I always forget just how spooky the opening of House is. They use extreme angles and weird lighting and negative images to heighten the spook factor and really give the house itself character, all before we even open the movie. It’s a great bit of misdirection and sets the tone well. In this house bad things can happen even in the daylight and you get that impression moving through the courtyard and inside the structure to discover the dead woman hanging there.
We are introduced to Roger Cobb, a divorced writer and Vietnam vet whose son vanished at his aunt’s house – the same aunt that we saw hanging at the beginning of the film. He’s having terrible writer’s block and nightmares of the war, and decides a change of scenery is in order. He heads over to the house to move in for a while.
The film takes its time, carefully setting up characters both living and dead, inside and outside of the house, even bringing the Aunt back as a ghostly doomsayer. The haunting starts slowly, with disembodied sounds in the house. It’s soft quietness is a stark contrast to the thunderously loud Vietnam flashback scenes that we get as Roger dreams and writes his book. In the house there’s a vision of his son, and the ghost of his aunt. It’s creepy but benign – that is, until finally he checks the closet… and the monsters begin to show up at midnight.
The closet monster by the way, is actually really worth taking a close look at. It’s the claws that really grabd your attention but pause the movie and check out the formless shanks of the creature. There’s multiple faces emerging out of the ultraslime on it’s misshapen body, possibly representative of people the house is taken. It was certainly enough to stir up Rogers curiosity and lead him to further explore the curse of the house, while simultaneously exploring his dark past in Vietnam. The flashbacks to the ‘Nam are amazing by the way. Richard Moll as Cobb’s partner Big Ben is perfectly cast and executed. Moll has always been good at a sort of over the top malevolence, a bad guy who is practically a cartoon but that you still love. It’s a far cry from his character on Night Court and this is one of his better performances. He’s not comic relief, but he is incredibly amusing. Comedy relief of course is coming from George Wendt, veteran of Cheers and Rodger Cobb’s next door neighbor. Wendt isn’t really trying to stretch here, he’s playing Norm, just as always. It’s sort of a give the people what they want appearance and it’s a role he understands well. Both men nicely balanced out William Katt’s Rodger Cobb, who has to balance an almost static rational character even as he begins to come unglued.
Indeed, the house wants him unglued, and it begins taunting him here and there. A remote control car making its way into the room by itself, a prized fish on the wall that stares and watches him as he goes, throwing a tantrum until Cobb dispatches it. Restless tools in the shed that come after him. The house is getting more aggressive by the moment.
All the commotion is enough to get the cops called on him, and some of the creepiest monsters start coming out as well. Interesting to note that the lead police man was Alan Autry, who would also go on to play one of the lead cops in the TV version of In the Heat of the Night.
Of course new complications arise when, after taking care of the monsters, another neighbor shows up. This time it’s a beautiful blonde who flirts with Rodger to score some free babysitting. It’s a surprisingly scary prospect. We’ve already lost one child in this house and the idea of bringing another one in fills me with dread. It’s a justified fear, the house goes after the new little boy, with monsters leading him away to try and take him as well. Cobb fights them off and rescues the little boy from the most precarious position in the fireplace chimney. Still, as perilous as the entire encounter is, the whole episode strikes me as an excuse to pad run times.
The haunting over all has brought about a change in Roger, and it seems now, he’s ready to fight. He discovers a clue in his aunt’s paintings and finds the way into the dark dimension that holds his son. It’s time for his final confrontation with the forces that plague this house.
House is one of the earliest horror movies that I remember watching, very likely because William Katt was in it and my parents knew I was a fan of him in the Greatest American Hero. I probably saw it on television so it was deemed safe, a judgment that couldn’t be more wrong. I found a terrifying but it’s the sort of horror film that made me love the genre and kept me coming back for more. Today it’s comfort food, an old favorites with a well-rounded story and and the brilliance of 1980s practical effects. I still find the monsters terrifying and the concept itself feels even more dire now that I’m a father. Of all the house films, this is the only one that’s truly scary and has earned its place as a horror classic