Movie Reviews Far Too Late: The Bye Bye Man and the Illusion of Horror

So, I watched the movie The Bye Bye Man on Netflix last week. For those who aren’t used to the Movie Reviews Far Too Late format, There Be Spoilers Here.

The Bye Bye Man is now the movie that finally helped me understand two features that really undermine a horror story for me. The movie starts out strong: there is a creepy supernatural entity called the Bye Bye Man. If you hear or see his name, you’re screwed. He will enter your thoughts and cause you to obsessively think, and finally say, his name. During this time, you will also experience hallucinations that may lead you to attack, or believe you are being attacked, by friends. Eventually, the Bye Bye Man will GET you. The only way to stop him is to give yourself up to death and take the secret of his name with you. Although the protagonists get the idea that disbelieving in the Bye Bye Man’s power may lessen his control over your mind, it’s too little too late, and they all die.

The attraction of the Bye Bye Man as a boogaboo is obvious. It is horrifying. Once you know about it, it’s too late to get away. You can’t recruit friends to help you, lest you damn them, too. You can’t fight it alone because its power of illusion may turn your own power against you. Or worse, your friends.

And that, really, is the problem: the power of illusion is so great that in a sense, it transforms the entire story from a horror story into the illusion of a horror story. To understand this, we have to understand two fundamentals of the horror genre:

The Puzzle Box: The solution to a puzzle is at the heart of the horror story. It has to be. For horror to be horror, the protagonists must be up against an opponent that is so overwhelming that normal means of combat are completely inadequate. Normal weapons, intelligence and limitations on action are completely inadequate to stop the boogaboo. So generally there is a vulnerability or a ritual or a sacrifice that must be completed to defeat the horror.
Now the nature of a puzzle is that a solution exists. If no solution exists, then there is not a puzzle, anymore than a bunch of confetti is a jigsaw puzzle. Before you object, please note that “a solution” does not necessarily entail “protagonists survive.” In horror, this is optional. Solution means, “the horror is defeated/deferred.” Sometimes the solution is obvious but horrifying, as in Saw, when Cary Elwes has to cut himself out of handcuffs. Sometimes its dangerous and difficult, as in Alien, when Ripley blasts the alien out of the airlock. And sometimes even solving the puzzle doesn’t really defeat the horror, as in The Ring.

The Horror Exists For A Reason: I think this is where a lot of horror movies fall down: because it’s not necessarily obvious this is true, but I believe it is true. In the best horror movies, the horror always has a reason to exist: in The Cabin in the Woods, the horror has a double reason for existing: the victims cal up their specific horror, but the overarching reason is that the ancient gods must be kept asleep. But after all, I can imagine someone saying, what about movies like The Ring and Alien? There’s no reason for these things to exist.
But there is. The horror can be its own reason for existing, so long as its drive is fundamental. The alien needs to reproduce and feed. The evil spirit from The Ring seems to have been born from an overwhelming desire on the part of its “mother” to have a child, and its evil “revenge” drive tied to the video springs from that.

When a horror movie fails atone or both of these fundamentals, it is at best weakened. The Bye Bye Man fails at both: there is really no solution to the problem. It hints that disbelieving in the Bye Bye Man can weaken his power. But it isn’t put into practice more than once, and halfheartedly at best. The only thing the protagonist can do is commit suicide. That’s a valid solution to horror, but that “solution” was already presented as part of the problem at the beginning of the film. So it doesn’t really count. Once you know the Bye Bye Man’s name, you’re dead at best.
In addition, no reason for the Bye Bye Man is ever shown to exist. What does he want? There seems to be some idea that he wants world apocalypse. But why? Is he an agent of Satan? We don’t know, and the movie doesn’t seem to care.

Another movie weakened by these problems is the critically-acclaimed It Follows, which is an incredible well-executed movie. But again, there seems to be no solution to the problem: even though the protagonists defeat It, the end of the movie hints that It is still out there following them. And even more than the Bye Bye Man, there is never a clue provided as to what this thing wants. Revenge? For what? Food? Then why is it limited to this bizarre venereal chain of feeding targets?

As I’m writing this, I notice that a common flaw here seems to be that when you think about it, it’s almost impossible to imagine how these bizarre chains ever got started. I mean, how did It ever start Following people? Remember, It can look like people the victim trusts. So, the first person to be the victim of It should have had no idea they were being followed, and been killed. End of chain. The only reason that The Bye Bye Man’s chain ever starts at the beginning of the movie is that one of the victims finds the name carved somewhere. So who learned it first? How? And how did it not get passed along infinitely then as the victim got more and more scared?

Now, for a movie that fails at only one of these aims, we can consider Oculus, in which a young brother and sister try to destroy the cursed mirror that claimed the lives of their parents and blamed it on the brother. Again, it’s a great set up: the mirror can project illusions into the minds of its victims in order to manipulate them into killing each other. The reason for the horror is clear: the mirror takes joy in murder. It’s effectively a serial killer. And it comes very close to providing a solution to the puzzle: the mirror cracked itself in the initial round of killings when a victim was propelled into it.

But in the end, the illusions of the mirror are just too powerful. It again kills the sister and leaves the brother blamed for her death. I think this movie would honestly have been perfect if the sister’s sacrifice of herself had worked: if the mirror had been tricked into destroying itself as the price of killing her. It was powerfully hinted that this would be the solution, and the fact that the protagonists lose anyway, leaving the mirror intct was a letdown.

In the end, such movies as The Bye Bye Man and Oculus provide not a horror story, but the illusion of a horror story by presenting us with an inevitable situation. And it may be terrifying: I’m pretty sure that falling out of a plane with no parachute is indeed terrifying. But it isn’t a story.

Top Gun: Maverick SCRIPT RELEASED!!

Spoiler Warning! What you are about to see is the complete and unedited script of the soon-to-be-released movie TOP GUN: MAVERICK. Rather than rely on dubious methods such as paying insiders to smuggle out the script, we have deduced its contents by consulting our memory of the first movie, watching the trailer for this one, and thinking for five minutes.

SCENE 1: CO’S OFFICE

CO: “Maverick, get in here. You’re a terrible officer and a burnout and I don’t like you.”

MAVERICK: “That’s because you’re bald and haven’t got two hot girls a day begging for your children.”

CO: “Obviously, but I can’t fire you because despite your dead-end career and discipline problems, they’ve decided to make you a Top Gun instructor.”

MAVERICK: “Who’s ‘they?'”

CO: “The producers, fueled by all the cash of Generation X’s male mid-life crises, desperately trying to remember the 80s when they were cool.”

MAVERICK: “Yes, sir.”

SCENE 2: A LUDICROUSLY BIG HANGAR

TOP GUN COMMANDANT: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to introduce you to a legendary pilot who somehow is on the verge of career suicide, Maverick.”

MAVERICK: “It’s an honor to be here in your company, and I’d like to particularly thank Goose’s son, who is harboring deep-seated hatred of me for destroying his family when he was a little boy. I’d also like to express how grateful I am for the progressive and diversity-oriented military policies that have made it possible for me to chase hot female pilots twenty years my junior all through the film.”

SCENE 3: MIRAMAR

MONTAGE OF TOP GUN STUDENTS SUITING UP AND TAKING OFF

STUDENTS: “We’re going to kick this old guy’s ass!”

MAVERICK’S PLANE: ZOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

STUDENTS: “I can’t believe he kicked our ass!”

SCENE 4: CLASSROOM

GOOSE’S KID (GOSLING): “So, is that extremely unsafe flying that you kicked our asses with how you got my dad killed?”

MAVERICK: “As the only person in the film who didn’t see this coming: um.”

<after class>

HOT GIRL PILOT: “That wasn’t fair for him to say that.”

MAVERICK: “It wasn’t fair that I killed his dad, either.”

HOT GIRL PILOT: “Sure it was: you’re Tom Cruise, and his dad…”

MAVERICK: “Was Anthony Daniels, yeah: that doesn’t make it right.”

HOT GIRL PILOT: “Anthony Edwards.”

MAVERICK: “Yeah, whatever. Want a motorcycle ride?”

HOT GIRL PILOT: “I thought you’d never ask.”

SCENE 5: THE SKY

GOSLING: “I’ll show this guy that my dad — I mean I — am the better man!”

MAVERICK’S PLANE: ZOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

GOSLING’S PLANE: ZOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

GOSLING: “Oh, noes! My plan horribly failed and my plane is crashing!”

MAVERICK: “Kid! Follow all my instructions to the letter! Don’t you dare die on me! Are you listening?”

GOSLING: “I’m listening!”

MAVERICK: “Don’t hit the ground!”

SCENE 6: THE GROUND

GOSLING: “You saved my life and now I can’t be mad at you anymore. Will you be my daddy, now?”

MAVERICK: “Sure, son.”

HOT GIRL PILOT: “Does this mean I win Top Gun, now?

AUDIENCE: “Who cares?”

SCENE 7: BRIEFING ROOM

ADMIRAL: “Some foreign power who is definitely not…

…Russia because that’s too outdated
…China because we REALLY want to sell this film there
…Arab because we don’t want to draw boycotts and outrage
…Iranian because we all hate Donald Trump…

…and conveniently flies American-looking planes that we’re going to call MiG .357s because we assume the American moviegoing audience is at least as dumb as we are about foreign arsenals has launched a sneak attack that can only be solved by exactly the kind of dogfighting you’ve all just finished training for.”

SCENE 8: THE SKY

MAVERICK’S PLANE: ZOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

GOSLING’S PLANE: ZOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

MAVERICK’S PLANE: ZOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

HOT GIRL PILOT’S PLANE: ZOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

NAMELESS ENEMY PLANES: <EXPLODE>

ROCK MUSIC SOUNDTRACK: <GOES TO 11>

CREDITS

 

 

Daybroken. Sigh.

See the source imageWell, I was looking forward to writing a blog about a really amazing new series to share with my readers. DAYBREAK is the saga of high-schoolers struggling to survive a bio-bomb triggered zombie apocalypse that converted all the adults into Ghoulies, leaving the teens to build up warring tribes based on their high-school cliques.

Or at least it was. It was cancelled today.

Maybe the problem is that it sounds so much like overdone YA-bait. The reality is that it’s sharp and clever, with some of the best dialogue I’ve seen in ages. It’s completely aware of how overdone the zombie apocalypse has become and skewers itself without mercy. It’s a bit like Deadpool, only with an ability to cut from slapstick ridiculousness to heartfelt pathos with astonishing speed. The characters are brash and irreverent and silly. And they are also fully-realized and heartbreaking as they try to show the world adult faces while at the same time being desperately frightened children.

On top of this, the flashbacks to the world before the bombs are brilliant. We get the pleasure of seeing Matthew Broderick — that’s right, FERRIS BUELLER — playing the high-school principal, coming full-circle as the disrespected authority figure.

But there’s more. There’s intriguing hints that while all the adults were affected by the bombs, they may not all have been reduced to mindless husks. Something better — or worse — may have survived within them.

I am very sad that this excellent show will join Firefly as a might-have-been. It’s worth a watch on Netflix if you can.

Late Reviews From Avalon: The Chaplain’s War

The Chaplain's War by [Torgersen, Brad R.]

I had the privilege of meeting Brad Torgersen for the first time at this year’s DragonCon. I had known him online for several years, and he was gracious enough to agree to blurb my book, All Things Huge and Hideous earlier this year. He was also very (needlessly) apologetic that the blurb had not worked out. (It was just a matter of bad timing; Brad had been deployed for a very long time, and my request came as he was finally getting to come home. A lesser man wouldn’t have even tried to help me out). But I appreciate Brad’s service even more than the blurb.

At the Baen Roadshow, Brad was also giving away copies of his debut novel, The Chaplain’s War, along with his soon-to-be-Dragon-Award-winning The Star-Wheeled Sky. Because I’m a rather obsessive person, I elected to take a copy of The Chaplain’s War, which Brad signed for me.

So on the flight home, The Chaplain’s War was my reading, and all I can say is, it wowed me. It reminded me of nothing so much as one of my early-adulthood favorites, Ender’s Game. Only it seemed to me to reach more deeply into a question that Orson Scott Card didn’t get to until the sequel Speaker For The Dead: How do you make peace?

The story itself is a bit reminiscent of Ender’s Game. It concerns humanity’s war with the mantis-cyborgs, a race much more technologically advanced, and controlling a much larger stellar empire. In fact, we learn early on that the mantes have already exterminated two other intelligent species, and there seems to be no reason that humanity would not become number three on their list. But that all changes when an alien Professor has a conversation with  Harrison Barlow, the Chaplain’s Assistant in a mantis POW camp. The mantes have no concept of God, and the Professor wishes to understand this strange idea that all three of the mantes’ victims have shared.

What follows is an intricate but action-packed story of humans and aliens working together and fighting against each other to survive. In fact, it occurs to me that this is Ender’s Game meets Enemy Mine. Interwoven through the story of Barlow’s capture by and eventually his diplomacy to the aliens is the story of how he became a soldier and a chaplain’s assistant in the first place.  It’s a story that masterfully blends questions of faith and honor together through a cast of beautifully real (and flawed) characters.

I can hardly wait to find time to get to The Star-Wheeled Sky and its eventual sequel. And I’m honored to count Brad Torgersen as a friend and supporter.

New Stories and His Missing Materials: The Logoccentric Returns!

Hi, everyone! Well, it was a good vacation, but now I’m back! It’s the start of a bright new school year full of many good things! I got some great news in and around my vacation, so let’s get cracking!

First, if you’d like some real content, I’d like to direct you to my latest article published with SciPhi Journal (which is gaining readers by leaps and bounds) called “His Missing Materials” in which I take Philip Pullman to task for pretty much slandering the Christian faith.

As far as upcoming sales, I can’t name any right now, but it looks like I’ll have at east one if not two new announcements to make in the near future.

Finally, I’d like to share this awesome possible cover art for my next book, forthcoming as soon as I can get a small amount of edits back to the publisher:

Girl Who Wasn't

Movie Reviews (or something) Far Too Late: Paranormal Activity

DOUBLE SPOILER ALERT: As far as the film goes, I’m going to reveal a plot point.
As far as the review goes, I couldn’t even finish this movie.

I wanted to watch this because I was in the mood for a good creepy ghost story, and I’d heard good things about it.

OPENER: Dude and Dudette moving into apartment. Setting up camera in bedroom to record source of creepy noises that sometimes trouble them at night. Dude is slightly annoyed at Dudette for inviting a psychic consultant to advise them on the source of these noises, which has been messing with her since childhood.

EXPERT: Hey, this thing you’ve got here is not a ghost, but a demon. Potentially very dangerous.

DUDE: So, how about we get a Ouija board and ask this thing what it wants.

EXPERT: Okay, that’s a really terrible idea because that would be inviting it to notice you. Goodbye.

DUDE: Well, I don’t believe in this enough to take an expert’s advice seriously, but I believe in it just enough to still think Ouija boards are a good idea because I was the one who thought of them.

DUDETTE: Hey, babe. Since I’m the one being haunted by this thing, maybe I should get to make the call on how we deal with it.

DUDE (pouty): Well, okay, but you know I think I get a say, too because I didn’t know you came with a demon.

DUDETTE: Just promise me you won’t get a Ouija board.

DUDE: Okay, I promise I won’t buy a Ouija board.

Aaaaand, that was it. I was out. At this point, I can’t spend another second of my precious and finite time on this planet with these two morons. I’d rather be doing something less predictable, like picking my nose. Dude is a complete ass who wants to poke the demon because he wants to be in charge and be right. Dudette is a complete idiot who can’t see that Dude is about to go borrow or otherwise acquire the Ouija board that he only promised not to buy (oh, he is so clever, a master of verbal trickery, this one) so he can poke the demon. This is the very archetype of the Idiot Plot. And I’m going to be expected to spend the rest of the film sympathizing with these two morons, who will check out books about demons, but will never once consider going to church. At this point, I’m rooting for the demon, but figure that watching it eat them slowly from the feet up isn’t on the table.

Shame.

Movie Reviews Far Too Late: Lifeforce

Kevin Murphy, who voiced MST3K’s Tom Servo, in his book A Year At The Movies, recalls deciding to go see the movie Pootie Tang, and encountering a pair of young men arguing about whether to go see it. When he asked the dissenter why he didn’t want to go see it, the reply was, “Because I think it’s gonna be as stupid as I think it’s gonna be.”

And now for my review of Lifeforce.

When that movie came out in 1985, I was twelve. I hated horror movies, so was uninterested. But I knew the movie was about space vampires, and that sounded pretty stupid to me.

Over the years, a number of people have referenced the movie, and it seems to have attained some sort of cult following as an underrated 80s classic. So when I saw it free to watch on Amazon Prime, I decided to see if maybe my twelve-year old self had been overly judgmental. And indeed, it was not so bad as I had thought.

It was much, MUCH worse than I ever could have imagined. I owe my twelve-year old self an apology. And any of you out there who recommended that movie? Yeah. So do you.

How can I summarize Lifeforce? It’s as if it was made by people who had seen the movies Alien, Poltergeist, and The Exorcist, but hadn’t really understood them. These same people had also, however, watched a whole lot of softcore S&M porn and understood it very well. Perhaps too well. The whole movie is about the leading men being unabashedly drawn to an alien who looks an awful lot like Liv Tyler (so, I mean, good taste, there, at least. Note to self: also, Liv Tyler was supposedly 8 years old in 1985. Is it possible that she’s actually a vampire? Research!!), and on the way they acquire telepathic powers that make them capable of telling when a woman wants it rough. Really, I’m not making these plot points up.

During the film it is deduced that the space vampires are truly the source of the vampires of legend, because they demonstrate a whole lot of the classical vampire vulnerabilities and powers, such as vulnerability to being staked, transforming into a giant bat, and becoming a huge glowing ball of light that flies around the city sucking the life out of people using the special effects from Raiders Of The Lost Ark. We all remember when Dracula did that, right?

In truth, the vampires develop their new and frightening powers at the twin speed of plot and arousal, but let’s be fair, so do the humans. Nothing in the whole film ever happens for any reason other than that the writers decided it was time for it to. No question raised by the film is ever answered, including whether Liv Tyler and Captain Sex Slave live or die at the end. But that’s okay because we aren’t interested. The only question that REALLY interests me is how they managed to persuade Henry Mancini not only to score this film, but to produce one that sounded like John Williams’ and James Horner’s Greatest Meh.

How To Get Me To Stop Watching Your Movie.

As readers of this blog are aware, I periodically go back and watch movies that intrigued me when they were released, but that I missed for some reason in the theater. So it was with A Simple Plan. As always, spoilers be here. Sort of.

So the movie opens up with Bill Paxton in the company of his brother and his brother’s buddy, who were obviously runners up for the title roles in Dumb and Dumber. They go out hunting and find a crashed Cessna or similar with 4.4 million dollars in it. After a brief debate, they decide to hide the money for a little while, see if anyone comes looking for it, and then split it, with Bill being the money holder.

So far, not a terribly bad idea. But then. Oh, but then…

Having got away with the bag of money, Bill and his wife decide that they have to put some money back so that people won’t believe any of it was stolen. Now, why? If the cops don’t know where the plane is, it’s a fair bet they don’t know what was on the plane. They wouldn’t necessarily be looking for money. Could be looking for guns. Drugs. And if it’s the criminals whose plane it is looking for you, that won’t work anyway: they will know exactly what was on the plane. So, you’re putting your whole secret in extra danger to do something that will not matter a damn.

And then, rather than simply sneak out to put the thing back in the dead of night, Bill decides to have Dumb stand watch for him while he puts the money back. Inevitably, Dumb is challenged by some old fart on a snowmobile, gets in an argument with him about whether he saw a fox and hits him. Dude dies.

Firstly, that situation smacks of The Hand Of Fate. Basically, the universe isn’t letting these people keep this money, and it’s not JUST because they’re too stupid to keep it, it’s because Fate will inevitably contrive to make sure they are always seen, followed and in trouble. Arguments that shouldn’t ever happen. One-punch kills.

Of course, now we panic, which is the dumbest thing in the world to do, and Paxton says, “We have to make it look like an accident!”

IT ALREADY DOES LOOK LIKE AN ACCIDENT, YOU MORON! No one saw the fight except you. All you have to do is call the cops! “We were changing a flat tire when Old Man Grumpy came up on a snowmobile, fell off and hit his head real hard! We tried CPR! Get an ambulance quick! I think he’s dead!” No one’s even going to ask if you hit him. But without thinking of this, they load Grumpy onto the snowmobile and point it toward a bridge.

Now, Old Man Grumpy wakes up (not REALLY dead! There’s Fate again) and tells Bill “Call the police, your brother hit me!” At which point, Bill, deciding the old man has to be kept quiet, strangles him.
Again, leaving aside the whole murder thing, we have a solution in search of a problem. What was wrong with saying, “Thank God you’re okay! I’ll get you to a hospital! By the way, here’s $1000; leave my brother out of it — he’s an idiot?” Or hell, let Dumb serve a few months for assault and tell him to keep his mouth shut if he wants his share of the money.

And THEN, Bill goes home to his wife (who wasn’t that hot on keeping the money in the first place) and confesses to murder, and she’s basically, “Well, you only did what you thought you had to.”

Oh, sure. I mean, I’d totally understand if my wife was asking me to cover up murder for 4 million dollars and risking us both going to prison for life. And then, in the crowning idiocy, the wife discovers that the 4.4M was a ransom payment for a kidnapping and they get second thoughts about keeping the money. Uh-huh. Because murder was excusable, but keeping someone’s kidnapping money is just WRONG.

I couldn;t stand it anymore. I’m sorry, but I can handle your evil smart protagonist; I loved A Clockwork Orange. I can handle your good dumb protagonist, a la Of Mice And Men. But evil dumb protagonists just make me want to stop watching unless it’s being played for laughs. You can’t drink that piss straight.

 

 

Iron Lensman

Every now and then I have the impulse to do a little literary criticism, although I can usually control it with prescription medication. But the other day I was watching Iron Man II (I really watched the MCU out of order) and a parallel struck me that I haven’t heard anyone else talk about before, so you lucky readers get to hear me ramble on about it.

The Lensman series, by E. E. “Doc” Smith was one of the seminal works of Golden Age SF, appearing in Astounding magazine from 1937-1948, and later reworked in the 1950s as a series of seven novels. Roughly, the titular heroes, the Lensmen, were an organization that fought crime on a galactic scale. Their lenses amplified their psionic powers, and no person who could be corrupted by wealth and power could wield a lens.

The length of the series, the poverty of the plot (which generally just featured the Lensmen going up against more and more powerful foes, armed with ever-more esoteric and larger superbattlefleets) and Smith’s excruciatingly awful prose meant that the Lensman series never saw release as anything approaching a major motion picture, which is on some level a relief and on another a profound disappointment. I always thought the series might have some hope in the hands of a really awesome screenwriter. But the themes he launched were a major influence on Star Wars (incorruptible psionic supersoldiers, anyone?) Other than that, it’s hard to find a direct heir to Smith’s style of storytelling.

And then it hit me that Tony Stark is pretty much a lensman par excellance, updated for the modern world. There are several parallels: like many other writers of that generation, such as Asimov, to whose Foundation series Smith lost the 1966 Hugo for Best Series, Smith’s lensmen are trained and expected to function as scientists, and frequently make discoveries and invent new weapons and vehicles. This whole thing struck me as i watched Tony Stark invent a new element under the guidance of his father’s notes to replace the palladium in his arc reactor heart. Like the lensmen, Tony Stark relies on a scientistic talisman that grants him his power, but it is always clear that his real power is in his willingness to do the right thing. Also like the first family of lensmen, the Kinnisons, Tony Stark gets a big helping hand from his father’s legacy of great genes and connections. Finally, by Civil War we see that Tony Stark is also concerned, as was Smith, with the idea of oversight. There is a major difference here, since the lensman’s source of power was also his shield against corruption. Tony Stark loses faith in himself and his fellow Avengers, but it’s interesting to me that this lack of faith is ultimately shown to be misplaced when he goes up against Captain America. Who also has his own “lens” made for him by Howard Stark, in a sense. The shape is even similar.

Although I really liked the conclusion of the major arc of the MCU, I’m going to miss Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. I hope that another generation of lensmen — whatever they are called — comes quickly.

Movie Reviews Far Too Late: House. Or, The Worst Horror Movie In The World.

Not the hit TV series starring Hugh Laurie. The 80s horror-schlock film starring George Wendt and some guy who was utterly forgettable as the protagonist.

So, every now and then, I get the urge to do something completely silly. Make random recipes off the internet, see how well I remember the lyrics to whole musicals, vote Libertarian, etc. And one of the things I do is watch old movies on Netflix or Amazon that I thought looked intriguing once upon a time. This is how I came to watch House.

I remember previews for House from the 1980s. It was billed as a comedy-horror or a horror-comedy. I also really like the haunted-house conceit. So I decided to give it a try and see if it was material for a cult classic.

What I found was, in fact, material that I shall use if I ever want to teach a class entitled, “Writing: How Not To Do It.” A brief catalogue of its sins will be listed below, because a comprehensive one would be longer than the film. For the hard-of-thinking, this will contain what would otherwise be called spoilers, but this film is so far gone it really can’t be spoiled.

The Junkpiled Protagonist: Our protagonist is a writer (gosh, wonder where that came from?) who is traumatized by, in no particular order, the fact that he is suffering from writers’ block, possibly brought on by his son who has disappeared from his front yard, his wife who has divorced him because of the missing son, and his Vietnam-induced PTSD. The effect is that this guy has so much shit to deal with that it’s impossible for us to care about any one issue.

The Incoherent Backstory: Apparently, the son disappeared while playing in the yard of the titular House, while I guess visiting there, because the House belongs to protagonist’s crazy aunt, but the whole family was to all appearances living there when the kid vanished. It’s implied that he either or both was kidnapped by people in a car streaking away or vanished from the House’s swimming pool before his father’s eyes.

The Endless Red Herrings: The car streaking away turns out to be only the first of myriad fake clues strewn all over the plot. Also included are Bosch/Daliesque paintings done by the aunt, endless scenes involving a medicine cabinet, a love interest that never materializes, strong hints that protagonist is completely delusional and hallucinating literally everything in the movie, and to top it all off, LITERALLY EVERY MONSTER IN THE FILM BUT ONE.

The Wandering Plot Monster: So we see the protagonist move into his aunt’s House (the same one his son vanished from and that he seemed to have been living in before) right after she has hanged herself, and despite getting fairly convincing evidence that the House is haunted — like, the ghost of his aunt appearing and saying, pretty much, “The House killed me.” — does nothing about it. Just sits and tries to plow on through his memoir of the Vietnam War despite the fact that his publisher has told him it won’t sell, and despite increasing but halfhearted attempts by the House to kill him. The fact that the protagonist looks very much like Ted from Airplane! with a perm does not add to the gravitas of these scenes. Closely related to this is…

The Idiot Plot: This is pretty much the whole film. Our protagonist kills humanoid monsters and buries them in broad daylight in six-inch shallow graves in his backyard. He completely ignores apparitions of his son begging for help. Despite the fact that the House’s clock loudly rings midnight right before monsters appear in the closets, it takes him two or three times to get it. Despite the fact that he’s a soldier, it takes him most of the movie to figure out that he might want to use guns. Despite the fact that his own son vanished in the House, he allows his sexy neighbor to use him as impromptu unpaid babysitting so she can go out clubbing and leaves the kid alone in a room of the House, from which he is promptly kidnapped by shapeshifting spirits, which he already knows the House contains. Through all of this, he continues to behave as though the most important thing is plowing on with his story of how he lost his pretty-much-an-asshole buddy in Vietnam.

The Horrible Climax: In the end, it is revealed that the cause of his son’s disappearance, the mastermind behind the House, is the ghost of his old war buddy, who has never forgiven protagonist for — get this — NOT killing him in Vietnam when he was wounded. Because protagonist went to get help instead, leaving his buddy to be carried away by the VC, who tortured him to death. So his spirit apparently decided to get revenge by invading protagonist’s aunt’s house, and kidnapping the kid to the jungles of Vietnam in another dimension, which can only be reached from inside the House.
So, EVERYTHING else in the House — the creepy distorted woman he killed, the baby kidnappers, the Lovecraftian closet-monster, the animated tools — all of this was just incidental. We never find out how long the kid was kidnapped for. Enough time for a divorce, for great-aunt to put him in a spooky painting, and for her to commit suicide. Of course, she blames the kid’s disappearance on the House from the beginning, so apparently it was haunted before Evil War Buddy Ghost got there? And I guess it was just a great place for him to take over? He’s actually a pretty knowledgeable and subtle strategist, this guy.

The only way this movie ever got made is that it was during the Great Eighties Horror Boom, when studios were desperate to mimic things like Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday the 13th Part Billion. And the production values are so low that I kept expecting to see Made In China stamped on the rubber suits. I’ve literally seen these mistakes made and avoided by high-schoolers. Take these lessons to heart: this film is not “so bad it’s good.” But it is bad enough to learn some lessons from.