Steve Miner’s 1986 film House is fondly remembered for a number of reasons: it’s a VHS mainstay with a killer cover and tag-line, it appealed to children of the 80s thanks to its slapstick sense of humour and a funny supporting turn from Cheers‘ George Wendt, it contains a plethora of practical effects that range from legitimately spooky to wonderfully cheesy, and it stars the one and only Greatest American Hero William Katt. Many of these elements are supported by a healthy dose of nostalgia on the viewers’ part – but as an anything goes horror-comedy, you could do much worse than House.
One element that struck me upon my most recent viewing of the film though, was the repeated rejections of the external pressures to be more masculine by the film’s central character Roger Cobb, portrayed by the aforementioned Katt. I started realizing that only through these rejections is Cobb lead down the path of achieving his happy ending.
In the film, Roger Cobb is a Stephen King-like horror writer who has been coasting for years on the success of his novel Blood Dance. After the unexplained disappearance of his son, his wife Sandy Sinclair divorces him and – to make matters even worse – his aunt Elizabeth Hooper commits suicide by hanging herself. In the wake of these events, Cobb takes up residence in Elizabeth’s old, possibly haunted house.
This rounds out the basic sketch of the plot, and sets the scene for Cobb to battle any number of both literal and figurative demons. On the surface, these demons don’t seem to add up to any singular theme aside from Cobb’s general loss of control within his own life, as they represent a fairly expected range of 80s suburban every-man worries – like marriage, fatherhood, the loss of innocence, as well as post-traumatic stress caused by Cobb’s time spent in the army.
Early on in the film, it’s revealed that Roger Cobb is attempting to write a follow-up to his book Blood Dance – a true to life account of his time spent in the Vietnam War. His fans in this scene are lining up at a book signing event – and could exist here as a representation of the mainstream’s ideology that masculine is better. The fans range from young and old, men and female, and they clamor for Cobb to continue writing violent horror-fiction, instead of focusing on his new project. Cobb’s readers are so clearly uninterested in a book that offers such a close and intimate tackling of emotions – which otherwise would be pushed aside or deemed too personal – instead they opt to ingest entertainment that allows them a disconnect, or to remain emotionally distant from the reading material.
Cobb is not deterred by the public’s reaction – or his pushy manager – and decides to alter his entire lifestyle around the sculpting of his upcoming book, ultimately setting up the events of the film as a result of this choice. Despite the fact that his struggles throughout the film could be argued trace themselves back to this early decision, it’s that same decision that allows Cobb to receive his happy ending at the climax of the film – it’s the initial and subsequently repeated rejection of the external pressures of masculinity that allow him to truly be happy with his life at the end of the film.
I began to worry that the film was shaking off my theory when Roger Cobb’s ex-wife shows up at the titular House around this point of the film. Sandy Sinclair – played by Kay Lenz – arrives at the behest of George Wendt’s character and his worry for Cobb’s quickly deteriorating sanity. After an effectively played reveal that Sandy is not his ex-wife but instead an exaggeratedly overweight and demonized version of her former self (aka Sandywitch), Cobb disposes of her in a particularly gruesome and thematically worrisome scene wherein he chops her body up and buries the pieces in the backyard – all while vying for attention from his buxom female neighbor who has arrived for a swim.
I had already started to crumple up my ideas and toss them in the proverbial recycling bin in the back of my brain when I started thinking about the idea of Sandywitch and what her image could represent to Cobb in a less literal sense. To me, her design represents less of Cobb’s personal vision of his ex-wife as a disgusting beast and more of what society expects his vision to be; this representation literally attacks and invades Cobb’s personal space in an attempt to get him to feel ill-will towards Sandy. Earlier in the film the two characters speak on the phone and their relationship as ex-partners is revealed to be complicated – and why wouldn’t it be? They clearly don’t hate each other, but Cobb feels pressures to see her as a negative force in his life – a being who has ripped his world apart and is coming back for more.
When he demolishes this demonic image of Sandy – and yes, disposes of it in the backyard – he’s able to see her again, this time in a new light. Interestingly, though the film ends on a triumphant note, their relationship is left to be slightly more ambiguous – there is no real inclination that they will re-connect romantically, rather there is a sense that they will continue to work together as ex-partners supporting a child.
Speaking of children, after all that demon-chopping, Cobb’s neighbour visits the House for what he thinks will be a romantic rendezvous. What Cobb wasn’t expecting, was for her to bring along her young child for him to babysit – you see, she’s not spending the night with him, but instead through some misunderstood dialogue, he’s already agreed to look after her son for the evening. As more demons – charmingly known as Little Critters – descend on the House, Cobb is forced to take the role of the care-giver and save the child in ways that he couldn’t do for his own son. In some small way, this can be seen as Cobb’s way of amending his past reliance on societal influenced gender roles and becoming a more well-rounded father figure for his son at the end of the film.
Which brings the film to it’s climax as the driving force behind all the strange goings on is revealed. Through flashbacks, we see Roger Cobb’s former Vietnam war buddy Big Ben (Richard Moll) die after Cobb abandons him to get help from the rest of their troop. It turns out that Big Ben has drummed up all of Cobb’s demons – going as far as to literally abducting his son and hiding him within an alternate dimension dressed as Vietnam for a number of years.
Big Ben escapes from the alternate dimension for the climax of the film, whereupon he continues to verbally assault Cobb’s manhood by claiming he “fights like a little girl”. Big Ben goes about as far as one can to calling Cobb “a pussy” without actually using the word – instead House replaces it with “wuss” as an alternative. Finally, Cobb realizes that Big Ben is praying upon his anger and fear, and it is only when he lets go of these emotions – and ultimately the need to succumb to the societal pressures to “be a man” – is Cobb able to defeat Ben and regain control of his own life through the reclamation of his long-lost son. As I mentioned before, when Cobb exits the House there is no hug-and-kiss moment with his ex-wife, no “save the world, get the girl” denouement – but rather a shared relief that their son has returned.
Maybe I’m way off-base and just reading into a lot of these themes, but that’s part of what makes House such an interesting film to me. There’s also a fun moment of set-dressing that reminds me of the board game Probe showing up in Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge – when Cobb opens up his freezer to get some food, it reveals a large stack of “chicken dinner” microwave meals – in the heightened reality of House, even his food seems to be calling him chicken.
There’s certainly a reason why when House was released, the LA Times called the film an “Unexpectedly ambitious and refreshingly unpredictable horror-comedy”. We’ve seen plenty of movies blur the lines between personal demons and those of the physical realm, but there’s something to House that makes it all the more special to me, and that ambitiousness definitely leads me to believe the film has more to say than initially meets the eye.