Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the housing market… The 1986 film House ended up being fairly successful at the box office. That’s all it takes to see to it that a sequel is made. I always thought that the follow-up, 1987’s House II: The Second Story had one of the dumbest subtitles in movie history. I mean duh, that big Roman numeral II usually means it’s the second story! While watching it this time my wife pointed out to me that it’s the second “story.” You know, like how a house has stories…as in floors? So, ok, now I think it’s a dumb and clever subtitle.
This film has absolutely nothing to do with the first film except that it also involves a strange old house, and has a Cheers cast member in a small supporting role (the first film had a small role for George Wendt). This time, the home in question is inherited by Jesse (Arye Gross). The home once belonged to his parents, who died there mysteriously when he was an infant. Jesse is joined by his music exec girlfriend Kate (Lar Park Lincoln). Shortly after they arrive, Jesse’s friend Charlie (Jonathan Stark) and his singer girlfriend Lana (Amy Yasbeck) show up to freeload.
Jesse quickly becomes quite fascinated by the strange old house and by the history of his family. Through some old books he learns about his great great grandfather, also named Jesse. He was an outlaw and an adventurer who supposedly once found one of the legendary crystal skulls. Figuring that the very valuable skull may be buried with him, Jesse and Charlie decide to go dig up the old man’s grave. Not only do they find the skull, but they also find great great grandpa still alive. He’s a sort of old west zombie who tells them to call him Gramps (Royal Dano). Meanwhile, Kate has decided that Lana is the next big thing in the music biz and calls over her boss (Bill Maher) to check her out.
The next day, Jesse and Charlie sit and listen to Gramps tell stories of his life. They become so entranced that they forget about the guests coming over for a Halloween party. During the party, though, strange things start to happen, mostly involving strange characters trying to steal the skull. As Jesse and Charlie try to get the skull back they find that many of the rooms in the house lead to other dimensions. They travel to prehistoric times where a baby pterodactyl has nabbed the skull. They also end up rescuing a virgin (Devin Devasquez) from a human sacrifice and getting help from an electrician/adventurer (John Ratzenberger) before a showdown with Gramps’ rotting skeleton former partner.
House II is really more of a fantasy comedy than a horror film. The original House definitely had a comedic spin to it, but it’s tone was generally much darker than this film. Only the final sequence involving the zombie cowboy really has more of a horror feel to it. In fact, there are some sequences where the filmmakers get downright cutesy. Case in point: one companion Jesse and Charlie pick up along the way is a prehistoric creature that is a mashup between a dog and a caterpillar. It’s look reminds me a bit of Bandit, the dog from the Jonny Quest cartoon series…if Bandit were green and had 10 stubby legs. The film isn’t remotely scary, but as a lighthearted fantasy zombie story it actually works quite well.
One of the big selling points of the film is Royal Dano. He is perfectly cast as Gramps and performs way above the level of what you would expect for a film like this. The other highlight is the short sequence involving John Ratzenberger as Bill the electrician. His delivery is so perfect when he stares into a hole in the wall and nonchalantly remarks, “Looks like you got some sort of alternate universe in there or somethin.” The role is very similar to what he did on Cheers as Cliff, but here Cliff actually gets to be everything he thinks he is in his mind. There’s just something wonderful about watching John Ratzenberger fight off Aztec warriors with a sabre.
The film does have it’s share of weak spots. Some of the special effects are a little clunky. Most of the creatures are done with a mixture of stop motion and puppetry that is only somewhat convincing. Oh, and let us not forget the absolutely dopey performance that comes courtesy of Bill Maher. It’s no wonder he stopped acting in movies. These things aside, the film still worked for me. There’s nothing all that amazing about House II: The Second Story, but it manages to be a fun ride. Somehow it pulls off mixing fantasy, light-horror, and comedy quite well.