Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter finds monsters, madness, and mirth in the 80s classic, House.
This week is the 35th anniversary of one 1986’s most entertaining little horror/comedies, Steve Miner’s House. The film follows a Vietnam veteran’s struggles with his past including both the war and the disappearance of his son, but it does so with laughs! It’s a low budget romp complete with practical effects, big tonal shifts, and the always welcome George Wendt. The filmmakers sat down a couple decades ago for a commentary on the film’s production, so I’ve finally given it a listen.
Now keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for House!
Commentators: Steve Miner (director), Sean S. Cunningham (producer), Ethan Wiley (writer), William Katt (greatest american hero)
1. Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps, 1986) was friends with Wiley and brought the script to Miner’s attention. Wiley adds that Dekker had given him the idea, but in his version it was “a dark, terrifying” haunted house movie. Dekker was busy writing Godzilla 1985 (1985) at the time, so Wiley took a crack at the house movie and “Fred was horrified that I turned it into this funny, off the wall movie.”
2. The house interior is a two-story set built on the old Desilu Studios.
3. Blood Dance is the main horror novel written by Roger Cobb (Katt), but the second one, barely visible at the bookstore, is titled Sword of Bad.
4. Miner couldn’t get producers to take him all that seriously after his work on the first three Friday the 13th films, but they were pleasantly surprised that this movie turned out to be comedic.
5. Dennis Franz auditioned for the real estate broker role.
6. New World Pictures didn’t understand that this would be a comedy, but they were pleasantly surprised with the end result. Miner stuck with the studio despite their lack of understanding because they gave them carte blanche on the film. 20th Century Fox, by contrast, had tons of notes on the script.
7. Miner grew up in the same Chicago neighborhood as George Wendt, but despite being the same age the two never met there.
8. Most of Miner’s films include a character named Fitzsimmons “because it was a kid I grew up next door to and for some reason I always want to put his name in.”
9. Wiley’s background was in practical makeup effects, so he wrote the various genre beats here with the understanding and intention that they’d be done practically.
10. It’s difficult to discern, but the monster in the closet is designed to look like the napalmed bodies from Vietnam with bullets for fingers.
11. Cunningham believes that “so much of what happens on the set is a function of the director and the DP.” They’re all praising cinematographer Mac Ahlberg for his work here among a career that also included From Beyond (1986), The Brady Bunch Movie (1995), and The Horror Show (1989) which not-so coincidentally was initially intended to be House III.
12. They love Henry Manfredini‘s score, and Miner has no regrets firing the original composer (who remains unnamed).
13. Alan Autry, best known for Southern Comfort (1981) and In the Heat of the Night (1988-1995), went on to become mayor of Fresno, California.
14. The first early screening for industry professionals was a disaster. Nothing worked, but Miner knew there was something here so he took it back into the editing room. Four weeks later they emerged with a final cut complete with score, music cues, and smarter editing, and it was a big success.
15. Cunningham says the film opened at #1 despite there being a dispute with a rival film claiming the same. That film was Paramount’s Pretty in Pink, and per IMDB it actually nudged out House by $150k for the number one spot.
16. Young Robert is played by Miner’s son. He spent the next decade being recognized on occasion out in the real world.
17. The towel over the big fish on the wall was added as they shot it out of sequence. Some of those later shots were filmed before the hole was blown into its side.
18. Cunningham recalls visiting Hong Kong around the time of the film’s release there, but he was confused by a poster he saw there as it featured an abundance of characters for the title. He asked why it took so many to simply say House, but he discovered the title had been changed to Don’t Go Into the Haunted House After Midnight.
19. Katt’s own son visited the set on the day they filmed the scene where Roger is pulled into the closet, and the boy broke down seeing his dad in danger.
20. The film originally ended with an unrelated monster in the pool that needed to be defeated to rescue the boy, but Miner wondered if the missing boy could be tied to the Vietnam subplot. Roger originally dropped from the rope into the water, found his boy fighting a monster underwater, and then fought to rescue him before surfacing in the pool. Wiley agreed on Miner’s point and wrote a new ending which works wonderfully to bring it all together. Them rising from the pool was the original end, but they added the arrival of a skeletal Big Ben (Richard Moll living/Curt Wilmot undead) to wrap it all up neatly.
21. They used twins for Roger’s son Jimmy for legal purposes, but Cunningham jokes that it’s insurance in case “one of the twins gets sick or drowns.” This is my kind of joke.
22. Peter Pitofsky plays the overweight lady monster and went on to become a successful stand-up comedian.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“I was shocked that I could get a crane.”
“Mel Gibson wasn’t available.”
“I did a lot of rewrites, but they were never used.”
“So that’s kind of the tone of the movie.”
“I felt ridiculous beating that fish.”
House is a fun movie both despite and because of its numerous indie limitations, and it’s the creativity and talents of the filmmakers that make that a reality. All four share fond memories, although Cunningham’s memory is either selectively sketchy or a bit he’s doing, and it’s clear they’re all still big fans of the film. They occasionally dip into pointing out events on screen, but for the most part they simply share thoughts and memories. It’s a fun listen for fans.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.