House (1986)

First published by Movie Gazette

Horror writer Roger Cobb (William Katt) has problems. His young son Jimmy (Eric/Mark Silver) has disappeared, his wife Sandy (Kay Lenz) has left him, and he is haunted by his experiences in the Vietnam War with deranged fellow-soldier Big Ben (Richard Moll). So when batty Aunt Elizabeth (Susan French) hangs herself, leaving to Roger the big old house in which he had grown up, he moves in by himself, hoping to work on his Vietnam memoirs in peaceful solitude. Except that Roger quickly discovers his intrusive neighbours Harold Gorton (George Wendt, Norm fromCheers) and Tanya (Mary Stavin) are not the only unwelcome visitors, and that perhaps more than mere writing is required to exorcise the demons of his past.

Steve Miner’s House is often credited for revisiting (and updating) the haunted house movies of the forties and fifties, and for reinventing the subgenre of horror comedy – whereas in fact Sam Raimi’s low-budget classic Evil Dead (1981) had done all these things four years earlier, and was both the scarier and the funnier film. Still, House amply repays its debt by featuring a comic contretemps with a feisty severed hand that would go on to inspire a similar, even more outrageous scene in Evil Dead II (1987).

Despite offering some truly cheesy, fake looking monsters, House is an imaginative, agreeably unhinged film in which there is always plenty going on for the viewer to relish. Roger’s rapid descent into the house’s (or is it his own?) mad logic makes for an entertaining spectacle: one moment he is a successful and respectable author, and the next he is racing manically through the corridors dressed in his old combat fatigues, as though Vietnam had never ended. If, like me, you are the kind of viewer who drools with pleasure at the mere mention of the words ‘Vietnam flashback’, then House, with its rather literal equation of war with hell, will make you feel right at home.

In House, as in other writer’s block films (like Barton Fink and Swimming Pool), it is never clear whether our hero’s nightmares are supposed to exist in reality, or just on the page. Roger is, after all, a writer who normally creates horror fiction but is currently working on an autobiography of his wartime experience – and the plot of the film effectively combines the two. As far as his unresolved feelings about Vietnam are concerned, it does not really seem to matter whether it is in his house or in his head that Roger struggles with his personal ghosts – but far more joyously disturbing in retrospect is the sequence in which he whacks, shoots, decapitates, and hacks up into tiny pieces a demonic version of his ex-wife (again, a scene indebted to Evil Dead). This, it turns out, is pure fantasy – but what sort of guy fantasises about that? Roger Cobb has problems…

© Anton Bitel