The first House came out the middle of the horror boom of the ’80s, when it seemed like a new horror film was out every week. The original would spawn three sequels, and comes with some strong ’80s horror genre pedigree: Sean S. Cunningham was the film’s producer and Fred Dekker came up with the original story. The first film was directed by Steve Miner, who also directed the second and third instalments of Cunningham’s most famous franchise, Friday the 13th.
The original entry in the House series falls into a small sub-genre of horror films that deal with the Vietnam War. The big boom during the ’70s with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left dealt with it in an implicit way. The ’80s saw a big boom in films exploring Vietnam-related issues, most notably with war films obviously but also some horror films that dealt with these in explicit ways (especially the crazed and underrated sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.) The most famous example is arguably the surreal and disturbing Jacob’s Ladder.
William Katt stars in the first House. Katt is certainly known for his roles in The Great American Hero and Carrie, but might be even more well-known for the fact he nearly played Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. In this film, his character is author Roger Cobb, obviously based on Stephen King, who was huge in the ’80s. Cobb is also a veteran of the Vietnam war, and is planning to write a book about his experiences. He decides to move into his aunt’s house after she commits suicide so he can have some peace and write that book. Naturally, this doesn’t go to plan, and soon the supernatural forces that are obviously present in this creepy old house begin to terrorize him. Cobb and his neighbour end up fighting an army of undead Vietnam vets and monsters that come out of the closet.
House, like many of the horror films of the ’80s, blends horror with comedy. It’s a somewhat mixed result, with the movie never quite having enough scares or enough laughs to counterbalance the tonal shifts. The Vietnam-flashback stuff works well and is certainly the highlight of the film, even though it was obviously shot in a studio. The creatures are quite effective as well: they are done by experts in their field, who are slumming it here.
The first sequel is very much a continuation in the vein of the original, although it has a totally different cast. It’s decidedly more comedic, and even though it’s a new set of characters and actually a new house, I did actually think it was just new occupants of the same house at first. It’s also a lot more kid-friendly than the first, with absurdly cute monsters like the much-loved caterpillar-dog. It’s pretty amusing and is certainly a decent sequel in the sense of being about as good as the first film. It’s worth noting that Bill Maher appears in a small role as a sleazy record boss, this was during a period in the late ’80s when Maher ended up doing occasional film roles alongside his stand-up career to make ends meet. His most notable role during this period was in Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, definitely the best feminist cannibal film ever made.
The first two House films are fun haunted-house films that may be a bit too comedic for some die-hard horror nuts. Nevertheless, they are linchpins of ’80s horror. The UK set also includes House III and House IV, but I would recommend maybe getting the US set with just the first two. That said, the disc collection is absolutely packed with plenty of commentaries, documentaries, interviews and much more, plus a massive book on the series, so if you’re a big fan, you’ll be in House heaven.