actually a whole short documentary on the subject and I find it strange the Criterion release doesn't cover the subject. It's not the sole point of the film but the mirror scene in particular, was directly inspired by the atomic bomb's effects both literally and metaphorically on the body and on Japan's culture.

I am not making this up. There are interviews with Obayashi and other people who worked on the film about this. It doesn't make the film any less surreal or campy but it gives it even more of a sinister, disorienting edge.
Raymond H at 08:28 on 2018-06-28
...I must find this documentary at once. It sounds fascinating. Damn it, I can't think of a way to express my interest without sounding sarcastic. Maybe that's why so many fights start on chat forums. With only text hostility and sarcasm can be more easily inferred. Can Ferretbrain do emojis?
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