Color, 1985, 92 mins. / Directed by Steve Miner / Starring William Katt, George Wendt, Richard Moll, Kay Lenz / Cinematography by Mac Ahlberg / Music by Harry Manfredini / Produced by Sean S. Cunningham


Color, 1987, 88 mins. / Directed by Ethan Wiley / Starring Arye Gross, Jonathan Stark, Royal Dano, Bill Maher, John Ratzenberger / Cinematography by Mac Ahlberg / Music by Harry Manfredini / Produced by Sean S. Cunningham

Format: DVD - Anchor Bay (MSRP $29.98) / Letterboxed (1.85:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono

After making a fortune with the Friday the 13th franchise (not to mention his early profitable career in porn, producer/director Sean Cunningham kicked off another successful horror money making machine with House, a fondly remembered '80s mishmash of gothic horror, goofy comedy, and rubbery monsters. Though hardly remarkable, the film is endearing and off-kilter enough to grab one's attention, particularly during its countless runs on HBO, and while it doesn't quite scale the heights of its similar contemporaries like Fright Night or Gremlins, the film holds up well enough to justify another look.

Recovering from the trauma of a separation from his wife (Kay Lenz), struggling writer Roger Cobb (The Greatest American Hero's William Katt) moves into the spooky house owned by his aunt, who recently hanged herself. Roger attempts to turn his disturbing memories of Vietnam into a gripping memoir, but his creative efforts are thwarted by an eager neighbor named Harold (Cheers' George Wendt), not to mention a slew of inconvenient monsters like the unforgettable SandyWitch and a decrepit old Army buddy, Big Ben (Night Court's Richard Moll).

Considering the heavy roster of TV actors and the erratic pedigree of director Steve Miner, whose horror output ranges from the decent (Friday the 13th Part 2) to the worthless (Halloween: H2O), House should have been an unremarkable timewaster at best. The fact that it works as well as it does can be attributed to a happy union of elements ranging from a fiesty, surprising screenplay to a playful, diverse score from Harry ("Ki-ki-kill ha-ha-how") Manfredini. Cinematographer Mac Ahlberg (Re-Animator, Hell Night) gives the low budget production a nice, glossy sheen, expertly capturing every little shiny, menacing wooden detail in the house itself. The film has dated fairly gracefully, and as a Reagen era meditation on the aftermath of Vietnam, it's at least a more sensitive, palatable, and complex meditation on the subject than Rambo: First Blood II.

A surprise moneymaker (and box office champ in its opening weekend), House was naturally followed by a sequel, House II: The Second Story. Despite the title, the second film really had nothing to do with the first film, intended instead as more of a continuing house-oriented series of horror films in the same vein as John Carpenter's experiment with Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Often regarded as one of the worst sequels in history, House II really isn't by a long shot, but it is one of the most disappointing. Virtually dropping any pretense at horror apart from a mildly atmospheric opening sequence, the film spins its loosely connected vignettes around a magical crystal skull which has become the holy grail of Gramps (Royal Dano), who, unfortunately, is dead. His yuppie descendant, Jesse (Arye Gross), moves into the jinxed house with his record exec wife and, along with the rather snotty Charlie (Jonathan Stark), embarks on a journey through time and space. Neanderthals, Aztec warriors, oogy boogy creatures, and even a "caterpuppy" flit across the screen, which is also occupied by hamming from a young Bill Maher, along with Cheers' John Ratzenberger (as a comical electrician) stepping in after George Wendt from the first film. It's all harmless, nonsensical popcorn junk, but don't expect anything more.

Following a truly lousy DVD presentation on British video, House fans were long dismayed at the thought of ever getting the equivalent of the special edition released years ago on laserdisc by Lumivison. The Anchor Bay presentation is really an impressive job all around, and the first 20,000 units come with both films contained in one of those double-snapper, single title size Amaray cases. The first House gets most of the attention, of course, kicking off with a genial feature length commentary by Miner, Cunningham, writer Ethan Wiley (who went on to direct the second film), and Katt. All of the men have fond memories about the film and go into detail about how they went about constructing the crowd pleaser. Wiley and Cunningham return for commentary on House II, and while they have to strain a lot more to fill the time, they still have a few good anecdotes to share about putting together an essentially unrelated sequel to an unexpected smash. Both films feature sharp, well framed anamorphic transfers with colors about as solid as you could expect for '80s New World titles. The mono audio tracks are much better than the godawful old VHS editions, most of which have long passed on to the dropout-riddled video graveyard anyway. Other extras include "The Making of House," basically a 12 minute promotional featurette used to promote the theatrical release. A combination of cast and crew interviews with footage of special effects creation, this is an interesting if superficial overview of the production. You also get two trailers for House (the second of which appears to be lifted off a very ragged, third generation VHS tape), one trailer for House II, and a surprisingly extensive, often hilarious gallery of production shots from the first film.

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