Weird Westerns: House II: The Second Story (1987)
An in-name-only sequel to a likeable haunted house movie from the previous year, this time telling the story of a young man, his mummy-like cowboy ancestor, and a magic skull.
By Max Sparber
I've written before how some films will use a sequel as an opportunity to send its entire story back in time to the Old West, and "House II" is sort of that, but sort of not. The film is not a direct sequel to 1986's "House," a likeable haunted house film starring William Katt — this film has none of the characters from the earlier story, doesn't refer back to the first film's plot, and didn't even use the same house as a location.
(For completionists, the first film's house was at 329 Melrose Ave. in Monrovia, Cal., and this was filmed at the Stimpson House at 2421 S Figueroa St. in LA. The original owner of the house, lumber baron Thomas Douglas Stimson, was once nearly the victim of a dynamiting assassination in this house, if anyone is looking to make a genuinely weird movie at the location.)
So the "House" film series seems like it was intended as a series of films that were thematically linked, rather than actual sequels, although there is a fourth film in the series that brings back William Katt. This one, as you might have guessed, borrows from the Old West instead, although saying so makes it sound like the film has a clearer sensibility than it actually does.
The whole film is set in what seems to be one especially chaotic Halloween night, during which a young man moves into his family's house, digs up his great-grandfather's zombie, discovers that a crystal skull will allow him to travel through time, fights cavemen and Aztecs, and eventually has a rather messy duel with a vengeful cowboy spirit.
The hero of the movie is Arye Gross, an amiable comic actor who always seemed to me like a less-hysterical Mark Linn-Baker. He's partnered in this film with a goofy friend, played by Jonathan Stark, who may be best-known to horror audiences as the monstrous handyman/boyfriend of Chris Sarandon in "Fright Night." Stark retains the same homosocial behavior in this film, constantly wrapping his arms around Gross or leaning on him in a way that is supposed to seem chummy, could imply gay subtext, but instead just seems slightly vampiric.
The film is not, shall we say, well-reviewed. It has the dreaded zero-percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with a mildly better 40 percent approva; from their "audience score," meaning readers who decided to offer their own opinions to the site. This suggests a worse film that "House II" actually is. Far from being egregiously terrible, it is merely not especially good.
There is a quality to the film that seems targeted at children, including big-eyed animatronic monsters that seem like prototypes for toys to eventually be given away free with hamburgers. Bill Maher is on hand to be a noxious and unnecessarily nosy record producer, a character drawn right from a children's sitcom and written in the same bold strokes, although it seems the right character for Maher to play. John Ratzenberger shows up as comic relief in a film that is nothing but comic relief, playing an electrician who sidelines as an adventurer.
The film heavily features the tremendous Royal Dano, playing Gross' mummy-like cowboy ancestor with genuinely charming prospector mannerisms, and it's nice that a film that references Westerns also made sure to hire a genuine Western character actor, as Dano's credits include "Johnny Guitar" and "The Culpepper Cattle Co." and just an endless number of appearances on shows like "Wagon Train" and "Bonanza."
There is a villain in this film, Slim, played Dean Cleverdon (who also appeared in "Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat"), although he's most a special effect in the form of a puppet. He's still pretty effective, with sunken, skull-like, decomposed features but for impressive facial hair; he looks a bit like something you might find on a Western-themed Heavy Metal album from the 1970s.
For a film that often seems intended for children, Slim is a lot more menacing than perhaps he should be, quickly murdering one of the main characters and torturing Gross by being a much better shot than he is: Slim spends a lot of the climax of the movie just randomly appearing around the house and shooting holes in Gross. In a film that bills itself as a horror comedy, it's the only moment that starts to feel like horror.