This October, I’m attempting an ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a day, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s film is sort-of-comedic-horror movie House (1986), directed by Steve Miner (Friday the 13th: Part 2, Lake Placid), and not to be confused with the gonzo Japanese movie of the same name. It was suggested by friend, author, and Type Books staffer Kyle Buckley (read his great book, The Laundromat Essay). Kyle vividly remembers House as his first horror movie (viewed at age 9), and remembers being completely terrified of it. He joined me for the screening of House in a sort of therapeutic confrontation of his childhood fears.
While I’d never seen House as a child, I remember trailers for the movie, and – like Kyle – I remember them being terrifying. Vague images about a medicine cabinet and a staircase stood out in my memory. Kyle was traumatized as a child by the movie – by one line in particular – and we’ll get to that soon enough. But I also had the impression that the movie was sort of comedic, along the lines of Evil Dead 2. So how scary could it be? Kyle and I intended to find out.
The film opens with an establishing shot of a stately house. I know nothing about architecture, so I couldn’t tell you more than that. It looks like a nicer version of the Bates Motel through the filter of the American suburbs. The camera pans across shutters and cornice work so you didn’t accidentally start watching the wrong film. This is definitely about a house. A grocery delivery boy zips up to the house on a moped and knocks on the door. There’s no answer, but the door creaks open. The grocery boy (that’s how he identifies himself) enters and calls for ‘Mrs. Hooper.’ He slowly creeps through the large house, passing fish trophies and really bizarre, unsettling paintings. He then receives the shock of a lifetime when he enters Mrs. Hooper’s bedroom and finds her hanging from the ceiling.
Next we see author Roger Cobb (William Katt) attending his aunt, Mrs. Hooper’s, otherwise poorly-attended funeral. Immediately after, he does a book signing at a local bookstore. Cobb is the author of horror novels, and the super-fans at his signing are a weird mix of new-wavers and punks crossed with some older members from the Tilley hat set. We quickly establish that (a) he has been recently estranged from his wife, a television actress named Sandy Sinclair (Kay Lenz) and (b) he hasn’t written a new book in a while. When a fan asks what his next book will be about, he responds it will be based on his experiences in the Vietnam War. This does not impress his agent one bit.
Roger returns to his lonely bachelor existence, eating microwave pizzas (which he doesn’t even take out of the box!) and pretending to be in the midst of wild parties whenever his estranged wife calls. (However, she does call him from a pay phone during an awards ceremony, so who’s the strange one, really?) He also calls the FBI to see if they have any news about his son, who we can assume is missing. (Seems unlikely the FBI would have opinions about his son otherwise.) That night, Roger has a nightmare. He’s a child, playing in a graveyard (mistake #1), when a hand shoots out of the earth right in front of his face.
The next day, Roger goes to inspect his deceased aunt’s house with the estate attorney. He informs the attorney that he actually grew up in his aunt’s house: after his parents died, his aunt raised him. Roger then has a sudden flashback: he’s an adult, trimming the hedges at his aunt’s house, and loses sight of his son, Jimmy, who was – moments ago – playing in the backyard. He runs around the house and finds him struggling in the pool. Roger leaps into the water but can no longer find him. Jimmy’s mysteriously disappeared! When the police come to question Roger and Sandy, Mrs. Hooper cryptically says that the house took him. When Roger returns to the present reality, the estate attorney tours him through the house and accidentally nearly kills him with a harpoon gun. (Roger’s uncle was a big fish hunter; there’s a giant sailfish mounted in the den.) Mrs. Hooper, Roger’s aunt, was something of a painter and she’s the artist behind the weird paintings that adorn the house’s walls. Against the estate attorney’s wishes, Roger announces he won’t sell the house. He’s going to live in it and work on his new book.
Almost immediately after moving in, Roger begins to see strange things. He hears someone upstairs, and when he enters the bedroom, he sees his aunt – alive and well – who warns him, ‘It won. It’s going to trick you, too. Leave while you can.’ Then she hangs herself and vanishes. He tries to ignore it and goes to sleep in his childhood bed, which looks like a covered wagon. (You know, like a normal adult would.) In the morning, things look better, and he even meets some nice neighbours, like an attractive blonde jogger, and next-door neighbour Harold (George Wendt), who immediately recognizes Roger Cobb as the author of some of his favourite books. (He literally has a copy of one of his books in his back pocket!) Roger, wary of his super-fan, says he needs a lot of solitude to write, and retreats into his house. That night, while working on his book, which has the most pedestrian title ever – One Man’s Story – Roger has his first Vietnam flashback. He remembers being in his platoon and butting heads with an aggressive alpha-male named Big Ben (Richard Moll), a fellow solider who grumbles, ‘Nobody tells me what to do!’ (Obviously this shouldn’t be a problem, working in the military.) The scene ends in an ambush and Roger wakes with a start.
Roger starts to see things again when he wakes from his dream. He sees a child (maybe his son, Jimmy?) appear as a vision in a window and he (inexplicably) turns it off with the TV remote. (What?) He follows a child’s voice upstairs, but finding nothing, fears he’s losing his mind. Following strange sounds again, he opens the closet in his aunt’s bedroom, and it’s completely empty. Moments later, midnight strikes, so he opens the closet again. Suddenly, a hideous monster jumps out and slashes at him with its claws. Seemingly not spooked enough by this encounter to, say, leave the house, he stays overnight and, the next day, brings in a pile of camera equipment and sets it up outside the closet door to catch this demonic creature on film. He dons military gear and practices his escape route. That night, he readies his camera and opens the door, but nothing happens. Then Harold barges in with a midnight snack, making Roger jump. ‘Solitude’s always better with someone else around,’ he chirps.
Roger confides in Harold about the thing in the closet. Harold worries that Roger’s having a bit of a breakdown. After all, Roger Cobb hasn’t had an easy life: his parents died when he was a child, he served in Vietnam, his wife just left him, and his kid has gone missing. Still, Harold assures him, he’s not ‘Looney Toons’ like his aunt. That’s when Roger lifts his shirt to show Harold the very real scratch marks left by the creature. On his way out, Harold steals Roger’s little black book and calls Sandy Sinclair immediately to warn her that Roger is seeing things and needs some help. Sandy calls Roger immediately, but he doesn’t answer – he’s deep in another Vietnam flashback. Big Ben and Roger have been appointed the lead spot in their patrol, and Ben is being a little too loud. It’s almost like he wants to get shot at. When he wakes, Roger is really shaken.
Moments later, he sees a toy car roll across the carpet, and asks, ‘Jimmy?’ Suddenly, the sailfish on the wall starts to flop around like a Billy Bass. Roger runs for his shotgun in the shed, but the garden implements come to life and throw themselves at him. He runs inside and opens fire on the fish (which was harmlessly flopping on the wall), killing it. He goes to get some pills in the medicine cabinet upstairs, but the gardening tools have followed him. He narrowly escapes them and traps them in a room. When he heads back downstairs, his estranged wife Sandy is at the door, come to check on him. But within moments, she turns into a hideous monster and Roger blows her through the front door with his shotgun. But when he follows the monster onto the sunlit porch, he sees it’s just his normal human wife, Sandy, he’s shot to death. Harold, hearing gunfire and seeing Roger on his front porch with a gun, calls the police.
As police sirens blare, Roger drags his dead wife into the crawlspace under the stairs. When the police arrive, he’s pretending to polish his shotgun on the front stoop. (As Kyle and I both grimly noted, if Roger were black, our story would have ended here.) He tells the police he was polishing his gun (as one does on the front porch) when it went off. They’re about to write him up for firing a gun within city limits, but then they recognize him as the author of Blood Dance. When the police eventually leave, he checks the crawlspace again and his wife’s body is gone. He heads upstairs to check the closet and is attacked from behind by the evil monster Sandy, who takes his shotgun and butts him him in the head with it, taunting him about his missing son: ‘Where’s your son, Roger? You’ll never find him. He’s dead!’ Roger scurries away and, while on the floor, opens the door where he’d previously trapped the garden tools. They fly out and decapitate the monster Sandy.
Roger then starts to separately bury the head and body of the monster in his backyard (in the middle of the day, to a rollicking rendition of Linda Rondstadt’s ‘You’re No Good‘). However, he finds his German-sounding neighbour, Tanya, is making use of his very nice pool. (On a side note, it’s a really strange pool for Roger’s elderly aunt to have. As Kyle noted, ‘That’s like a sex pool,’ and it does look something like the grotto of the Playboy Mansion.) Anyway, Tanya apparently was given free rein over the pool when Roger’s aunt was living there, and she has a short conversation with Roger, who desperately tries to keep his beautiful neighbour from noticing the body of the monster – which is still moving around – under a tarp at her feet. She leaves without noting the supernatural aspects of the yard, and Roger then chops the monster into dozens of pieces, burying them all separately in the backyard.
That night, Roger spots Harold’s golden retriever digging up the monster’s hand. He chases after the dog and runs into Tanya, who has shown up with her young son, Robert. She wants Roger – who, keep in mind, is almost a total stranger – to babysit Robert while she goes out. Roger is a bit distracted, however, as he notices the monster hand is on the kid’s back. So he carries Robert to the bathroom and flushes the hand down the toilet. When he exits, Tanya is like, ‘Is anything wrong?,’ and he’s like (but not really), ‘Why, I was just in the bathroom with your child, nothing weird about that.’ Anyway, Roger attempts to multitask, watching over Robert while also writing his book and watching his wife’s television show, Resort. As is often the case, he finds himself back in The ‘Nam (in his head at least), and he remembers Big Ben being shot by Charlie. When he wakes, Robert has gone upstairs into the bedroom and is being pulled up the chimney by two demonic kid creatures. Roger manages to prevent them from taking him, then gives Robert a bath and returns him to Tanya at the end of the night.
Roger invites Harold over to watch a movie, but as soon as he walks in, informs him he deceived him. Instead, he’s trapped a ‘raccoon’ in the closet upstairs – it wasn’t a ghost or monster after all, just a big raccoon – and he wants Harold to help him kill it. He gives Harold his uncle’s old harpoon gun and tells him to shoot when he opens the door. It’s after midnight, so as soon as Roger pulls the door wide, the terrifying monster jumps out. Roger beats it with a fireplace poker, but Harold is too shocked to shoot at first. Eventually, he fires, but it has little effect. Roger gets sucked into the closet, even as Harold tries to reel him back in by the harpoon tether. It’s of no use – Roger has been sucked into the closet portal and finds himself in his Vietnam flashback, just where he left off. Ben, mortally wounded, begs for Roger to kill him. Roger holds his trench knife to his neck, but tearily confesses he can’t do it. He goes to get a medic, but as he does, the Viet Cong drag Ben off into the jungle, Ben cursing all the way. Roger runs all the way back to the closet door and leaps back into his aunt’s bedroom. Harold is still there, having sat watch while drinking Jack Daniels all night.
In the shed, Roger takes a closer look at one of his aunt’s paintings. Not only does it clearly show the closet is a portal to another dimension, it also shows a child (Jimmy?) trapped in the medicine cabinet. Roger heads immediately to the upstairs washroom and smashes the medicine cabinet mirror, revealing an endless void behind it. A black tentacle reaches out and it (and additional appendages) begin to pull him into the void. He grabs a straight razor from the sink – lucky he doesn’t shave with a safety razor – and fights back. Once the monster disappears, he outfits himself with his military gear, flashlight, shotgun, and a long rope, and rappels into the void. As he does, a flying skull monster (yes) strafes him, eventually taking his gun and shooting it through his rope. Roger splash-lands into water, and when he surfaces, he’s again in the Vietnam jungle. He finds his son, Jimmy, imprisoned in a tiger cage, so he frees him and the two run away from the prison camp, followed by gunfire. They leap into the water again, and emerge from the sex pool in Roger Cobb’s backyard. Roger has rescued his son. It’s a happy ending!
Well, not quite yet. When they get to the front door, Roger is confronted by the rotting corpse of Big Ben, complete with military fatigues. He’s responsible for the haunting, and he’s who kidnapped and imprisoned Jimmy. ‘They tortured me for weeks,’ he spits at Roger. (This was the line that terrified a young Kyle Buckley; weeks of torture as a P.O.W. is something a nine-year-old might find hard to fathom.) This ordeal has been Big Ben’s revenge. Roger smashes Big Ben with a chair, then rips off his arm and beats him with it, but Big Ben opens fire on him and Jimmy, separating them (though he runs out of ammo quickly). Eventually, Roger stumbles through another portal (which leads to a cliff face), but he tricks Ben and pulls him down to his death (or does he?). Roger runs upstairs, where he finds Ben (still alive) holding Jimmy up by an atomic wedgie. He holds a knife to Jimmy’s face and says, ‘I’ll kill him unless you kill yourself.’ That’s when Roger realizes something: about the house, about what his aunt said, about how his aunt died. The house can’t kill him; it can only make him kill himself. So he grabs Jimmy from Big Ben, pulls the pin from a grenade on his uniform, and runs downstairs. The upper story of the house explodes as Sandy pulls up in a taxi. The family is reunited and the movie ends with a freeze fame of Roger, holding Jimmy in his arms.
- We’ve felt with a lot of themes this Horror Movie Watch, but one that hasn’t come up a lot is guilt, the principal theme of House. In particular, survivor’s guilt. Guilt is what fuels the titular house! We can’t assume that Big Ben is literally a ghost that haunts the building. If so, then why would he make Roger’s aunt kill herself? Or why would his spirit be connected to a house he’d probably never seen before? The house is best understood as a manifestation of whatever the occupant feels most guilty about. In Roger’s case: it’s that he failed to kill his fellow soldier Big Ben, and Ben suffered untold torture at the hands of the enemy. Survivor’s guilt is a powerful thing. Roger blames himself for Ben’s torture and death, and exploring his Vietnam experiences brings this guilt to the forefront. Given how much the imagery of Catholicism comes up in horror films, it’s strange more of the ones I’ve viewed this month haven’t explored the issue of guilt.
- Another theme that House explores is traditional masculinity, in that Roger faces his own issues regarding his masculinity. When the film opens, he has, in his mind, (a) proven unable to protect his child, and (b) proven unsuitable for a romantic companion. His fear of the house worries him that he’s not a brave (or ‘manly’) person. And Big Ben is depicted as a bully that taunts Roger for his lack of manliness. ‘Roger, you hit like a little girl,’ he cries as Roger beats him with his own severed arm. In the film, manliness is equated with the ability to kill things. Roger was unable to kill Ben in Vietnam, but in the house, he’s surrounded by evidence of his uncle’s past success at being a man – mounted fish, jaws from sharks, all sorts of hunting trophies. When Roger needs someone to help him kill the creature, he invites over Harold, another man, instead of his equally capable neighbour, Tanya. He confronts the demonic version of his wife by killing her (at least a couple times), which is so Freudian, it could be its own essay. In addition to House being ‘one man’s story’ of confronting and overcoming his guilt, it’s also one of a man regaining masculinity (as archaically as that term might be defined here): by the end, he is able to protect a stranger’s son, get his own son back, and kill a threat within his house.
- One funny thing that separates House from other films in the ‘haunted house’ genre is that Roger Cobb never once thinks about leaving the house, or calling for help. Typically, people try to leave or sell the house, but are prevented by a variety of unlikely circumstances. Or at the very least, the occupants might try to employ a spiritualist or medium or even police officer to help them rid the house of spirits. Roger sees a terrifying monster in the closet, and sleeps there that very same night. With the exception of some help from Harold, he’s headstrong, determined to stay in the house and rid it of its monsters all by his lonesome. It’s never even a question of him possibly moving.
- Somehow, House spawned three sequels! (As Kyle quipped, somehow a second season of My So-Called Life was too risky, but Hollywood’s decided to finance four films in the House franchise.) Apparently, each one features a different occupant moving into the house, and contains an individualized blend of horror and comedy. The fourth House film brings back original protagonist Roger Cobb, though, confusingly, he has an entirely different family.
Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Neither. I can see why a young Kyle Buckley was so afraid of it, though. There are a couple scenes – the monster in the closet, the first appearance of the monster Sandy – that are quite scary. Though it is something of a horror-comedy, so for every scare, there’s also a joke or lighter moment. But to young Kyle, the scariest part was the Vietnam P.O.W. experience, which makes a lot of sense. It’s a good thing nine-year-old Kyle never watched Rolling Thunder.
Best outfit: There are some fine illustrations of ’80s wear in House, most notably Roger Cobb’s author-signing outfit (including suspenders and a patterned blazer with the sleeves rolled up). But there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that the show-stopper is Cobb’s V-neck sweater, featuring the deepest ‘V’ seen outside of a SoulDecision music video. It should be illegal to wear a V-neck that deep with no shirt underneath. I could basically see William Katt’s navel.
Best line: Can you beat sexy neighbour Tanya’s line, ‘I can tell when a man wants to work. I can also tell when he wants to play’? Only if you refer to the lines spoken in Sandy Sinclair’s television show, Resort, during which two characters have this exchange:
‘My sister is an only child and you abused her. I can never forgive you for that.’
‘I can’t hide the fact that I’ve been a male prostitute my entire life.’
Best kill: Not too many people die in House, but it’s pretty neat when the monster Sandy’s head is chopped off by garden shears.
Unexpected cameo: House features a holy trinity of well-known television actors. William Katt was The Greatest American Hero, while George Wendt and Richard Moll were key actors in toe beloved ’80s sitcoms, Cheers and Night Court, respectively. But what you may have missed is that one of the police officers is played by Steven Williams, character actor to the stars who is probably best known as Mr. X from The X-Files.
Unexpected lesson learned: I think, after viewing House, we can all agree it’s best to suppress any and all traumatic experiences, and never explore them through writing.
Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Blood Dance, the name of one of Roger Cobb’s novels.
Next up: The Descent (2005).