House: Two Stories Blu-ray Collection Review (originally published 2017)
Roger Cobb (William Katt) is a horror novelist struggling to pen his next bestseller. When he inherits his aunt’s creaky old mansion, Roger decides that he’s found the ideal place in which to get some writing done. Unfortunately, the house’s monstrous supernatural residents have other ideas…(From Arrow’s official synopsis)
I’m a little too young to remember exactly how Steve Miner’s House had been advertised during release, but I do have vivid memories of the poster art, which adorned the walls of my local video rental shop. The image of a gory, green, worm-ridden severed hand floating in space and ringing a doorbell with an extended index finger drove me to nightmares. Imagine my surprise, then, when I finally saw the movie at a birthday party and was treated not to heart-stopping terror, but a barrel of cartoonish laughs. In retrospect, I can hardly think of a better ‘horror’ movie from the ‘80s to show a particularly squeamish child. In the years since, I’ve often think of House as a lesser version of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II (1987 – another horror comedy with scary poster art that portrays a creepy event that never actually happens in the context of the film), but Miner and producer Sean S. Cunningham's lighthearted splatstick opus beat Raimi’s movie to theaters by an entire year. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the first Evil Dead didn’t inspire House on some level (the absurdity of the haunting definitely has an “ Evil Dead with a better budget” vibe), but Raimi’s Three Stooges approach to terror was not particularly well established at the time and it is entirely possible that Cunningham and Miner arrived at similar ‘solutions’ all on their own, including malevolent severed hands and hunting trophies.
Cunningham, who apparently preferred production to direction, had already worked with Miner when he handed off the Friday the 13th series. Miner’s direction steadily improved from Friday the 13th Part II (1981) to Friday the 13th Part III (1982) and into House, which was their final collaboration. Miner’s direction is typically solid, if not a bit bland, and shows growth from the grimier slasher movies, especially during the slick Vietnam flashbacks. He covers some of his budgetary constraints by embracing the silliness of the effects (much like Raimi does in Evil Dead 2), in effect winking at the audience and letting them know it is okay to laugh. The menial scares are weaker than one would see from most kiddie horror (including the Real Ghostbusters cartoon, which it actually resembles on an aesthetic level), but I don’t suppose scary was really what the director, Cunningham, or credited screenwriters Ethan Wiley and Fred Dekker (who wrote and directed the much funnier Night of the Creeps the same year) were going for. The boilerplate plot is unmemorable and lacks the unpredictability of the Evil Dead films, but the better than usual cast sells the jokes and raises the quality of the characters all around. Miner cleverly circumvents the budget issue by hiring mostly TV talent, including William Katt (who was in the midst of the third and final season of The Greatest American Hero), George Wendt (Cheers), Richard Moll (Night Court), Michael Ensign ( Falcon Crest), and Kay Lenz (McGuyver).
House is a pretty popular film with a successful VHS run and a number of anamorphic releases and re-releases from Anchor Bay in the United States. Arrow secured the rights Blu-ray rights to it and its first sequel here in North America (along with the rights to all four Houses in the UK), and has gone above and beyond with their restoration. I assumed that, based on its popularity and long time in print, any 1080p version would be decent, but this 2K restoration of the 35mm interpositive is enough to make it look like a brand new movie. Grain texture appears accurate without it or other artifacts (which mostly include small white dots) ever overwhelming the clarity of fine details and softer gradations. You might find some minor scanning issues if you’re looking for them, but there are no overwhelming sheets of noise or problems with jagged edges. The pastel palette, which is actually quite an important element of the film’s oddball tone, is neatly reproduced and quite eclectic. Really, the only issue I can see here is that the levels may be a bit too bright. I believe that the movie is intended to be pretty vibrant and don’t see any problems with crush throughout the darker shadows, but the purest whites do bloom and can flood some of the more subtle patterns.
This Blu-ray comes fitted with LPCM original mono, LPCM 2.0 stereo, and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 options. I assumed that the two remixes were taken from the aforementioned Anchor Bay DVDs, then improved by presenting them uncompressed, but it appears that they were created specifically for this release. At the very least, this is their first availability on home video. The stereo track is kind of a bust, because it spreads out dialogue and incidental effects, but the 5.1 remix is otherwise pretty tasteful. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the mono and 5.1 tracks during any dialogue-driven sequence. The sound designers do their best to separate Harry Manfredini’s score and the ghostly/demonic noises from the single channel master and do a decent job, though I personally still prefer the consistency of the mono sound, even without the benefit of a discrete LFE channel.
Commentary with director Steve Miner, producer Sean S. Cunningham, actor William Katt, and screenwriter Ethan Wiley – This particularly slow and dull commentary track was originally recorded for use with the Anchor Bay DVD. One might think having four participants would ensure that the space was filled, but these fellas run out of things to talk about after less than an hour. They find their bearings during the climax, but it’s a slog to get to that point.
Ding Dong, You’re Dead! The Making of House (66:39, HD) – The commentary might not be very good, but this brand new retrospective documentary – which was produced by Red Shirt Productions specifically for the Arrow release – more than makes up for it with a comprehensive look at the entire behind-the-scenes process. It includes interviews with Miner, Cunningham, Wiley, story writer Dekker (who describes his early, non-comedic Twilight Zone-esque version of the story), composer Manfredini, special make-up/creature effects artists Barney Burman, Brian Wade, James Belohovek, Shannon Shea, Kirk Thatcher & Bill Sturgeon, special paintings artists Richard Hescox & William Stout, stunt coordinator Kane Hodder, and stars Katt, Kay Lenz, and George Wendt.
Vintage EPK featurette (24:07, SD)
Trailers, Teaser, and TV spots
Jesse (Arye Gross) moves into an old family mansion where his parents were mysteriously murdered years before. His plans for turning the place into a party pad are soon thwarted by the appearance of Jesse’s mummified great-great-grandfather, his mystical crystal skull, and the zombie cowboy who’ll stop at nothing to lay his hands on it! (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
If House was the more family-friendly version of Evil Dead, House II: The Second Story was the Saturday morning cartoon of the franchise. And, when sticking to the sort of low-rent Amblin Entertainment/ Weird Science-type adventure at its base (fun fact: the House series covered crystal skulls before the Indiana Jones series did), it’s a reasonably entertaining movie. Unfortunately, the filmmakers were also attempting to mesh the first House’s wacky haunted house hijinks with house party subgenre tropes. It sounds like a good idea (after all, a lot of horror movies end with teenagers throwing parties), but doesn’t quite work out, because the filmmakers aim for a family-friendly PG-13 rating, which doesn’t support gory horror violence or the T&A that coincides with raunchy ‘80s comedies. As a result, House II is overwhelmed by dumb ‘80s fan-service that doesn’t really serve anyone. The rating is in keeping with the tone of the first movie, which is technically R-rated, but not for any obvious reason. Miner was replaced as director by the first film’s writer and effects artist Ethan Wiley, who sort of disappeared from directing until more recently, when he started making STV cash-ins, like Blackwater Valley Exorcism (2006) and Brutal (2007). As writer, Wiley has a fun time tossing mismatched genres into his narrative pot, but also has a terrible habit of forgetting to establish character dynamics or histories (Bill Maher’s character, for instance, is supposedly tied to the main character’s love interest, but no one ever explains why we’re supposed to care), but his direction is actually quite stylish, at least compared to the sitcom horror imagery of Miner’s film.
To make the whole “the House series is a lot like the Evil Dead series” conversation even more confusing, House II was actually released in Italy as La Casa 6, or The House 6, implying it was the fifth sequel in the La Casa series. La Casa was, by the way, the Italian title for Evil Dead. Evil Dead II was called La Casa 2, Umberto Lenzi’s Ghosthouse (1988) was called La Casa 3, Fabrizio Laurenti’s Witchery (1988) was called La Casa 4, and Claudio Fragasso’s Beyond Darkness (1990) was called La Casa 5. Then, to make matters even more confusing, Cunningham’s The Horror Show (1989) was sold as House 3 in most of Europe – hence Arrow releasing it as part of a four House Blu-ray set in the UK (with Lewis Abernathy’s House IV, 1992) – and La Casa 7 in Italy. These facts are arguably the most interesting thing about every non- Evil Dead movie I’ve mentioned in this review.
For whatever reason, House II was actually released on DVD more times than its predecessor, including discs from Anchor Bay again in the US, Force Video in Australia, Elite DVD in Germany, Digital Entertainment in the UK, and Atlantic Films in Scandinavia. Again, Arrow’s 2K restoration of the original 35mm interpositive is better than expected, even given the material’s stellar condition. This 1080p, 1.85:1 image is grainier than its counterpart, but has a number of advantages, too, thanks to Wiley and cinematographer Mac Ahlberg’s more prevalent use of moody shadows and occasional use of impressionistic color. There is simply more room for dynamic range, including rich blacks, subtle hue shifts, and less bloomy white levels. Details are tight, despite the edges often being softened by diffused highlights and soft focus. Gradations display only minor signs of blocking and there aren’t any major compression artifacts to speak of.
This disc forgoes the useless stereo remix in favour of only two audio options – the original mono in LPCM 2.0 and another 5.1 remix in DTS-HD Master Audio. The remix has big advantages in terms of aural depth and overall volume, but doesn’t do a particularly good job spreading out the single-channel original. The dialogue isn’t centered very well and the attempts at stretching effects into the extra channels create reverb issues. I’d recommend sticking with the mono track, despite its softer volume. Cunningham stand-by Manfredini returned to class things up a bit with another well-produced musical score – one that actually outdoes the original film with its more eclectic style and memorable melodies.
Commentary with writer/director Ethan Wiley and producer Sean S. Cunningham – This commentary was also taken from an Anchor Bay DVD and is slightly more informative than the House track. Wiley is excited to talk about his work and manages to fill out quite a bit of the runtime all by himself.
It’s Getting Weirder! The Making of House II: The Second Story (57:38, HD) – This second Red Shirt-produced retrospective documentary is just as good as the last one and includes interviews with Wiley, Cunningham, Manfredini, Dekker, special make-up and creature effects artists Chris Walas & Mike Smithson, visual effects supervisor Hoyt Yeatman, Hodder, and cast members Arye Gross, Jonathan Stark, Lar Park Lincoln, and Devin DeVasquez.
Vintage EPK featurette (14:38, SD)
Trailer and TV spot