How do I describe House? It’s very 80’s. It’s a B-Movie.
And I’m already out of adjectives…. this doesn’t bode well for Summer of Horror 2014. I’ll start by describing the plot, and maybe that will clear the writer’s block.
An author with a successful horror novel under his belt (why is that such a common haunted house trope?) moves into his late great-aunt’s old house, after she hangs herself in a no-frills opening sequence, in order to work on a new book. While there he’s tormented alternately by Vietnam flashbacks and a group of the least subtle ghosts in movie history. This does not adhere to the Amityville Horror/Paranormal Activity slowly escalating terror model – the very first unusual thing he sees is a beast that looks suspiciously similar to a monster from Hellraiser, though House preceded that film by a couple years. I’ll tell you – nothing beats 80’s monster effects. They can be both spectacular and terrible at the same time (see: The Thing).
Like most dated horror movies, the main character doesn’t really act logically or “sell” the feeling of being tormented by the supernatural. After being dragged into a void through his own medicine cabinet by a set of H.R. Giger-esque tentacles, he’s still able to humor his nosy neighbor (a slumming George Wentz) moments later. Granted, House seems to be going for a campy tone intentionally – but it’s uneven. There are subplots involving a broken marriage, a dead son, and the aforementioned ‘Nam flashbacks, but also the classic “hiding the monster corpse while trying to carry on a normal conversation” scene.
The film would have really benefitted from committing to one tone or the other. Is it a darkly personal haunted house story about a man overcoming guilt and grief, or is it a balls-out shlock-fest? I was expecting the latter, at it delivered at times, but there just wasn’t enough meat on that bone.
The Blob (1988)
A review for the original 50’s Blob will have to wait, as I skipped straight to the 80’s version.
Being a big fan of the 80’s remakes of both The Thing and The Fly, I was anxious to see The Blob. It doesn’t typically get the same critical fanfare as Thing and Fly, but easily finds a spot in that unofficial trilogy of gory, special-effects heavy, thematically updated remakes of 1950’s horror/sci-fi films that came out in the late 1980’s. Are there more of these out there? I’ll have to do more digging…
The film’s two leads are Kevin Dillon (sporting one of the finest 80’s mullets ever seen) and Shawnee Smith (a name I know from somewhere…. ah, the Saw movies), but the real star is obviously the Blob itself, via more of those lovely practical effects. But where House was corny and conservative, Blob goes spectacularly all-out in the gore department. Every time the movie takes a necessary break for plot or character development, I waited patiently for another Blob kill – and I don’t feel guilty about it, because the plot and characters are both paper-thin 80’s stereotypes. Each kill is spectacular, and the group I watched this with literally had a conversation afterwards about which kill was the best. Personally, I was particular to the one where a person is Blobbed from the inside and essentially implodes. Nasty.
Unlike Thing and Fly, The Blob has no subversive or philosophical thematic through-line or social commentary (besides possibly an anti-government paranoia thing, but it’s weak). This one is a classic monster flick. If you enjoy the Friday the 13th movies for their non-stop parade of creative death scenes, check this one out. It’s more fun than most of the entries in that storied franchise.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
In a rare instance, before seeing a classic horror movie I read the book upon which it is based – The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson. Reading the book, I remarked to myself that several of the now ubiquitous haunted house tropes originated with this allegedly “true” story of a normal house inhabited by a malevolent spirit.
The basic framework – a gradually escalating series of mysterious, spooky events tormenting a family in their new home and possibly related to a violent history – has been adapted, mimicked, and improved upon several times over in the years since this movie came out. I was excited to see the template for this personal favorite subgenre of horror.
There’s good news and bad news. The good news is, like most horror movies of this ilk, the tension and creepy imagery are as effective as ever. Scenes toggle back and forth reliably between exposition sequences and scare sequences. The paranormal events ratchet up in intensity on a smooth curve. I was in a fairly unique position having read the book first with almost no familiarity with the movie. Naturally, a lot of detail is necessarily excised. Some of the creepiest details are missing completely – including one shocking and memorable aspect of the ending. But overall, the movie is more faithful to the book than you’d expect from the era.
The bad news is the movie looks and feels VERY 70’s. While the score is mercifully timeless in its classic haunted house vibe, the cinematography is chock full of melodramatic pans and zooms, and the acting runs the gamut from subtle and nuanced to soap opera-level hamminess. Indeed one of the top billed actors – Rod Steiger as Father Delaney – shouts the majority of his dialogue at full volume. It’s hard to stifle the laughs at times. Likewise the special effects (judiciously rationed though they are) do not hold up by any means. The sound design in particular is distinctly of the era.
However, there’s no denying The Amityville Horror’s place in horror movie history. If you enjoyed Poltergeist, Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring, or any of the countless other haunted house films that followed in Amityville’s footsteps, it’s worthwhile to see the genesis of much of what made those movies effective.