HOUSE: TWO STORIES (1986/1987) Limited Edition Blu-ray
Director(s): Steve Miner/Ethan Wiley
Arrow Video USA

Although Arrow Video is releasing a deluxe Blu-ray boxed set of the eighties horror comedy HOUSE quartet in the UK, rights issues mean that Arrow Video USA can only give us the first two (and best) entries as HOUSE: TWO STORIES.

Ever since the devastating disappearance of his son Jimmy the year before, horror writer Roger Cobb (William Katt, CARRIE) has suffered from writer's block and the resurgence of nightmares about his experiences in Vietnam where his buddy "Big Ben" (Richard Moll, EVILSPEAK) was killed. When his aunt Elizabeth (Susan French, SOMEWHERE IN TIME) commits suicide and he inherits the Victorian house in which he grew up, he at first puts it up for sale but then decides it may be just the place where he can get to work on his autobiographical novel about the Vietnam war and be close to his memories of his son. He finds more to distract him than the hot neighbor next door (Mary Stavin, HOWLING V: THE REBIRTH) who likes to use his pool when his uncle's mounted swordfish come, there's a real monster in the closet, and doors seem to open into other deadly dimensions. His increasingly erratic behavior attracts the attention and concern of his neighbor Harold (CHEERS' George Wendt) and his soap star ex-wife Sandy (Kay Lenz, AMERICAN GRAFFITI). The ghost of Roger's aunt warns him that the house will try to trick him and use his fears against him, but he becomes obsessed when it seems as though his missing son is trapped somewhere in the house.

One of the few eighties horror comedies that was actually funny – in contrast to, say, New World's own RETURN TO HORROR HIGH, RETURN OF THE KILLER TOMATOES, and TRANSYLVANIA 6-5000 – HOUSE works because it manages to meld horror and comedy without condescension for the former due not only to the script (more on that later) but also the desire for producer Sean S. Cunningham (LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT) and director Steve Miner (SOUL MAN) to move beyond the slasher aesthetics of the FRIDAY THE 13TH films while still loving the genre. The film is anchored by Katt's energy and his character's emotional core as underlying aspects of the film's plotting reveal themselves, making a final freeze frame shock unnecessary. The low budget production boasts some slick photography by the always dependable Mac Ahlberg (HELL NIGHT) and some ambitious production design by Gregg Fonseca (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) in the form of a two floor single set that allowed creative camera movement and more fluid staging. The supporting cast includes GHOSTBUSTERS' Michael Ensign as the real estate agent, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT's Alan Autry as a police officer, AUSTIN POWERS' Mindy Sterling as an intense fan, as well as THE GUARDIAN's Dwier Brown and WITCHBOARD's Stephen Nichols as two of Roger's Vietnam buddies. A clip from DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT can be seen on Roger's television (the film was distributed by Hallmark who also distributed LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT).

HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY ups the comedy and goes for a lighter vein in general after the opening prologue in which fearful parents Clarence (Dwier Brown again) and Judith (Lenora May, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS) give up their infant son Jesse to friends just moments before they are both brutally gunned down in their own home. Twenty-five years later, grown up Jesse (Arye Gross, EXTERMINATOR 2) inherits the mansion. Much the chagrin of his music producer girlfriend Kate (Lar-Park Lincoln, FRIDAY THE 13TH VII: THE NEW BLOOD), Jesse loves the house and becomes fascinated with the history of his namesake grandfather, a cowboy who built the house from Mayan ruins he raided south of the border with his pal Slim Reeser who quarreled over ownership of a Mayan crystal skull. When Jesse's manchild best friend Charlie (Jonathan Stark, FRIGHT NIGHT) shows up with his singer girlfriend Lana (Amy Yasbeck, PROBLEM CHILD), Kate is preoccupied trying to launch Lana's career with her slimy boss (Bill Maher, CANNIBAL WOMEN IN THE AVOCADO JUNGLE OF DEATH) while Jesse and Charlie decide to dig up his grandfather to see if he was buried with the skull only to discover that "Gramps" (Royal Dano, MESSIAH OF EVIL) is still very much alive… or undead. While trying to hide Gramps from their girlfriends, Jesse and Charlie learn from him that the house is actually a temple and that the skull enable doors to open into various dimensions across space and time, and that evil forces from those places – including the equally undead Slim Reeser (Dean Cleverdon, SUNDOWN: THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT) – are after the skull.

With HOUSE screenwriter Ethan Wiley (CHILDREN OF THE CORN V: FIELDS OF TERROR) in the director's chair and a slightly higher budget, HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY brings back the successful elements of Ahlberg's photography, Fonseca's production design, and the scoring of Harry Manfredini (FRIDAY THE 13TH) with the addition of some more elaborate special effects by Wiley's former employer Chris Walas (THE FLY) – including a pet pterodactyl and caterdog – and a couple visual effects by Dream Quest Images. While the first film really had to strain for what New World believed was a commercially-essential R-rating, HOUSE II was a more family-friendly PG-13 with more laughs than scares but Gross and Stark (who later wrote for the sitcom ELLEN which co-starred Gross) are engaging while Dano strikes the right balance of pathos and humor. This time around, CHEERS' John Ratzenberger puts in an appearance as an electrician who unearths the entrance to an Aztec temple in the house's wall. The cast also includes Mitzi Kapture (THE VAGRANT), stunt coordinator Kane Hodder (PRISON), and SOCIETY's Devin DeVasquez as an Aztec virginal sacrifice. After New World went bankrupt, Cunningham continued the series with two more harder-edged entries: THE HORROR SHOW (helmed by Chris Walas effects artist Jim Isaacs) which was not meant to be a HOUSE film but was titled HOUSE 3 overseas by United Artists, and New Line Cinema's HOUSE IV which was directed by Lewis Abernathy who had previously penned the script for the Cunningham-directed DEEP STAR SIX.

Released theatrically and on home video by New World Pictures and then on LP mode sell-through tapes from Starmaker, HOUSE and HOUSE II hit DVD from Anchor Bay in 2001 in new anamorphic transfers with commentaries and a vintage featurette for the first film (HOUSE II was only available in a limited edition with the first film but issued on its own the following year). When Anchor Bay lost the rights to the Lakeshore titles, they were licensed to Image Entertainment who put out both films on barebones DVDs in 2011. When Arrow acquired the Lakeshore titles last year, it was only a matter of time before they took on the HOUSE films. While Arrow Video's UK arm is releasing all four films in a four-disc set with extras and a 156-page book covering all four films, the US rights to THE HORROR SHOW (which Scream Factory licensed from MGM for their Blu-ray release) and HOUSE IV with Warner via New Line prevented Arrow from reproducing the same package stateside. Instead, they are issuing the two-disc HOUSE: TWO STORIES with the same transfer and extras for the first two films and a sixty-page book covering the first two entries.

Mastered in 2K from the original 35mm interpositives, HOUSE and HOUSE II both look crisp and colorful, benefiting from the well-lit, largely studio-bound shoot while revealing their rough edges in different ways. The studio jungles and close-ups of James Cummin's creature effects do not fare well under the enhanced resolution, and there is at least one shot where the additional peripheral information over the DVD framing reveals a crew member's arm (once pointed out it is impossible to miss). Arrow received their scans of the HELLRAISER films from Lakeshore with hard-mattes and this may be the case with the HOUSE films (with Arrow electing to maintain the 1.85:1 matting rather than the cropping and reframing they would have been able to do with a full aperture scan). HOUSE II few visual effects look grainier than the surrounding footage but overall the transfer leaves one impressed with Ahlberg's lighting and use of eighties smoke and fog in the daytime interiors and blue gels and deployment of shadows in the night scenes. HOUSE has its original mono track in LPCM 1.0 along with an LPCM 2.0 stereo remix that gives just a tad more width to the score while an additional DTS-HD 5.1 track (possibly the one created for Anchor Bay's UK DVD back when the company was pushing 5.1 and DTS remixes even with titles where they obviously did not have the materials to perform remixes) gives more spread to the score and uses the surrounds to goose the viewer with noises once more up front in the mono mix. HOUSE II includes the original mono in LPCM 1.0 as well as a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix which is more entertaining as the film's mix was more adventurous and had more opportunities for novelty with the stone aged sequence, the Wild West, and the Aztec temple sequences. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided for both films.

The audio commentary with director Miner, producer Cunningham, writer Wiley, and star Katt from the Anchor Bay disc is carried over here. It is a lively, warm, and funny track in which Wiley recalls that the story idea was abandoned by UCLA roommate Fred Dekker (NIGHT OF THE CREEPS) so he developed along more comic lines than intended by Dekker and incorporated effects that he thought could be done on a low budget after having worked under Chris Walas on RETURN OF THE JEDI and GREMLINS. Dekker passed the script on to Cunningham who pitched to the majors who all wanted different changes until he wound up at New World. Miner was excited by the project as it gave him the opportunity to direct something that would get him taken seriously as a director after two FRIDAY THE 13TH films (he would direct SOUL MAN the following year for New World with C. Thomas Howell and HOUSE II star Arye Gross). Katt auditioned for the film and pursued the role, and the other contributors discuss the ways he contributed to shaping both the character and the film's humor.

"Ding Dong, You're Dead!: The Making of House" (66:39) is a brand new documentary featuring Miner, Cunningham, Wiley, and Katt again along with Dekker, Lenz, Wendt, Manfredini, Hodder, and others. Dekker sheds more light on the project's origins with his original idea to collaborate with some other filmmakers on a TWILIGHT ZONE-esque anthology with his story as a frightening tale of a Vietnam soldier with PTSD and had moved on to NIGHT OF THE CREEPS when HOUSE was set to go into production. Miner had bought the rights to GODZILLA from Toho to do an American version and the project was in development hell when Dekker told him about Wiley's script. Lenz recalls her family being family friends with Katt's and attending the same schools and being excited to work with him. William Stout (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) appears to talk about his studio being commissioned to do Elizabeth's surreal paintings for the film, of which he did the unfinished painting with the clues to the haunting while his sketches for the others were realized by Richard Hescox (THE HOWLING). Manfredini also appears to discuss how the film's situations provided him with more novelty than the stalk and kill formula of the FRIDAY films. Roughly half of the featurette is devoted to the effects work with input from Brian Wade (THE THING), Shannon Shea (JURASSIC PARK), and Kirk R. Thatcher (POLTERGEIST). Also included with the vintage behind the scenes featurette (24:07), an episode of the show "Making of" in which Cunningham promotes the film's brand of horror and humor by stating that slasher are on their way out, Miner hints at the film's twists, and the late effects supervisor James Cummins (DEAD & BURIED) shows off the effects creations (including the closet monster) to the camera. Extras close out with a stills gallery (6:54), two theatrical trailers (0:59 + 1:28), a teaser (1:27), and three thirty-second TV spots.

HOUSE II carries over the commentary with Cunningham and Wiley who, upon finding out that none of the original actors would be carried over, conceived the sequel (which had to be written quickly) as part of an ongoing anthology. They marvel over their discover of the Stimson House location (later seen in the series PUSHING DAISIES) which was in a rough area of town but served as student housing for Mount St. Mary's College at the time, Fonseca's impressive interior set, the work of Ahlberg (whose broader experience as a filmmaker left Wiley free to focus on the actors), the careful parceling out of the effects budget, and shooting exteriors in Griffith Park rather than creating more jungles in the studio. The best parts of the commentary are their warm recollections of Dano who was uninsurable after a bypass but was professional and charming, and maintaining a friendship with both of them after the film.

"It's Getting Weirder!: The Making of HOUSE II" (57:38) brings Cunningham and Wiley back to rehash their stories about the challenges of mounting the second film (with Dekker popping up briefly to comment on its standalone status). Gross recalls that the film allowed him to learn to act with puppets and things that were not on the set, Stark crushes over onscreen girlfriend Yasbeck and provides some commentary on the film's characters, and Lincoln acknowledges that her character is not the most sympathetic. Hodder discusses his stunt work on the film, how Gross rethought his desire to do his own stunts after seeing Hodder cut up from diving through a glass window as his double, and reuniting with Lincoln on the seventh FRIDAY THE 13TH film. Walas, make-up effects artist Mike Smithson (THE EXORCIST III), and stop motion animator Randy Dutra (JURASSIC PARK) recall putting a lot of "sweat equity" into the under-budgeted production while Manfredini recalls how the film's more adventurous scenario provided more scoring opportunities. Also included is the vintage EPK (14:38) with more talking heads and clips, stills gallery (6:14), the film's theatrical trailer (1:24), and a TV Spot (0:33). Not provided for review were the reversible covers and the aforementioned sixty-page book. The extras packages for both are impressive but the necessary absence of half of what this might have been should convince the fans to go for the UK set (the third and fourth films are presumably Region B coded only while the first two are A/B-coded) while those of us who did not really care for part three (and especially part four) will be satisfied with the two-disc although it would have been nice if Arrow had kept the book coverage of the other two films in this edition. (Eric Cotenas)