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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘HOUSE’ IS HUMOROUS IN A SCARY WAY

Times Staff Writer

A house in which a favorite aunt has just hanged herself--and is also the site of the mysterious disappearance of one’s own small son--doesn’t sound like a logical place a writer would retreat to in order to write a book to exorcise a traumatic experience in Vietnam.

But then the logic of “House” (citywide) is that of the nightmare. If you’re willing to enter such a fantasy world, you’ll be able to accept the craziness of all else that follows.

“House” is an unexpectedly ambitious, refreshingly unpredictable horror comedy with some serious undertones. What is most surprising is that it was produced by Sean S. Cunningham, who launched the profitable but repulsive “Friday the 13th” pictures and was directed by Stephen Miner, who directed the second and third films in that series. “House” is not actually scary at all, and is even thought-provoking when it’s not being funny in a spooky way. “House” might be described as “The Stunt Man” of horror pictures.

William Katt plays a likable writer of horror stories who’s as successful as Stephen King. But with the loss of his son and breakup of his marriage to a TV actress (Kay Lenz) he’s determined to take off some time to come to terms with what happened to him in Vietnam. Once ensconced in the fine old Victorian house he’s inherited from the aunt (Susan French) who raised him, he starts experiencing all sorts of weird if familiar bump-in-the-night stuff, which is intercut with realistic flashbacks to Vietnam. It would seem that special-effects expert Ethan Wiley, in adapting a story by Fred Dekker, wanted to set off the real horror of Vietnam with the fake horror of the haunted house movie genre, a ploy that seems as contrived as it sounds until the two elements start interacting in a quite original way, suggesting that scare-show motifs can symbolize the deep-rooted fears and guilts that plague us all.

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Therefore, the search for the lost son becomes a symbolic, even archetypal, quest for self-redemption. If we’re to take “House” seriously--and the film makers are smart enough in this most commercially minded, laugh-filled venture not to require us to do so--then “House” has to be seen as a journey into Katt’s troubled imagination in which fantasy and reality are as totally blurred as they are in, for example, Cocteau’s “Orpheus.”

It’s a shame that acting in horror pictures is largely unappreciated, because Katt is wonderful in a most challenging role, requiring him to be tongue-in-cheek in some moments, distraught and desperate in others and charming in still others. In short, there are lots of shifts in tone for him to maneuver, and he does it smoothly. We believe in him and who he is no matter what the strain to credibility. It’s a performance of the quality of that of Vincent Price in “Theatre of Blood” or Roddy McDowall in “Fright Night.” Katt gets a strong assist from a constantly amusing George Wendt as his well-meaning if nosy neighbor, who has the best line: “Solitude is always better when someone else is around.” Richard Moll is the brave Vietnam buddy Katt lets down.

The special effects, credited to many, and Gregg Fonseca’s production design are imaginative and impressive for what would seem to be a modestly budgeted picture. “House” (rated R because too intense for the very young) is fun to visit. But you wouldn’t want to live there.


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