Take a Baaad Trip, Man: 1986’s HOUSE Brings the Horror of Vietnam Back Home

House. 1986. Directed by Steve Miner. Screenplay by Ethan Wiley, from a story by Fred Dekker.
Starring William Katt, George Wendt, Richard Moll, Kay Lenz, Mary Stavin, Michael Ensign, Erik Silver, Mark Silver, & Susan French. New World Pictures/Sean S. Cunningham Films.
Rated R. 93 minutes.

posterFor years I searched out a movie I knew I’d seen as a young boy, only to come up short. I looked through so many titles, watched so many trailers. To a point where the scenes I did remember felt akin to those of a dream just out of your reach; you know the images, you just can’t play them. Finally, it felt like I’d literally dreamed the whole movie up. Then I was flicking through George Wendt’s filmography and I came across the one I’d been looking for all these years: the Steve Miner-directed House.
In the early ’90s, I was about 6 or 7 at the time, this 1986 horror-comedy came on television, late in the night. I wasn’t supposed to be up, but my mom and I lived with my grandparents, and my grandfather would watch whatever with me then eventually fall asleep. So here I am, House is on and Rated R, in my glee. What I saw, at the time, horrified me. It’s meant to be a comedy with horror involved, yet I found nothing funny. All the strange moments and scenes piled together in my mind. Years passed with odd images of a bloated female zombie, bright nails; a man wrestling a zombie dressed like a soldier; fleeting bits of Vietnam; among so many other little things that kept with me.
Watching it now, House isn’t great. Nonetheless, a lot of fun. The goofiness is sort of endearing. Above anything, the horror is still there, plain as day. And though many people will watch, laughing from time to time, I’m into my thirties and Miner’s film still manages to make me feel uneasy.
pic1Something that makes the money more enjoyable as an adult, for me, is that Roger Cobb (William Katt) feels like an actual writer, a genuine person rather than a character. The way he tries to get writing, then goes off on tangent after tangent, is so true to life. As a writer, I know the feeling, and I know others who feel the exact same way. Writing an article or review is one thing. Writing fiction is an entirely other level of brainpower. So Cobb does his best to keep distracted, even if he wants to get the novel finished. That’s when something far more sinister than a break from work takes hold of him.
The entire Vietnam subplot of Roger’s past is actually disturbing. Juxtaposed with the comedy, there’s an attempt to lighten the tone. Still keeps things spooky. Some of what lingered with me over 20 years is this whole part of the character. He is torn by regret, guilt. Another aspect is that his guilt gets exacerbated by the fact he’s seeing monsters in his aunt’s big, old house. He sees one, shoots it, then realises it was actually his estranged wife. While his predicament gets played for ghastly laughs awhile, until the finale we’re left with horrible assumptions, believing him to have killed his wife accidentally, trying to cover it up, and thinking his brain has utterly melted. This makes much of the movie fearfully tense under all that yuck-yuck comedy, sort of like being in hose shoes, right there with him the whole time.
Something that horrified me as a boy, and does to this day, is the bloated female zombie, the corpse of Roger’s wife. The high pitched voice reminds me of Judge Doom when he devolves into his toon form. Disgustingly effective. The scene with this bloated corpse always made me feel strange and ran a chill up my spine. A little later there’s another unsettling image – the huge marlin mounted on the wall comes alive, moving creepily, the whole body writhing and the eyes moving. Not sure why, it’s hideous. Especially after Roger blows a hole in it and the big eye rolls around in its head. Yuck. When Roger has his first confrontation with the spider-like monster in the closet, that’s another moment which still kind of rocks me. Has a very John Carpenter’s The Thing feel to the creature design. That’s one of the scenes I remembered for years.
pic3SPOILER ALERT: Here, There Be Spoilers
It’s really the end I find worth your time. Maybe the rest will come off as too slapstick comedy for you to take any of it seriously. And, can’t forget, it’s meant to be comedy. I merely feel there’s more horror than people remember, or are willing to admit; genuine horror. Such as when Roger faces his final terror. A tentacle and an arm grasp him through the mirror – a great shot, well executed – and pulls him through, to the nightmarescape of his Vietnam memories. I love that moment because it follows through for all those cliched jump scare mirror moments across the genre, actually giving the mirror some horror qualities outside of scary reflections popping up behind characters.
The finale is an intense, emotional struggle for Cobb. He’s left to fight Big Ben (Richard Moll), only Ben is dead, zombified. Scariest aspect is that, essentially, Roger must let go of his past, or else ultimately sacrifice his own son. Naturally, he manages to overcome and literally fights his demons to the death; a.k.a he beats Big Ben’s ass, like a champ. Add to that the Big Ben zombie makeup effects are the best of the film. Actually a formidable, intimidating, menacing creature – a skull and bones soldier, back from ‘Nam AND the grave. Makes the end, even with its cheesy final couple moments after, worth all the nonsense earlier.
pic3I like Steve Miner. He’s made a lot of stuff I couldn’t care less about, truthfully, yet he also has a few films under his belt for which I eternally admire him. I mean, he made one of the later Halloween films that didn’t totally suck. There’s Friday the 13th Part II and III. Recently he did a great episode for the series Dead of Summer.
What I’ll always remember fondly is House. There’s more inside than people think. Definitely the comedy detracts from its better, serious elements. That doesn’t matter to me. What works, really works. Any time I can thrown this on, but it’s always best saved for October, closer to Halloween the better. You’ll dig this for a group of friends. Throw it on, have a laugh. Don’t sleep on Miner, though. Under those chuckles you’ll also discover a bit of weirdness, something nasty, maybe even a legitimate fright or two.

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