Friday, September 23, 2016

B-Movie Review: 'House II: The Second Story' (1987)

Featuring zombie cowboys, pterodactyls, a cameo from Bill Maher and Cliff from Cheers sword-fighting virgin-sacrificing Mayans, it's easily one of the greatest terrible horror movies of the 1980s and yes, you do need to see it.

By: Jimbo X

Blame it on WATL-36. 

Growing up, that was the local Fox affiliate. From 8 p.m. until 10 p.m., they showed all the usual programming – Married…with ChildrenThe Simpsons, Sightings, what have you – but beyond their Saturday morning and afternoon cartoon blocks, pretty much everything else on the channel was winged together with whatever the studio had laying around. For the most part, this meant endless reruns of M*A*S*H and Webster, but on Saturday afternoons? Buddy, that was go-time for eight straight hours of pure-D, unadulterated, B-movie sleaze. 

Of course, WATL periodically showed legitimately solid genre offerings, like Predator and some of the better Elm Street movies. However, the bulk of their film library consisted of super-obscure, outsiders-need-not-apply exploitation flicks like Reform School Girls and Dead End Drive-InAnd it was there that I was first introduced to what would become one of my lifelong passions – crappy horror movies.

So are giant mole-shark dinosaurs from
the Triassic or Jurassic period?
Oh, WATL showed some “good ‘uns” over the years. Who could ever forget The Pit (as an aside, reportedly one of Adam Lanza’s favorite movies), about a weirdo kid whose best friend was a troll that lived in a sinkhole in his backyard? Or what about Ghoulies II (a Gremlins rip-off about stop-motion clay midget monsters puking Gorilla Glue on carnival attendees), or Slugsthe all-time ecological horror classic featuring a scene where a dude barfs his intestines up in a ritzy restaurant 'cause he accidentally ate lettuce with irradiated snail in it, or Killer Klowns from Outer Space, which was about … well, take a guess?

Even now, I can recite the “viewer discretion is strongly advised” warning bumper that played before each movie returned from commercial break. Granted, “the following film contains graphic scenes that are intense, and in some cases, violent” isn’t quite as iconic an Atlanta cultural meme as “ask for the Wolfman” or “for the best car insurance rates in town, call 1-800-GENERAL now,” but if you grew up in the Dogwood City in the early 1990s, it was nonetheless a crucial part of your lexicon. 

Of all the subpar, substandard (and potentially subversive?) films WATL screened on regular rotation, probably the one I enjoyed the most was House II: The Second Story. Never heard of it? Well, you really ought to, as its one of the absolute best movies that sucks ever filmed. It’s a total masterpiece (of crap) on par with the absolute titans of regressive cinema, a’la The Story of Ricky and The Curse. Absolutely everything about the movie is irredeemably stupid, but it winds up being such a fun, genre-melding experience that you can’t help but enjoy every minute of the goofy, nonsensical ride. When it comes to cinematic guilty pleasures, very few movies will make you feel as guilty – albeit regrettably pleased – as this one. 

So yeah, Bill Maher has pretty much always had the world's most punchable face.

Despite the fact the film has the number two in it (and judging from some of the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, it looks like there are a lot of people out there who think the film itself is a bunch of number two), the film has virtually nothing to do with the first House, which came out in 1986. Whereas that movie was about a writer whose Vietnam War and post-divorce traumas physically manifest themselves into monsters (trust me, the execution is nowhere near as good as the premise deserved), House II concerns itself with a bunch of yuppies who unknowingly resurrect a zombie cowboy who, in turn, transforms their new abode into a gateway to the multiverse. And from there? It’s absolute bedlam, folks, with Claymation catfish dinosaurs, barbarian warriors and Cliff from Cheers showing up for no reason at all to sword fight druids. 

Yeah, making rhyme and reason out of this one is going to be an uphill task, but at least let me make an effort to encapsulate what this criminally unheralded reverse magnum opus is all about. 

The film begins with a flashback to the 1920s, with a couple in a huge mansion forced to give their baby away to some shadowy gunslinger with a voice like Lemmy from Motorhead. He says he wants “a skull” of some kind, and when they don’t comply, he blows both ma and pa away with his six shooter. From there, we jump ahead to the late 1980s, where a Nic Cage lookalike named Jesse and his gal pal Kate (played by that chick who portrayed the psychic girl in the seventh Jason movie) are moving into the same gigantic residence. They rummage through some old photo books and hear the mysterious sounds of spurs echoing down the hallway, but of course, they never bother investigating it. Some of their yuppie pals show up for a housewarming party, and everybody gets sloshed and Jazzercises. Following the introduction of a subplot about a recording contract, we get a little bit of exposition on the rivalry between Jesse’s great-great grandfather and a conniving cowboy named Slim Razor. Upon learning that his great, great grandpappy was buried out back with what may or may not be a magical Aztec skull that grants its possessor eternal life, Jesse and his best bud do what any reasonable sorts would: they grab a couple of shovels and decide to do some midnight exhuming. 

No wonder Cliff was always such a sourpuss after work!

Well, there’s just one hitch in the plan: apparently, great, great grandpa ain’t all that dead yet, and he immediately springs out of his coffin and scares the poo out of everybody with his ghastly zombie face. After the diggers announce that they are related to him, however, the undead dude quickly changes his tune, yanks off his skeletal mask and embraces his great-great-grandson. Gramps, as he is affectionately called, is shocked to realize he’s turned into a “170-year-old fart,” so his much younger descendant comforts him … by letting him drive his ’86 Alpha-Romeo Spider drunk. 

Following an out of nowhere lecture on the perils of ozone depletion, the president of Heretic Records shows up at Jesse’s doorsteps – and he’s played by, of all people, BILL MAHER. In the basement, Gramps plays with Kleenex and calls Ronald Reagan “a pansy.” He gets bored, though, so he decides to show up at the Halloween party upstairs, where he proceeds to cut a rug and impress everybody who is oblivious to the fact that he’s the living dead. Meanwhile, Jesse runs into his ex-girlfriend, but before the plot can thicken, an Aztec pro ‘rassler (who, for some reason, is whiter than lite mayonnaise) steals the magical skull and slaps Kate around, and all of a sudden, the entire room transforms into a literal jungle, complete with Play-Doh dinosaurs. After the Aztec warrior is eaten by … something … another stop-motion animation pterodactyl swoops in and steals the skull, which, along with this weird half puppy, half caterpillar chimera, start wreaking havoc all over the house (which, for the sake of maintaining continuity, hasn’t entirely been turned into a prehistoric war zone.)

I don't know what this puppy-caterpillar hybrid
is more: adorable or edible
After a great scene where Gramps feeds the cater-puppy beer in a baby’s bottle, (and an even better gag where Jesse tries to hide the pterodactyl from Bill Maher in a closet, only to open it and reveal his totally tanked ex), he’s attacked by another gaggle of Aztecs. This goads the new homeowners to call electrician John Ratzenberger, who quickly identifies their problem – “looks like you’ve got some kind of alternate dimension in there.” He then walks through a wall and, what do you know, looks like there’s a virgin sacrifice in progress. For absolutely no explicable reason whatsoever, Cliff breaks out a sword and dispatches the druids one by one. He promptly exits the film, but not before giving the protagonists a business card describing himself as “electrician and adventurer.” 

Then, the two yuppie pals, their zombie grandpa, a caterpillar puppy-dog and the cavewoman they just rescued gather 'round the dinner table for a family meal. But aww fiddlesticks, that evil old cowboy from the intro just pops out of the table, and he’s a zombie, too, and he steals the would-be sacrifice and Jesse says that is e-nough, straps on a bandolero and decides to go gunning after Slim hisself. 

Eventually, he finds the right alternate reality portal (so, yes, in a way, you can say that Super Mario 64 kind of stole its premise from this movie) and it’s a spooky Wild West ghost town, complete with stop-motion skeleton horses. While Jesse and Slim prepare for a final showdown, the po-po show up in “reality” and a huge SWAT situation unfurls. Eventually, Jesse manages to literally blow Slim’s head off, but in the chaos, gramps ends up re-dying, and a headless Slim makes one final putsch, but since a Waco-style fire had ensued from the SWAT standoff, it’s pretty safe to say that he was likely incinerated in the conflagration … or was he? 

And the film concludes with Jesse, his new slave girl gal pal, the cater-puppy and the pterodactyl hitching up a wagon in the same Wild West alternate universe as before, so they can give gramps a proper burial. And that, folks, is the end of the line.

Granted, James Hetfield circa 1991 holding a $5 souvenir from a Panama City, Fla. bong shop ain't exactly on par with Jason or Chucky, but hey, it still beats The Leprechaun, don't it?

You know, I’ve reviewed some downright bizarre movies over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as awed by the abject absurdity of ANY movie I’ve summarized as House II. And remember: this is coming from a guy who has done the play-by-play for a movie about black, homosexual aliens on a mission to eradicate all earth women and a jihadist musical about Islamofascist terrorists on a mission to kill Salmon Rushdie

You know that part in Superman III where Richard Pryor, visibly high on cocaine, runs around with a dinner table cover doing the worst impersonation of the Man of Steel in recorded history? Well, that’s pretty much the plot of House II – it kinda, sorta has a direction, but it’s all over the place and you don’t know whether to groan, chuckle nervously or feel worried about the mental health of the person responsible for it. It’s just such a late 1980s product, the kind of ephemera that’s so glibly unaware of its own cheesiness and spasticity. I’m pretty sure if you stuffed the VHS tape into a glass vial and smoke it, you’d get high as fuck.

Granted, the big appeal of House II is that it is such a major cringe-fest. At the same time, however, it’s an undeniably fun cringe-fest, which literally throws everything and the kitchen sink at you. This is the kind of film you watch with an extra-large pineapple pizza on the couch beside you, with a frosty glass of Mr. Pibb sitting on the coffee table sans a coaster, preferably while in a tattered t shirt and your boxers at noon on a Saturday, casually remarking “yep, that’s fucked up,” as the illogical madness unfurls before you. You can say it’s the kind of slothful behavior you are “above,” but by golly, as soon as this movie gets its hooks into you, you pretty much revert back to being the world’s most idle eight-year-old. 

The film was directed and written by a guy named Ethan Wiley, who actually got his start as a puppeteer for movies like Gremlins and Return of the Jedi. With that in mind, all of the stop-motion critters included in the film, I suppose, make a lot more sense. Strangely enough, the film’s two primary protagonists were played by guys who would go on to have pretty big connections with Ellen DeGeneres. Arye Gross, who played Jesse, would go on to star as Ellen’s sidekick on her eponymous 1990s ABC program, while Jonathan Stark, who played best pal Charlie, was actually the co-writer for the episode where Ellen came out of the closet. You really don’t need me to fill you in on what Maher and Ratzenberger have been up to since the film was released in 1987 – meanwhile, Gramps actor Royal Dano died in 1994, co-female lead Amy Yasbeck went on to star in the Problem Child movies and Lar Park Lincoln has been battling cancer since 2008. Well, shit, that was more depressing than I thought it was going to be … especially the part about the Problem Child movies. 

As for the House franchise, it kept chugging along, although none of the follow-ups continued the story arc set up in numero dos. The next film wasn’t even officially called House III – instead, it was called The Horror Show and had pretty much the exact same plot as Shocker, even though it came out a few months earlier. I have only the vaguest recollections of House IV, which was kind of a reboot of the first movie, except for this one part where an evil dude makes another guy chug toxic waste … which, much to my disappointment, didn’t turn him into a Ninja Turtle. Also, Marvel somehow managed to make a comic book adaptation of the film, which yeah, was probably all kinds of terrible. 

Of course, it’s hard to not look back at House II and not be tainted by the fog of nostalgia. It’s a bad movie in just about every category you can think of – plot, acting, editing, special effects and probably even catering – but it’s still just a hoot to sit through. It’s dumb and it hardly makes any sense and there’s nothing even remotely scary about it, but all of that lameness somehow jells into a perfect slime mold of temporal silliness. It does such an expert job of capturing the asininity of the times that, in hindsight, it almost feels like a strangely self-cognizant satire of late 1980s horror movies (an attribute that got it a passing mention in Scream 2, it must be said.) In the pantheon of idiotic genre films, very, very few movies do as good a job summing up everything that made the time frame such a great epoch for terrible movies. House II unquestionably sucks, but it sucks in the best way possible: it’s a self-parody that isn’t hung up on how much smarter it is than the fare it's making fun of, a film that can be enjoyed as both a caustic condemnation of the banality and lack of ambition in horror movies from the era as well as a celebration of their free-spiritedness, chaotic energy and total lack of airy sophistication.

There are certainly much better “good” genre movies from the era and there are certainly much worse “bad” genre movies, as well. But as far as good “bad” genre movies from the heyday of Dokken and the Sega Master System? There ain’t that many that do a better job of being good at being bad than House II

And if none of that makes any sense to you – clearly, you never grew up in Reagan’s America.


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