The House series is composed of four standalone horror comedies, which are sheltered under a single marketing umbrella with a pragmatism that’s familiar to shlock cinema, wherein filmmakers look to build a brand on a budget. Unlike producer Sean S. Cunningham’s other series, Friday the 13th, which mostly shared the same killer with the same propensity for knocking off horny teens, the House films vary wildly in tone and continuity. One of the entries, House III: The Horror Show, wasn’t even conceived as a part of the series, while the other films loosely pivot on a haunted mansion that’s navigated by a rotating assortment of 1980s-era yuppies.
With House: Two Stories, Arrow Video hasn’t bothered to restore House III or House IV, recognizing that it’s House and House II: The Second Story that were perfectly timed to command the nostalgia of Gen Xers who remember renting the videotapes as teens in the 1980s. The first film was marketed with a memorable poster, which included an illustrated image of a disembodied hand about to ring a doorbell with the tagline “Ding Dong, You’re Dead.” And it’s helmed by one of the most inventive Friday the 13th directors, Steve Miner, and features a very game cast that includes William Katt, George Wendt, Kay Lenz, and Richard Moll. The second film was directed by the series’s screenwriter, Ethan Wiley, and features Arye Gross, John Ratzenberger, Jonathan Stark, and a pre-politically incorrect Bill Maher (having already weaponized his trademark-able smugness by this point).
House and House II are driven by their inconsequentiality, reveling less in specific punchlines than in an intangibly flip attitude that positions their spare production values as a kind of garage-band fashion statement. It’s this sensibility that audiences probably remember with fondness, especially the sets that notably lack in verisimilitude. If either House had played its creaky floorboards and latex monsters unconditionally “straight,” they would have collapsed into ludicrousness. They collapse into ludicrousness anyway, but that’s been shrewdly framed by the filmmakers as being the point.
House has a superb premise that begs for a more ambitious framework, both formally and psychologically. Roger Cobb (Katt) is that staple of the haunted-house film: the author who requires peace and quiet so to finish a book that’s troubling him. Roger returns to the home of his recently deceased aunt, where his son disappeared sometime before, souring his marriage with soap-opera star Sandy Sinclair (Lenz) in the process. As Roger begins writing his book, we learn that he served in the Vietnam War, and that his son’s disappearance connects resonantly back to his survivor’s guilt. The house brings these conflicts out into stark clarity, threatening to drive Roger mad.
Miner is less interested in exploring postwar trauma, however, than in staging pratfalls with endearingly goofy monsters that owe a debt to the creatures of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. Several images are chilling and elegant, such as when we see an old hag rising behind Roger with a shotgun as he peers into a closet, or when Roger smashes a bathroom mirror to reveal a pitch-black gateway to the Vietnam of his fevered nightmares. But there’s quite a bit of filler, such as a prolonged segment with Roger, a child, and a runaway hand, and the wish-washy tone (call it archly tragic) grows tiresome. Katt holds House together with his force of personality, but Roger’s semi-comic, semi-poignant unflappability robs the film of emotional stakes. Even The Evil Dead‘s Ash was allowed to exhibit annoyance and exasperation.
No one can accuse House II of indecisiveness, as Wiley doubles down on the slapstick free-association that ran sporadically through House, jettisoning the horror element of the first film and concocting a knowingly ridiculous story involving crystal skulls, Aztec temples, resurrected cowboys, a baby pterodactyl, and a peeved caveman that embodies the distinctly unhinged sensibility of many 1980s-era genre sequels. House II owes more to Abbott and Costello and Ray Harryhausen than The Evil Dead, and the film’s scattershot, anything-goes approach is occasionally amusing, but horror fans will probably feel baited-and-switched with a title that promises something a little harder-edged. Instead, Wiley delivers a sitcom adventure for children, an orphan film that suggests an attempt to turn House into a flexible franchise, a la what John Carpenter imagined when he commissioned Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Time has been kinder to Carpenter’s vision, as the House films exist primarily as pockets of marginalia, as testimonial artifacts of an analogue culture that’s gone the way of the quill pen.
Clarity is an issue throughout the image transfers, especially in the backgrounds. Blacks are murky, whites tend to cast a shrill glare, and the framing is sometimes off, particularly in House II. In other words, these transfers have a certain well-worn VHS quality, which is appropriate to the atmosphere of both films, but one still expects more refurbishing from a Blu-ray, even of older and lower-budget productions. There isn't much detectable difference between the various soundtracks included on each disc, but they're far more polished and nuanced than the respective images, boasting clean and precise sound-staging, imbuing these films with a formal fullness that was lacking in prior home-video editions. This set is as such a strange mixed bag: The films don't look that great, but that mediocrity bolsters the nostalgic vibe of watching horror movies from your childhood, and they sound conventionally good, suggesting what might happen if you were inexplicably compelled to connect a VCR to a contemporary 5.1-capable home theater system. Proceed with caution, though the supplements will probably go a long way toward allaying consumer hesitation.
"Ding Dong, You're Dead!" and "It's Getting Weirder" are terrific new documentaries concerning the making of the two films, culling interviews with most of the principal cast and crew, covering the films' conception, production, and eventual reception. It's particularly interesting to hear of the evolution of each film's tonality, as the first House was originally envisioned by story editor Fred Dekker as a darker examination of what's now called PTSD. Screenwriter Ethan Wiley maintained some of those elements, but took the property in a more comedic direction, while Dekker worked on an unrealized Americanization of Godzilla with eventual House director Steve Miner. For the second film, Wiley was allowed to direct and let loose to explore a variety of indulgences, using his past in the world of FX to recruit the legendary Chris Walas and Phil Tippet for money that's far below their usual pay grade. (Walas offers many evocative details of making monsters on a budget.) The audio commentaries on each film, previously recorded for other home-video editions, are fun and conversational, but cover the same material in a less lively fashion. The other choice feature of this set is The House Companion, a superb 148-page hardbound book by Simon Barber that offers press materials, illustrations, production stills, and in-depth examinations of each of the four films (one may wonder if Arrow should've found a way to include House III and House IV in this set). Rounding out this package are a variety of archive press kits, trailers, TV spots, and reversible cover art.
The supplements justify this box set’s existence: It’s difficult to imagine a House fan who will feel poorly served by this extensive and affectionate cornucopia of nerd-centric context.