After the success of “Scream” in the late nineties, theaters were flooded with a deluge of horror-comedies, leading some critics to declare a second golden age of horror. Of course, the trend didn’t last long; mainly due to the poor quality of most of the films.
Despite the popularity of the genre, the horror-comedy has always been tricky to pull off, as evidenced by one of the best examples of cult classic horror comedy, “House 2: The Second Story.”
Like many horror sequels in the 1980s, “House 2” was a sequel in name only, with only the most basic story elements in common with the first. Like the original, “House 2” is the story of a young man who inherits a haunted mansion from a dead relative, which is where the similarities between the two end. “House 2” is the story of Jesse (Ayre Gross), a young artist who inherits his family home and moves in with his friend, the get-rich-quick-scheming Charlie (Jonathan Stark). Searching through family artifacts, the two quickly discover the legend of the magical crystal skull, which can supposedly grant eternal life. Believing the skull was buried with his grandfather, Jesse enlists Charlie to help him exhume the body. Finding both the skull and the corpse in the coffin, Jesse is shocked to see his grandfather rise from the dead. While the skull indeed granted him life, Gramps is shriveled and decayed like a mummy, leading Jesse and Charlie to hide him in the basement.
While Gramps is both a benevolent and likable ghoul, the skull also unleashes evil forces into the house. Rooms of the large mansion become portals to various times and places, and agents of evil emerge from them to collect the skull. Each time the skull is snatched from the mantle over the fireplace Gramps begins to wither and die, and Jesse and Charlie are forced to journey through various portals to retrieve it. Together, they venture through prehistoric times, battle Aztec warriors, and face off against Gramps’ old partner, an undead cowboy called Slim.
Admittedly, the plot is silly and convoluted, but at 88 minutes, the film moves at such a brisk pace that plot holes are quickly forgotten. Despite playing characters that appears in virtually every ‘80s comedy, both Ayre Gross and Jonathan Stark bring a real emotional component to their characters; both Jessie and Charlie are genuinely likable guys. However, the real star of the movie is Gramps. Although he looks undead, the character is sweet and human underneath. The scenes in which he acclimates to the twentieth century by playing with a Kleenex box and watching TV are some of the best instances of fish-out-of-water comedy in the long history of that particular subgenre.
Indeed, the success of the movie relies greatly on the dearth of its comedy. While the overall comedic tone of the film is silly, there are many different styles of humor throughout the film. Broad slapstick gives way to satire and deadpan quirkiness. The funniest scene in the movie revolves around how unphased an electrician (in a hilarious cameo by John Ratzenberger) is by the strangeness of the house. With a completely straight face he delivers the classic line “Gentlemen, what you’ve got here is your standard parallel dimension.”
Sadly, the humor is also the film’s greatest weakness. The majority of the comedy works so well that the film fails to generate any real scares. Jokes make up the majority of the film, leaving little time to develop suspense. While some of the creatures and ghouls looks good for a low-budget horror film, without time to develop tension they simply fail to deliver. The original House certainly contained laughs, but they were more evenly balanced with genuinely scary moments. “House 2” cannot compete with the original in scare factor, but certainly exceeds the original in humor. Thus, the film should serve as a blueprint for contemporary filmmakers as to why horror-comedy is so difficult; without the right balance, one component will overwhelm the other. Fortunately in the case of “House 2,” the result is a film which is thoroughly enjoyable in the right company.