[Editor's Note: A version of this retrospective originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of DEADLY Magazine.] With House II: The Second Story, the vastly underrated sequel written and directed by Ethan Wiley (who also wrote the screenplay for the original House), New World Pictures introduced audiences to a whole new world filled with unexpected frights and adventures with an Old West twist. The sequel was released in late August of 1987 and took a decidedly left turn away from the more straightforward house of horrors style seen in Steve Miner’s original film, instead favoring a tone that was much more light-hearted, fun-spirited, and far more family friendly.
For the uninitiated, House II follows a young man named Jesse (Arye Gross), who inherits a strange house from the parents who gave him up for adoption when he was just an infant. As he begins to settle into his new dwelling with the help of his girlfriend, Kate (Lar Park Lincoln), his best pal, Charlie (Jonathan Stark), and Charlie’s aspiring musician girlfriend, Lana (Amy Yasbeck), Jesse soon discovers that there’s far more going on with his new property than he could have ever imagined, with portals to different universes lurking behind each and every door. Jesse also uncovers a mystical and powerful crystal skull buried in the backyard, along with his great-great-grandpa, Jesse (Royal Dano), who turns into a reanimated corpse after he’s dug up by his descendant.
After both the crystal skull and Gramps are unearthed, Jesse’s action triggers a beacon to various enemies from throughout the space-time continuum, who arrive in some rather unexpected ways to attack Jesse’s house and claim the enchanted object for themselves. It’s up to Jesse and Charlie to keep both Gramps and the skull safe from their enemies, including Slim Razor (Dean Cleverdon), Gramps’ nemesis from the 1800s who will stop at nothing to get his hands on the crystal skull and put an end to Gramps once and for all.
Yesterday, we ran Part One of our House II: The Second Story retrospective (which you can read HERE), and below is part 2, which also includes Oscar-winning special effects artist Chris Walas, who was in charge of designing and creating the brilliant effects for the sequel.
Behind the camera, writer/director Wiley used his admiration for classic Western films to influence some of the casting on House II: The Second Story when he brought on the legendary Royal Dano (The Outlaw Josey Wales, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman) to play the role of Gramps. “I was a huge fan of Royal Dano just because he had been in so many great Westerns, as well as a bunch of other movies, and I knew that he would make the character of Gramps his own. We were very fortunate that he said ‘yes’ to us. He was always sharing these amazing stories on set, like when he worked with Hitchcock, and he was a natural comedian, too. His timing was perfect and he had this wry quirkiness to his personality that really added something special to the role.”
Gross also enjoyed working with Dano, adding, “Royal was incredible to work with. He had this warm personality that made him so good-natured, which is why Gramps is such a memorable character. A lot of what you see in that character is Royal’s own personality coming through in camera. He was in his ’80s at the time we made House II, and I remember how he never once made a fuss about all the makeup he had to wear. It was a pretty lengthy process for him and I know that I’d get impatient having to go through all of that every day, but I never heard Royal complain once. He was incredibly patient about everything and added so much to the film as a result.”
One strange (but fun) similarity that both House and House II: The Second Story do share, is that they both feature notable performances from Cheers alumni. In Steve Miner’s original film, George Wendt plays a nosy next-door neighbor, and for the sequel, John Ratzenberger was hired to portray Bill, an eccentric electrician and adventurer (per his business card). It was a completely unplanned similarity, according to Wiley.
“Bringing in John for the role of the electrician was a total coincidence,” Wiley explained. “He has the great blue collar flavor to his own brand of humor, and we just knew that he was going to make Bill one of the film’s more memorable supporting characters. He also never did any of the takes the same way twice. John always wanted to mix up the dialogue a bit, and I think that really enhanced those scenes immensely. The continuity people hated it, of course [laughs], but everything he did was absolute comedy gold. Also, because John was a classically trained stage actor, he was a total pro during the Aztec fight scene, which kind of surprised us all at first. He just jumped right in and knew exactly what to do. He needed very little direction from me for that scene.”
The fact that House II had a great deal of physical comedy to it, including the Aztec scene with Ratzenberger’s character, was an aspect that immediately appealed to Stark when he first read the script.
“I loved the fact that House II had a lot of physical comedy to it because I love doing that kind of stuff. It’s timeless, and Ethan just let us go to town during some of those scenes, like when we’re dealing with the baby pterodactyl or digging up Gramps in the cemetery or working with John on the Aztec fight scene. That was a highlight of my career, too, just because he had so much energy, so it was hard for us ‘young guys’ to keep up with him. He was always keeping us on our toes [laughs].”
According to Gross, “Ratzenberger was a wild card the entire shoot; he would just come in and play everything so matter-of-factly that you never knew what he was going to slip in there to mess with you. He was always doing something different during each take, which made that day a lot of fun for myself and Jonathan.”
“I have this really fun memory from that scene,” Gross continued. “It was right after we rescued the Aztec princess and we’re all back in the house, standing around. John’s there, doing his thing, but he’s making all these weird gestures, and I couldn’t really figure out just what he was doing exactly. Of course, then I look over at Devin [Devasquez], and she had a bit of a wardrobe malfunction going on which no one else had noticed but John. So he was trying to subtly help her out, but no one could figure out just what he was doing until we all saw Devin and put two and two together [laughs]. But I think Devin had just done Playboy right around the time of House II, so she didn’t mind too much. She also brought a preview copy of her issue to set, which was interesting for me because that also happened to be the day my parents decided to visit me on set. So, yeah, Hollywood can be a really weird business sometimes [laughs].”
When it came time to create the more fantastical elements of House II, Wiley knew that there was only one man for the job: his mentor and friend, Chris Walas. Because the sequel didn’t have a huge production at its disposal, it was a job that required Walas to get a bit creative to effectively capture Wiley’s vision for the effects, including the ambitious designs for both Gramps and his nemesis, Slim Razor. Walas discussed his approach to the dueling looks of both characters, which were reflections on their own humanity (or lack thereof).
“I immediately recognized that there was a huge difference between the characters, both in the characters as they were written and with the two actors performing the roles,” Walas said. “Royal, who played Gramps, was a well-established, very recognizable actor, and I wanted his persona to not be entirely disguised by the makeup. And because he’s an unusual character in that he’s a likeable mummy, it was important to draw the distinction between him being essentially a 170-year-old healthy and friendly looking mummy rather than making him a rotting, disgusting zombie. So, I designed the makeup to fit closely to Royal’s face for maximum expression and kept the colors in the warmer tones so as not to have him looking too decayed.”
“For Slim, it was essentially the opposite. Dean Cleverdon, who plays Slim, was not a recognizable actor at the time and the character was a very over-the-top monster bad guy. So there was a lot more leeway in designing Slim and I could use exaggerated forms and flaming red hair to make him seem as large as his legend. He was actually my favorite design of the show. Not just gnarly and rotting, but really mean and powerful.”
Wiley added, “I thought both designs were incredibly beautiful and that was all because of Chris’ vision for these characters. I’m sure I had a little input into how they looked—I was a big Willie Nelson fan, so I wanted Slim to have that long hair because I thought that would be kind of cool. But overall, though, Chris is really responsible for making those designs so cool. I don’t think I even gave him a single note on those designs at all. They were utterly perfect.”
One of the designs that Wiley did offer his input on was the adorable CaterPuppy that makes an appearance in House II after stowing away with Jesse and Charlie during one of their skull-retrieving adventures.
“The CaterPuppy was based on something I had designed. Because House II had this sort of ‘kitchen sink’ feeling to it already, where anything could happen or appear in any given room, I had that design lying around and thought it would be fun to use for a creature in this. Chris did a wonderful job of fully realizing that creature—it’s probably the effect I always get asked about. It’s everyone’s favorite [laughs].”
“The CaterPuppy was a very simple puppet for me to design,” said Walas. “All we could really afford to give it was the eye-blinking mechanism because we really were on a budget. Ethan was very ambitious in the scope of what he was attempting on the budget he had, so we had to get creative. The good thing, though, was that Ethan was very happy with the first designs of the CaterPuppy that I showed him, so we didn’t waste a lot of precious time in the design phase.”
An effect on House II: The Second Story that Walas did find particularly challenging was the baby pterodactyl, and he ultimately ended up using a mix of practical puppetry and stop-motion scenes in order to bring the prehistoric creature effectively to life.
Walas explained some of the challenges, saying, “The baby pterodactyl was a difficult puppet to work with and it was really cumbersome, too, due to its need for articulated wings. Those wings couldn’t fold back entirely and became a bit of an issue when trying to fit it into the cupboards and things like that during our shoot. And it was a relatively large puppet in that the puppeteer had to have his arm all the way up into it in order to operate it, which ultimately limited its larger movements a bit.”
“But I think the stop-motion version of this character was demanded by the production restrictions of the puppet and by the specific movements that Ethan wanted, too. It was decided early on to do the parent pterodactyl scene that I designed in stop-motion, so we thought that some stop-motion for the baby should fit in okay as well.”
Having to work alongside their puppet co-stars throughout much of production on House II inspired both Gross and Stark to have a little bit of fun between each of the takes. Gross revealed how they kept things light during some of the more arduous takes.
“You know, I don’t know if any of this was ever on film, but it something that ended up being pretty funny to all of us,” said Gross. “Because we were working so much with the CaterPuppy and pterodactyl puppets towards the end of production, Jonathan and I would always do this thing in between takes where whenever Ethan would say ‘cut!’ the puppets would then go limp. And just to have a little fun, we’d also do the same thing and then collapse on the kitchen floor at the same time. I think at one point we were even calling ourselves Ethan’s ‘human puppets,’ which was just another way we all tried to have some fun while making House II.”
Looking back at her time on the set of The Second Story, Yasbeck reminisced about what she took away from the experience. “I just absorbed everything I possibly could while working on House II. I was so new at that time, so the whole experience was about learning for me. I always wanted to be on set, too, even when I wasn’t working. There was a very special energy between everyone on set and I didn’t want to miss out on that or seeing what everyone else was doing, which was typically a lot of hysterical shit [laughs]. We all had such a great time making this movie—you couldn’t ask for a better introduction to the business.”
And for Wiley, another relative newcomer to Hollywood, working on House II: The Second Story gave him the ultimate lesson as a storyteller. “The biggest thing I took away from directing House II was how to be a better writer. You learn very quickly what’s necessary to tell a story visually and what isn’t, so when you’re writing a scene or a script, you can immediately recognize what you should have in there and what’s overkill. Because this was so ambitious, especially for the budget we had, I had to scrutinize everything and made sure whatever was in the script ultimately served the story we were trying to tell. And I think that, coupled with an incredible cast, is what makes House II such a wonderful movie. We were all so focused.”
Looking back at the experience, Gross added, “What I appreciated the most about working with Ethan was his wonderfully bizarre imagination. From the whole baby pterodactyl setup to the CaterPuppy to the scene fighting the Aztecs with John [Ratzenberger]—all of those wonderful moments came from Ethan. He really made the very best horror/fantasy/comedy that he possibly could, even if we didn’t have the biggest budget while making it. And I think Ethan’s ability to effectively execute his own fantastically great vision, while still making people laugh and giving the story some real human kindness to it, made all the difference. I still marvel at the fact that Ethan was able to pull all these genres together in such a way and make it all work so well. He’s the reason that House II has become a cult classic over the years, and I was very lucky to be a part of something that was truly magical.”
This retrospective is part of our Class of 1987 special features celebrating a wide range of genre films that were first released thirty years ago. Stay tuned to Daily Dead in the coming days for more pieces celebrating one of the most exciting graduating classes in horror and sci-fi, and check here for the latest Class of ’87 retrospectives, including Part 1 of Heather Wixson's House II: The Second Story retrospective.