First published by Movie Gazette
If you want to introduce young children to horror, you could always start them off in the deep end with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or Audition (1999) and mess up their tiny minds forever – or you could ease them in nicely with the scare-lite comedy adventure House II: The Second Story. Putatively the sequel to House (1986), in which a Vietnam veteran was forced literally to confront his past demons in the home of his childhood, House II shares with the original film its screenwriter (Ethan Wiley, here also making his directorial debut), and a haunted house whose doors and windows once again open onto other worlds – but there all similarity ends. This time, it’s different characters, a different story, a much younger target audience, and even a different house.
Twenty-five years after his parents were mysteriously killed, Jesse (Arye Gross, a deadringer for Julian Lennon) returns to his family home (a sandstone castle complete with faux-Aztec interior), accompanied by his feckless buddy Charlie (Jonathan Stark) and their two girlfriends. Digging for a valuable crystal skull which Jesse suspects may be hidden on the property, Jesse unearths his great great grandfather ‘Gramps’ (Royal Dano), still very much alive thanks to the skull’s magical properties. Jesse and Charlie quickly bond with the fun-loving old timer as they introduce him to the finer points of 1980s culture, but they are soon fighting off various villains who would like the skull for themselves – including a stone age caveman, some Aztec high priests, and Gramps’ murderous old gun-slinging rival Slim (Dean Cleverdon). Still, Jesse will do anything to keep his new-found family together, and local electrician-cum-adventurer Bill (John Ratzenberger) is always happy to lend a hand.
Apart from the fact that it features two aged cowboy zombies, there is little really to connect House II to the horror genre. Instead it is a daft time-leaping caper, not unlike Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure or The Goonies, and while there is not much concern for logic or narrative coherence, there are lots of great (and some not so great) throwaway gags, a wholesome emphasis on family values (even if that family includes a 170-year old outlaw, a baby pterodactyl, a sacrificial virgin from Ancient Mexico, and a creature that is half caterpillar half puppy), and a satisfyingly escapist ending. Best of all, though, is the cameo by John Ratzenberger (who played Cliff in Cheers, just as George Wendt, who played Norm in Cheers, co-starred in the original House) as Bill Towner, the strangest onscreen repairman since Robert DeNiro’s guerilla plumber in Brazil (1985). “It looks like you got some kind of alternative universe in here or something” is Bill’s verdict on what is wrong with the house’s electrics, and he delivers it with the sangfroid of a professional who has seen it all before - as though he somehow knows this is a sequel.
© Anton Bitel