Welcome back to another Friday Nightmare Reviews, wherein I tell you what you could be watching instead of aimlessly wandering the corridors of the internet, looking for answers that elude you. Or maybe you’re just looking for some form of entertainment that will soothe your soul and take your mind off your troubles for a while. Thankfully, I have a film that can accomplish both of those feats this evening! Let’s take a tour through the 1986 film House and see what lurks under the floorboards!
In my last review, I had mentioned that horror has adaptability and you only have to look at a handful of titles to realize that this ability affords it a wide range of topics that it can cover and in a lot of different ways. Even just the things I’ve reviewed have encompassed everything from a rather serious art film tackling language as a form of disease to a passion project on the terrors of being too immersed in table top gaming to a movie of the week about being prepared for every conceivable apocalypse known to man because you work at a video store. If you watch any form of horror at all, you’ll quickly find that there’s room for everyone at the table and that, in the right hands, this genre can tackle just about any topic. What makes it dear to my heart and why I defend it as much as I do is that it doesn’t shy away from hard topics. It doesn’t turn the camera away when things get difficult and it doesn’t make things pretty or downplay some hard to talk about subjects. In the realm of horror, there is nothing too sacred about the human experience and no matter what the topic, there’s probably a film that deals with it somewhere. Whether it tackles that topic well depends, of course, on the writers and the way the film is shot. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if best intentions are good enough.
One thing horror has been no stranger to is the use of symbolism and allegory to get through its tougher subjects, especially when they’re psychological subjects. In recent years, we’ve seen films like The Babadook, Hereditary and Cam that use horror scenarios to tap into the realm of mental health and the struggles of how to cope with when it fails us. All of them handled their particular take on the horrors of the mind in different ways but all of them gave a kind of gravity to the situation that allowed the metaphor to carry the weight of the subject. In The Babadook, it was a raw portrayal of the weight of grief and how it can haunt people for years after the initial pains of loss have become distant memories. In Hereditary, it was the real fear of how mental illness can snake its way through bloodlines, forcing us to confront the worst parts of those we love the most and even face down how our minds are not immune to the same things that turned them into figurative and literal monsters. In Cam, it introduced the dichotomy of our projected selves as seen on the internet and our inner, secret selves and how those two can clash. And this isn’t just new works that encompass this topic either. One of the more successful runs for a series recently was the adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, but it was first a book by Shirley Jackson who tackled a very difficult subject in her own way. The Haunting of Hill House as a novel is dependent on Jackson’s unreliable narrator, a woman who is seemingly trying to escape a life of loneliness and isolation at the hands of her family but through the narrative, her perception of the house exposes how deeply troubled she really is. In this book, Jackson created a world in which her main character’s horror becomes our horror as we allow her to take us on her journey, no longer trusting that she’s as in control as she first led us to believe. The Netflix series goes even further and directly addresses the mental state of the family within the walls of the house.
I bring up all these examples to show that there are ways that this topic can be done right and when it is, it can be chilling, devastating and provocative but it can also be honest about things that are too important to ignore. When the care and attention is there, it can shed light on topics like grief and suicide and depression and schizophrenia and the whole terrifying rainbow of other conditions that often get left out of conversations in real life situations. Horror can be a way to talk to these problems, to show them for what they really are without couching them in safer language and even address our deepest fears about them in a way that doesn’t have to end in tragedy. And then there’s House.
Usually I wait to the end of the review to issue this kind of verdict but I have to state right away that this a bad film. This is not a passion project gone astray or a well intended film that just didn’t have the budget. This is a bad movie but I still think it’s kind of important to talk about it because underneath the bad is something I don’t see talked about that often. Before we get to that stuff, though, let’s talk about what our bad movie is actually about.
We start off in familiar territory for most horror films: a funeral. Our main character is Roger Cobb, played by William Katt of Carrie fame, and he’s introduced by means of attending said funeral for his aunt who owned a large family home that he grew up in. Starting off on an uneasy note, the aunt’s death is shown at the very beginning as being suicide and the rest of the film has characters either announcing or indicating that they thought she was crazy. It’s brought up as a means of being humorous but as we go on, we’re going to see more of that poorly placed humor in even more awkward places. When we get to meet Roger properly, it’s quickly established that he’s a writer, living alone after his divorce and the loss of his son. His wife Sandy still cares for him and makes a point to check up on him throughout the film, but Roger is intent on living in denial to others and himself. He makes it seem like he’s been writing his first new book in five years but his manuscript is no more than a title page. He tries to give the impression that he’s got a thriving social life but he’s just living the life of a writer, mostly alone and struggling with empty pages.
From the start, we know that Roger is living a lie and about the only person he’s fooling is himself. And if he’d been acknowledging his issues, he probably wouldn’t have stumbled into the biggest blunder that every character makes in every haunted house movie in the genre. That would be moving into the house where someone recently died. When going over the estate of his late aunt with the realtor, Roger reveals in flashbacks that this was the house they were living in when his son, Jimmy, disappeared. Because nothing inspires people to get to work like reliving trauma in the place that it happened, our hero decides that instead of selling the house, he’s going to move back in and try to write his next book that no one is interested in: his memoirs on his time in the Vietnam war.
From this point on, the film tries very hard to be a horror comedy, with the emphasis on the comedy. To the point that it gets uncomfortable. If you’re thinking that this seems like a bad premise for a comedy of any kind, you would be not only entirely correct, but also entirely more astute than the people who made this film. From the beginning, we see how much Roger is suffering over the loss of his family life after his son goes missing. We also see this paralleled in his memories of being in the war and fighting along side his fellow soldier and friend, Big Ben. These are not insignificant issues and while I don’t believe that dark topics should be cast aside in comedy or that real trauma shouldn’t be addressed in horror, I think that it takes a certain level of commitment to doing it well that will make that kind of challenge pay off. Like, for one, giving enough time to develop the tragedy and getting the audience on board. It doesn’t have to be perfect but giving the topics in this film such a shallow treatment makes the tone of the movie a lot weird. It gets even weirder to see the house turn Roger’s personal trauma into misshapen muppets with odd voices and slapstick tumbles. This is all entirely too bad because when it works, House actually has some creep factor to it and the discomfort that comes from the real horror is something that could be done well if they had committed to it.
While this is wandering into some spoiler territory here, I think it’s important to talk about this because it’s really the heart of why you should bother with this film. There was a scholar who once likened the haunted house trope to the diseased body, giving examples of how the house functions as a means to express our deeper fears of those unseen things that can destroy you from within. This is exactly the function of the titular house in this film, with the only difference being that instead of a physical death through something like cancer, Roger is plagued by PTSD and especially survivor’s guilt. The house is shown to be exactly this manifestation in every way that it haunts him. The film makes a large showing how Roger is trying desperately to address his story of horrors from the war, but the house is making him confront different, personal pains instead.
We see flashes of his backstory, showing him being at the mercy of his war buddy who is not only bigger than him but also more reckless in his actions. When their troupe is ultimately attacked as a result of Big Ben disobeying his orders, he demands that Roger kill him when he is wounded and swears revenge when he is unable to do it. The house is also showing us how his trauma has affected him, putting a strain on his family life as he loses his son and his wife has left him. While we never actually see what he’s writing, it happens that every time he does sit down to write, he has a flashback to his war days and then the house responds to it by throwing something vicious at him or taunting him with visions of the family he’s lost. You almost get the sense that whatever he is writing is being challenged by the things that he knows and that’s why this film is interesting. We have dramas that tackle the struggle of vets coming home from combat but the horror of having these elements of the mind crop up in unexpected places is truly terrifying. It’s even more terrifying when your protagonist isn’t a hardened, bitter, angry soldier but rather a seemingly soft spoken, polite, nicer kind of guy.
So is House worth the trip through the plot? In the end, despite a very awkward tone, I would say yes. Some of it is horribly dated (oh god the clothing!), a lot of the parts that are meant to be funny aren’t and sometimes it’s kind of baffling but at the core, there’s still something worth looking at. If you were in the mood for something that really wants to torture your psyche and leave you feeling raw and emotionally drained, you’re looking more in the direction of Hereditary or Session 9 but those films are a lot more serious. This one, for all its faults, still allows us to talk directly to the fact that people who suffer trauma can still be your seemingly normal neighbors. They can still want to be good husbands and fathers and they can want to overcome the horrors that their mind wants to throw at them. Maybe all they need to do is figure out what they need from the House before they can leave it. And if that’s what they set out to do with this film, I think there are worse movies out there that you can be watching. So set your bar low and keep an eye out for details that might be worthy of looking up and enjoy a fluffy film with some pretty intense topics lurking underneath.
As always, thank you all for joining me for another Friday Nightmare Review and I hope that you are enjoying the fall season! If you’re wanting to increase your horror intake in celebration of the spooky season, why not join me on Monday for another update of Hello Dolly? It’s a serial fiction story about an online horror host and her monstrous friends and band of misfits as they tackle trying to produce an online show while dealing with real monsters. There’s lots of fun to be had so check it out. And until then, may your houses be still and your nightmares be pleasant!