In a new age for horror and culture, films of the seventies had a growing sense of urgency about societal matters. Filmmakers were capitalizing on topical issues like stranger danger (Halloween), Satanic Panic (Race with the Devil), environmentalism (Piranha), fear of counter-culture (The Hills Have Eyes), and family dysfunction (The Omen).
Then came the eighties, a time when cinema was acting like quicksilver. The fantastic was becoming more and more tangible thanks to advances in special effects, and the genre films coming out would be scoured for inspiration for years to come. In addition, horror was more imaginative than ever in spite of some redundancy among certain niches. A playfulness had crept its way in, and horror enthusiasts seemed to like it. As a result, studios continued to produce other films of a whimsical nature.
COMEDY OF HORRORS
The increasing popularity of horror in the mainstream meant that genre crossovers were inevitable. A prevalent union at the time was horror and comedy. Student Bodies and National Lampoon’s Class Reunion parodied slashers; the likes of The Evil Dead and Re-Animator were coupling over the top gore with slapstick; and An American Werewolf in London and Fright Night offered subtle humor rather than satire. Coalescing horror with comedy was indeed trendy, but not every horror comedy film coming out in the eighties was doing it just to be hip. A few were plainly trying to soften the severity of their subject matter.
A prime example of this would be Steve Miner’s 1986 film House. William Katt (Carrie) portrays Roger Cobb, a Vietnam War veteran turned successful author. As he prepares to write his followup novel, he moves into the Victorian house he inherited from his recently departed aunt. It’s there that Roger starts to experience phenomena that makes him question his sanity.
“LOSS” IN TRANSLATION
House is easily recognized for its iconic cover art: a decayed and severed hand presses a doorbell as the tagline reads: “Ding dong, you’re dead.” New World Video’s VHS packaging features a quote from film critic Kevin Thomas, which says the film has “some serious undertones.” What Thomas is referring to is precisely why House stands out among its contemporaries. It’s classified as a horror comedy, but there’s a chunk of obscured undercurrents waiting to be examined.
Like with other horror films, someone dies in the very beginning of House. Except here, the death is from suicide. Roger‘s aunt has hanged herself, and her dangling corpse is discovered by a young man delivering the old woman’s groceries. Her nephew Roger eventually moves into her house, the same place where his young son Jimmy (Erik Silver, Mark Silver) disappeared. In the new book he’s writing, Roger details his upsetting experiences in the Vietnam War. No matter where he looks, Roger is surrounded by death and loss. It’s inescapable, and the toll it’s taken on him is now more apparent than ever. Besides, Roger hasn’t properly grieved for Jimmy because he still believes his son is alive. Yet his ex-wife Sandy (Kay Lenz) and the authorities have lost faith in finding the boy. All evidence points to Jimmy being dead, but Roger‘s hope is resolute.
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CASE OF THE EX
The loss of a child is something people would never wish on others. And it’s not unheard of for couples to separate after such a life-altering event. Halfway into the movie, Roger is surprised with a visit from his “wife.” Their reunion is cut short when “Sandy” turns out to be a demonic impostor. Roger shoots her, but she’s far from being dead. An immediate interpretation of these very scenes is that Roger killed “Sandy” so they each could be free—free from feeling like they have to be in one another’s lives any longer. Especially since their son is gone.
To go even deeper, the matter of Roger killing “Sandy” is likely not about him hating his wife. In the bookstore scene where Roger was signing autographs for fans, one random woman asked him about Sandy, not realizing the two are divorced. Roger is annoyed by either this fan’s ignorance or the mere reminder of his divorce. Maybe both. Roger and Sandy appear to be on good terms regardless of Jimmy‘s disappearance, but their divorce might have been ugly. Perhaps that’s why the “Sandy” demon looked the way she did: the monster’s true and hideous form represented the dissolution of Roger and Sandy‘s marriage.
With genre films often being used for escapism, heavier social issues are told through symbolism. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not unheard of in horror. However, horror films exclusively about veterans living with PTSD were not common in and around this era. House approaches the topic in a way that is accessible to uninformed audiences.
Whenever Roger has a dissociative episode (a flashback) about his time in Vietnam, his anxiety manifests into a corporeal enemy he can fight. His inner demons literally become outer demons. These smaller battles culminate into a more significant one where Roger squares off with Big Ben (Richard Moll), a friend from his army days who is now one of the walking dead. After running away from Ben and being taunted about his supposed weakness, Roger stands up to his zombie bully. He lets go of the guilt he felt for so long over Ben‘s death, and he reclaims control of his life. As reward, he is a father again. It’s almost as if this entire ordeal was a test—one where Roger had to be broken down so he could be rebuilt as a better person and a better father.
MASCULINITY AND FATHERHOOD
The eighties were a good time to be a male action star. Many of these athletic men were automatically cast as leads despite having little to no aptitude for acting. They represented virility and absolute manliness as they waged war against terrorists, ninjas, and aliens. As with slashers where women were expected to be “final girls,” men were to be the indomitable heroes in action movies.
Roger Cobb, on the other hand, is a subversion of this trope. In the army, he was not the alpha of the pack. In fact, he was kind of timid. Roger weeps, laments, and is well aware of how he coldly he treats his concerned ex. The undead Big Ben begrudges Roger because he couldn’t mercy kill him back in Vietnam. Taking a life is not something Roger can do so comfortably.
Horror has always challenged traditional gender roles—and House is no exception. Like the many mothers and stand-in maternal figures in films before him, Roger goes to extremes to prove he’s a good parent. He battles gremlins who are trying to snatch his neighbor’s child, and he ventures into an otherworldly realm to save his own son. In comparison to Roger‘s unrelenting desire to be a caregiver, the mothers in the movie aren’t as impassioned about parenting. Sandy has given up on finding her son, and she’s returned to work as an actor with no major signs of despair like her ex-husband; Roger‘s neighbor Tanya (Mary Stävin) pawns her son off to him for the night without considering he’s an absolute stranger. Be that as it may, it’s not for certain that the goal of all this was to paint the women as inferior parents. If anything, House only wants to reaffirm that Roger is indeed a great father.
Merging comedy and horror into one film invites decisive reactions from the film community. Purists want unadulterated horror because they think the films should only be scary, not funny; for others, it’s a case-by-case basis. By and large, horror films are vehicles for communicating our fears. Filmmakers will convey issues both large and small by employing ghosts, masked killers, and whatever else that strikes a nerve.
Horror is all about our innate distress or the kind we’re made to feel, and like in real life, people ebb those feelings by making a joke. Humor can be cathartic, and to a lot of people, laughing is as important to the soul as medicine is to the body. Physically speaking, laughter triggers endorphins, reduces stress hormones, and improves our immunity. Basically: joking helps us endure the hard stuff. Bridging comedy and horror is not an effortless task, but when done right, it can be the greatest reflection of how so many of us handle our own sufferings.
In the end, House will be remembered best as a horror comedy. Potential new viewers wary of that certitude shouldn’t write the movie off so readily, though. Ethan Wiley’s (House II: The Second Story) underestimated screenplay has layers, and some of Steve Miner’s (Friday the 13th Part 2) finest work as a horror director can be found here. House is not particularly scary through today’s scope, but to the film’s credit, it contains some of the most memorable creature works of the eighties on account of late designer James Cummins (The Boneyard). House owes much of its longevity to its marvelous visual effects and general sense of amusement, but the broaching of topics like PTSD as well as the complex character study of Roger Cobb are just as valuable.
House was first released today in 1986! What are your thoughts on horror comedies and the House franchise? Let us know on Twitter, in the Official Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!