Without question, Steve Miner’s House (1986) is nothing short of being pure fun. There is such a giddy joy to the film, that it is hard not to get sucked into it and have a blast as we watch Roger Cobb (William Katt) struggle with the insanity in his life.
The problem is, I’m not sure the film should really have been a horror comedy.
The premise of House concerns Cobb, a horror writer stuck in a slump, moving back into the possibly haunted house he grew up in after his aunt commits suicide. Cobb however has been having a rough time even outside his writing career: his young son has disappeared without a trace, his actress wife has divorced him in the fallout, and he feels compelled to write about his Vietnam War experience at a time when nobody wants to read about the war. Cobb returns to the house in order to get a productive solitude to work in, but finds that the neighbours are less than helpful in this regard. Well, the neighbours, and the presence that really is haunting the house. Can Cobb figure out why the house is being haunted, or will he be driven beyond madness first?
The story of the film could have made for an interesting and thoughtful horror film, and from the material available about the film’s production, this appears to have been what the original intention was on the part of Fred Dekker, who wrote the original story. For the first fifteen minutes of the film, the audience is lead to believe this is the direction the film is going, with slight moments of black comedy. The rest of the film which follows however heads into outright comedy territory, punctuated by monsters and ghoulish imagery.
Now, I love horror comedies, with Shaun of the Dead is one of my all time favourite films, and I love comedy that is pitch black. However, black comedy and horror comedy both require a particular approach and tone that needs to be carefully walked to work overall. In the case of Shaun of the Dead, as funny as the film is, it is grounded in a very real sense of emotional distress and pain, a distress and pain which gives both the horror and the comedy weight. The ‘Burbs, Joe Dante’s classic that House most closely resembles in tone, is a straight up assault and parody of suburban culture and paranoia. The ’Burbs never asks the viewer to invest in the characters so much as it asks us to recognize the underlining truths buried below the insanity of the characters and situations presented.
The problem with House is that the film never manages to settle on either approach to the material. The film begins by asking us as viewers to invest in the pain of Richard Cobb, pain that is pretty understandable. When we flashback to the disappearance of Cobb’s son, it is played straight and we are allowed to witness the suffering of both Cobb and his wife; when we see Cobb return home to his empty apartment and put up a sad display over the phone to convince his ex-wife he is alright, we feel sympathy, if not empathy, for the man. That Cobb is able to be as grounded and stable as he is given his experiences is astounding, and gives his character a quite sense of heroism that is appealing and perfectly sold by Katt’s performance.
After Cobb moves into the house however, the film increasingly moves away from any sense of emotional grounding. Instead, the film turns into a deranged sitcom, with episodic situations that have hints of horror below the comedy. How else can you describe a scene in which Cobb has baby sitting duties thrust upon him whilst fighting with the dismembered parts of a demon? It is funny and enjoyable, but at the same time, the reality of the earlier portion of the film is missed. By the time the film reaches its climax and the issues of Vietnam and Cobb’s missing child come together, all of the initial emotional investment made by the viewer is long gone, and the answers to Cobb’s problems come all too easy. The film is stuck somewhere between the polar extremes of what it could have been, and in attempting both, the film ends up a diluted and middling experience.
These problems clearly rest on the shoulders of director Miner, who never seems to be able to settle on a tone and style. The material to make the film work is clearly in the script, but Miner’s direction seems to be aping various directors with little rhyme or reason. At one moment, he is evocative of classic Spielberg; at another, Joe Dante, while later still he is suddenly attempting Sam Raimi. Blending different tones together into a unified whole is a tough trick to be pulled off, and while I give Miner credit for trying, it does not change the fact that he ultimately fails.
The element that is perhaps most indicative of Miner’s awkward direction is the miscasting of Richard Moll in the role of Big Ben, the demon and ex-Vietnam platoon member that is haunting Cobb. While Moll’s voice and stature are imposing, his performance here is so over the top that at no point does Ben seem like a credible threat. Even in the Vietnam flashbacks, Moll mugs his way through his scenes, never coming across as anything remotely close to human. As such, when Ben returns as a rotting corpse/spirit/whatever, we never are given a reason to doubt that Cobb will come through.
At the end of the day, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend seeing House, when there are so many more worthwhile horror films to check out. However, I cannot also recommend avoiding the film either, as it has elements that are certainly worth seeing. Consider the film a Saturday afternoon movie: it is not bad if there is nothing else on, but nothing worth staying home for if you have more important (or fun) things to do.