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Monsters in the Closet: Monsters, Madness and Genre-Blending in the 80s Classic, House

September 04, 2019 4 min read

Monsters in the Closet: Monsters, Madness and Genre-Blending in the 80s Classic, House

House is a film that SCREAMS 80s classic.  It has practical effect monsters.  It has a creepy old house with a broken family.  It has George Wendt and giant computers and poodle-style updos.  It even has a version of Big Mouth Billy Bass a full decade before it was a thing!  So, the question remains: why isn’t it on our "top 80s movies" lists alongside the likes of Fright Night?

This movie is the kind of film that you mention to someone and they say, “Oh, yeah!  I totally remember watching that one when I was a kid!”  But the details are always fuzzy.  If you ask someone about Silver Bullet, they instantly reply back with remembrances of Corey Haim and his tricked-out wheelchair.  Lost Boys? Maggoty rice.  Monster Squad?  The kick to Wolfman’s crotch.  But House?  It varies.  You are likely to think, “Isn’t that the one with a monster in the closet?” or “Isn’t that the one with the guy with PTSD?” or “Isn’t that the one with the military zombie at the end?”

The answer to all of those questions is yes, and that is the problem with our collective memory of House.  It is one of the more creative endeavors of the 80s, a decade that is often remembered for heaps upon heaps of slasher movies.  The monster movies that we remember fondly often have child or youth heroes, with themes that would appeal to kids.  The idea of being open to putting the psychology of the characters front and center, and prioritizing it over the horror elements, is a modern one that was underappreciated here.

House follows Roger (William Katt, familiar to most horror fans as Tommy Ross in Carrie), a writer that has recently lost his eccentric aunt to suicide.  He is divorced but still friendly with his wife, Sandy (Kay Lenz).  They parted ways after their son disappeared, their grief too much to handle.  Sandy is worried about Roger, and concerned that he can’t let go.  He is working on his next book, a retelling of his experiences in Vietnam.  Roger moves into the house for some privacy and to go through his aunt’s things.  While he is there, he reminisces about his son’s disappearance.  The police determined that his son was snatched from the backyard, but Roger recalls that he jumped in the pool, and vanished in the water.  Memories and visions of his son become more vivid as he writes, and he allows his memories of what he went through in Vietnam to come to the surface.  As Roger digs into the mysteries that the old house holds, he must face his fears to unlock the secret that will give him his son back.

The name House implies that the story is a supernatural one, but the haunting here is actually of the inner demon variety.  Roger reflects on his experiences in Vietnam, and for a while you wonder if he has in fact lost his grip on reality.  His neighbour (George Wendt) wonders as well, and makes multiple calls to his ex-wife and even the police as Roger’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic (shout out to a Steven Williams cameo here as Cop #4!).  As the movie goes on, it is discovered that the house provides access to several portals.  What starts as a Paranormal Activity-esque set up to record proof becomes a full-on monster hunt as creatures begin popping through.

And we need to talk about these monsters.  They are creative and quirky, and once Roger embraces the fact that these monsters are real, he goes full commando mode, opening portals and offing monsters one by one.  And it wouldn’t be an 80s horror flick without a musical monster-killing montage!  What is great about the monsters in this movie is that we are not invested in any particular one (at least, not until the end).  This allows the film to throw as many bizarre monsters the audience’s way as it can, from a mounted swordfish that comes to life all the way to the big bad, the undead soldier.

There is a lot to unpack in this movie, and I think that while this is what makes it a stellar film, it is also what makes it less memorable.  It is hard to pinpoint that one memorable trait that feeds us as a nostalgia hungry generation.  Houseseems to incorporate many 80s horror traits, and it manages to do it successfully.  But at the time, it was definitely an oddball film.  It incorporates elements of horror humour, but wasn’t aimed at kids like some of the popular monster films of the decade.  In the opening scene, a teen boy walks in on an old woman who has hung herself.  On top of that, there are no child heroes in this one, unlike other 80s youth hits.  It tries for some elements of psychological horror, and does it successfully by examining Roger’s post-traumatic stress.  But the audience doesn’t doubt that Roger is seeing what he is seeing, because he is our hero and we want him to come out on top.  Plus, the monsters are a very obvious metaphor for his past.  Needing to kill them is cathartic for him, and because they are so closely tied to him as a metaphor.  Because the symbolism is so obviously out in the open, the audience doesn’t necessarily remember this film as a classic monster movie, either. 

This 80s film would be something that would be an audience darling today because of its originality and genre-blending.  It’s ability to have fun while examining some serious emotional issues put it somewhat ahead of its time.  We see the psychological and family elements in horror movies today in highly praised films that attract horror and non-horror audiences alike.  In recent years, films like Hereditary, The Babadook, It Comes at Night,and Pyewacket have been highly praised for examining family dynamics, grief, and trauma through horror elements.  Without movies like House that paved the way by blending human psychology with horror in a way that put the human story front and center, it wouldn’t be as successful a sub-genre as it is today.

Morgan Milobar is a freelance writer, blogger and aspiring novelist. For horror reviews, commentary and more, check out her website at viewfromthemorg.com.