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House II: The Second Story
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by Jack Sommersby

"The Second Time is Kinda the Charm"
3 stars

Grossed just under $8 million and was mostly ignored by critics, it's the kind of oddity you stumble on while channel-surfing that warrants at least some attention.

Recommending the unremarkable but harmless House II: The Second Story is a bit of a toss-up in that it’s not particularly good and yet I had a reasonably okay time at it, truth be told. The original was produced and directed by Sean S. Cunningham of Friday the 13th fame, and it starred television’s William Katt of The Last American Hero as Roger Cobb, a novelist who inherited his aunt’s spacious three-story house that turned out to contain an assortment of weirdo creatures; Cobb was also a Vietnam War veteran, and unless I’m mistaken there was something of a parable being drawn from this, but the treatment of it was so vague that any sane-minded moviegoer knew not to expend too many brain cells pondering it. The movie was a horror-comedy, and it actually improved on a second viewing -- anyone going into it the first time expecting a standardized haunted-house tale walked away disappointed; it was only the next time that you grew to appreciate its macabre touches. It was written by Ethan Wiley, who also wrote the sequel and makes his directorial debut, and it’s clear he has no intention of scaring us silly -- in fact, silliness is its chief virtue, along with an unexpectedly touching central human relationship that takes one by surprise. This time the hero is Jesse and the lead actor Arye Gross, who the year before stole scene after scene right out from under star C. Thomas Howell in the fine comedy Soul Man; there was a wonderful extended bit where Arye’s Harvard law student faced off against James Earl Jones’s professor in defending his friend against expulsion -- rather than allowing himself to be intimidated by an actor as majestic as Jones, Gross confidently held his own and skillfully walked away the standout. (New World Pictures released Soul Man, as well as this: obviously the studio thinks they have a possibility of a real star in Gross; and Gross, not unwisely, obviously jumped at the chance to make his starring debut.) Wiley hasn’t bothered to organically incorporate Gross’s Jesse into the proceedings to tie in with the original: his unrelated-to-Roger recent college graduate has inherited a completely different house that’s been in his family for generations. As the movie opens, twenty-five years in the past when Jesse was a baby, his panicked parents send him away from the house with a guardian; when they go back inside, a cowboy-dressed creature pulls out his ancient six-shooter and demands they turn over “the skull,” and when they profess to not knowing what it is, they’re shot dead on the spot. It turns out the house functions as a temple, and one night Jesse locates a secret passage in the basement, and lo and behold his great-grandfather of the Old West (played by Royal Dano) has been resurrected in a mummified body capable of coherent speech and agile movement. Jesse starts calling him Gramps, and Gramps, floored at the changes in this late-twentieth century, has some amusing observations on TV and microwave ovens and, in particular, Kleenex (when the sheets run out, Gramps thinks he’s broken it); he also has an unquenchable taste for booze, and soon Gramps and Jesse and his best friend Charley (Jonathan Stark) are kicking back with six-packs; and at a crowded house party, Gramps is the toast of the room, with the drunken young-uns (amusingly) never questioning this ultra-old geezer’s ghostly appearance because he still has the spunk of ten men.

Because both Gross and Dano are such engaging performers I could’ve sat through all of House II: The Second Story with just scenes with them. (There’s a genuine tear-jerking moment when Gramps finally decides to say goodbye to this world because he’s had the good fortune to have been afforded the pleasure of spending time with the grandson he never knew, and never for a second is it overly maudlin.) But there are some other perfectly outlandish story elements to be had. The Aztec rock-crystal skull that was demanded from Jesse’s parents belongs on a special place on the fireplace mantle (it glows a bright blue when placed there), and there’s a great demand for it because it can “unlock the mysteries of the universe and bring eternal life to all who possess it.” Jesse stumbles upon a room with a vast jungle inside it, and a spear-wielding native wearing only a loincloth gives chase to him; Jesse manages to escape and locates the skull, but it’s soon taken away from him by (are you ready?) a Pterodactyl that flies in and drops it high up in its nest where its egg has just hatched, and out pops an adorable creature whose jaws enclose on the skull and Jesse can’t pull it loose. This was obviously a low-budget production, and obviously Wiley knows this baby dino is quite fake-looking, but that, along with the adorable muffled roar it emits, is part of the charm -- Wiley gives Gramps and this dino a lot more attention than most moviemakers would; he isn’t ashamed of keeping something on the screen just because some prigs in the audience may find it gaudy. The original House provided a few scares, whereas the sequel doesn’t exert much effort in trying to frighten us, instead favoring an ingratiating approach that, despite its PG-13 rating, should please not just undemanding adults but children of at least the age of eight. Wiley is still an amateur, though. The movie needs firmer control and better shaping: it’s fairly amorphous, and the unrealized parts evaporate from your mind when they’re not even five minutes old. Wiley hasn’t fully thought his material out, and because it has neither wit nor edge one could complain it’s nothing but everything-but-the-kitchen-sink hodgepodge. (It were as if Wiley had been given only a couple of weeks to get a screenplay together, and he wanted to make sure he had enough attention-getting stuff to convince the studio it had box-office potential.) The character of Charley strikes one as extraneous almost from the get-go, and that also applies to the human villain of the piece, John (played by the comedian Bill Maher), a smarmy record-company president whose only function is to cause friction between Jesse and his (completely uninteresting) girlfriend who works for John. And leaving the evil cowboy completely out of the middle section throws things out of whack, for we have to keep reminding ourselves just what force wants the skull for malevolent intentions. But House II: The Second Story goes down easily enough -- watching it is akin to a mellow walk through a funhouse full of off-the-wall surprises. It’s far from a classic, but in all its eighty-eight minutes it never becomes schlock, which, given all the trapdoors it could’ve fallen into, should qualify as some kind of achievement.

The DVD from those reliable folks at Anchor Bay Entertainment sports a solid transfer and an enjoyable audio commentary.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=28859&reviewer=327
originally posted: 04/14/15 18:10:36
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User Comments

2/13/17 morris campbell trash enough said 1 stars
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  28-Aug-1987 (PG-13)



Directed by
  Ethan Wiley

Written by
  Ethan Wiley

  Arye Gross
  Jonathan Stark
  Royal Dano
  Bill Maher
  Amy Yasbeck

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