Arrow Video provides some welcome Blu-ray upgrades for the first two movies in the House franchise with their boxed set release of House: Two Stories. Here's a look…
Directed by Steve Miner in 1985 for producers Sean S. Cunningham, House introduces us to a man named Roger Cobb (William Klatt), a Vietnam vet who now makes a nice living for himself as a writer of horror novels. When the movie begins, we learn that his aged Aunt Elizabeth (Susan French) has recently ‘committed suicide' and left Roger, who is struggling with having recently lost his son Jimmy under mysterious circumstances. The body was never found and Roger holds out hope that he's alive. To make matters worse, he's in the midst of getting a semi-amicable divorce from his soap opera star wife Sandy Sinclair (Kim Lenz).
Roger's publisher is pressuring him for another hit. Roger wants to write about his experiences in the way but that's not so commercially viable. Regardless, when Aunt Elizabeth leaves him the house in her will, he soon moves in, hoping that the neat old Victorian home will give him the inspiration he needs to crank out his next book on time. Things get odd pretty quickly. Oh sure, there's a foxy European lady living nearby named Tanya (Mary Stavin), she seems friendly enough. And the guy next door, Harold Gorton (George Wendt), is also pretty welcoming if a little intrusive. But Roger keeps having strange flashbacks to his time overseas, time spent with a crazy solider named Big Ben (Richard Moll). Soon enough he's starting to see ghosts or monsters or something and he's running around in military garb brandishing a loaded shotgun… and maybe, just maybe, he's seeing his son again. Is Roger starting to crack or is there something wrong with the house itself?
PTSD is an odd choice of subject to base a horror comedy around but Miner and company make it work. Based on a story of Fred Dekker of The Monster Squad and a screenplay by Ethan Wiley (who would direct the sequel… more on that in a paragraph or two!), this picture is ninety minutes of goofy monster-based fun. When Roger starts seeing the various creatures that inhabit the house, or more specifically what lies beyond it, it's rarely scary but it is fun. The movie makes great use of some awesome monster designs and features a wealth of practical effects work that is loaded with weird, quirky charm. The fact that it is quick with its pace and features a great score from none other than Harry Manfredini doesn't hurt things either.
As to the cast, Klatt (probably best known for playing the lead in the TV series The Greatest American Hero), does a fine job in the lead. He's likeable even when he's clearly starting to crack and he handles the comedy, drama and action necessary for the plot to work with ease. George Wendt is, not surprisingly, mostly around for comic relief but he's good at it and there's something inherenty fun about watching Norm from Cheers help his neighbor battle monsters. Mary Stavin is good in her part, very attractive too, but underused while Kim Lenz as the semi-estranged wife who still cares about her troubled ex does fine work here too. Throw in a great turn from Richard Moll as a psychotic undead soldier and yeah, this is well cast and plenty entertaining too.
House II: The Second Story:
Wiley's sequel, made in 1987 and perfectly titled House II: The Second Story (seriously, that's pretty clever), was once again based on a story by Dekker and his own screenplay. This one ramps up the comedy even more compared to the first film, but it once again provides a pretty entertaining way to kill an hour and a half (even if it tosses the original's R-rating in favor of a slightly more sanitize PG-13 stamp of MPAA approval).
The plot this time around, it isn't so different. This picture tells the story of Jesse (Arye Gross), a young man who, you guessed it, inherits an old house from his long dead Gramps (Royal Dano). He and his wife, Kate (Lar Park Lincoln), a record company executive, and their snobby friend Charlie (Jonathan Stark) move in and, somewhat predictably, strange things start happening.
See, for whatever reason, long dead Gramps, an old cowboy (would you want Dano playing anything but an old cowboy?), is back from the dead, sort of, and he's got his heart set on getting his hands on a magic skull. The strange events, involving various creatures from other dimensions and time periods, all kinda-sorta tie into Gramps' quest and eventually, like the first movie, there's a bit of a showdown but it takes place in the old west instead of Vietnam. Oh, and once again someone from Cheers pops up in the film. This time around it's Cliff Clavin himself, John Ratzenberger, who in this picture plays q quirky electrician. And Bill Maher shows up briefly, so there's that too.
Most of the stronger horror elements from the original picture are pushed aside this time around in favor of more comedy, but it works. The cast are in really fine form here, hamming it up just enough to fit in the context of the fairly absurd story being told. Lincoln in particular really shines as the nasty wife while Royal Dano, heavily made up here to look like a zombie cowboy, steals every scene that he's in. The pacing is quick, the effects are solid and the creature design is pretty good. Gross, as the lead, manages to be likeable despite his flaws and he carries the film well. The fact that it is never scary almost doesn't matter if you look at this as more of a comedic adventure/fantasy than a horror picture. Manfredini again delivers a fine score, one that's familiar in its musical nods to the first movie while still managing to branch out enough to stands on its own. Is it as good as the first movie? Nah, but it's still a lot of fun in its own right, no matter how goofy it all is (and it is seriously goofy).
Arrow offers up both films in AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfers framed at 1.85.1 widescreen taken from new 2k scans of 35mm interpositives. Generally speaking the image quality here is really solid. Detail is quite improved over previous DVD releases and color reproduction typically looks great. There are a few spots where shadow detail is a little less than perfect but outside of that, there's little to complain about here in terms of the actual look of the transfers. More often than not grain appears quite natural and there are no noticeable problems with mpeg compression artifacts, edge enhancement or noise reduction. Additionally the elements used here were clearly in nice shape as there's very little actual print damage here to note at all, just the odd white speck now and again that most won't even notice. The only thing really worth quibbling about is that the frame has been opened up a bit to the point where, in the first movie at least, you can see a crew member or two on the side of the picture. Clearly this wasn't supposed to be visible (and on the more tightly framed Anchor Bay DVD release it is not). Each film is presented on its own 50GB Blu-ray disc.
House gets three audio options in the form of an LPCM Mono track, an LPCM 2.0 Stereo track and a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The mono and stereo tracks sound very similar save for score placement, which is a bit more spread out on the 2.0 mix obviously. They're fairly basic but the levels are good and everything comes through clearly without any issue. The 5.1 mix spreads out the score and effects nicely. This is more noticeable during the action scenes that take place in Vietnam and the sequences with the monsters. House II gets LPCM 2.0 Stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks that share similar qualities in terms of balance and clarity. The 5.1 mix, again, spreads out the score and effects a bit more, making some of the more intense scenes a bit more involving. There are no alternate language options, every one of the provided mixes are in the films' native English, while optional English subtitles are provided in English only.
Extras for Housestart off with an audio commentary featuring Ethan Wiley, William Katt, Sean Cunningham and Steve Miner. This is carried over from the special edition DVD release from years ago but if you haven't heard it before it is a very engaging and lively talk that covers everything you'd expect it to.
From there, check out the sixty-six minute featurette Ding Dong, You're Dead! which is new to this release and is made up of some great cast and crew interviews with the likes of William Katt, George Wendt, Steve Miner, Ethan Wiley, Sean S. Cunningham and more. Lots of good stories here with all involved looking back on this pretty fondly. Dekker talks about where some of the ideas came from, how Wiley came onboard to make his contributions to it while Cunningham talks about using his ‘clout' in the horror movie business to get this made. Klatt and Wendt both have lots to say about their characters and their experiences working on the picture too. Great stuff.
Also on hand is a twenty-four minute Vintage Making Of piece, a still gallery, two theatrical trailers, a teaser trailer, three different TV spots, menus and chapter selection.
Extras for House II start off with an audio commentary with Ethan Wiley and Sean Cunningham Again, this is ported over from the old DVD release and it's a good track with a lot of information in it about following up the success of the original and what they tried to do differently this time around.
Up next, a fifty-eight minute featurette called It's Getting Weirder! made up of another set of cast and crew interviews, this time features Wiley, Cunningham, Arye Gross, Jonathan Stark, Harry Manfredini, Kane Hodder and more. Like the first featurette this is well put together and loaded with stories about the making of the picture, the effects work ,what it was like on set and quite a bit in addition.
Rounding out the extras for the second film is a fifteen minute Vintage EPK segment that is made up of footage shot on set during the shoot and some talking head style interviews, a still gallery, a TV spot, menus and chapter selection.
It's also worth mentioning the packaging for this release. The two discs are housed in their own separate clear Blu-ray cases and packaged with nice double sided cover sleeves. These fit inside a sturdy hard cardboard box cover that also contains a 148page hardcover book entitled The House Companion. This tome covers not only the first two movies contained in this set but also the third and fourth films in the series (which are included in Arrow's UK release but for licensing reasons not in this North American release). Lots of great pictures accompany the text that not only offers up plot information, cast and crew details and background stories but also some critical analysis and insight into the history of the four different movies.
Framing quirks aside, Arrow Video's Blu-ray release of House: Two Stories is a strong one. Both movies remain plenty entertaining and the presentation here, along with the extras, is impressive. Add to that the considerable bonus of the included hardcover book and this package rounds out nicely. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.