[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.
And while The Second Story did respectable business during its two-week theatrical run that summer and was also a profitable sequel for New World, House II isn’t a film that I feel gets nearly the love that it should. Case in point: Joshua Jackson’s character makes a comment about House II during the sequels discussion scene in Scream 2, which is then met with unanimous jeers from his fellow students. Sure, it is absolutely a humorous moment in Scream 2 (and probably more of a loving homage to the film by Wes Craven rather than a jab), but it still seems that no matter how much time passes, House II: The Second Story never gets full props for being easily one of the most unique and ambitious projects out of New World Pictures during the 1980s, outshining its predecessor in many ways with its ability to provide huge-hearted entertainment with a top-tier cast, all while putting an inventive genre spin on everything as well.
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.
When it came time to start working on the script for The Second Story, Ethan drew on experiences from, his formative years, including watching classic Western movies with his father, who was a huge fan of John Wayne (fun fact: Wiley is, in fact, named after Wayne’s character in The Searchers), and his mother exposing him to classic horror films very early on. As Wiley pondered the next steps in his career in the early ’80s, he began working for special effects legend Chris Walas on films like Star Wars: Episode VI –Return of the Jedi and Gremlins, which he credits as his own personal film school, teaching him the intricacies of keeping an effects-heavy production moving forward on time and a budget.
Ethan was then hired to work on House, his very first screenplay for Sean S. Cunningham, which allowed the aspiring filmmaker a chance to make an impression on the legendary horror producer, who subsequently picked Wiley to helm the sequel the very next year. Ethan discussed how he intended The Second Story to be just that: another story about another house that took viewers on a completely new kind of adventure this time around.
“We wanted to approach these films like each one was going to be its own distinct chapter, explained Wiley, “which is where the “Second Story” part of the title came from. We really thought we were being pretty clever with that [laughs]. And so House II was always going to be all about a new house with new stories, new characters, and new adventures. I’m not sure how conscious we were of just how different House II was going to be from the original film, especially since there were a few nastier and much darker things in the original script from House II that never made it into the film. But back then, horror movies could also be a family activity—it’s how I was raised—so there were elements of that mentality that I applied to the second film, too.”
“And on a conceptual level, I wanted House II to feel like behind every door, there was going to be some new adventure awaiting these guys. Sometimes it was something funny, sometimes it was something scary, but that was part of the fun of it. Movies are always more fun if you can keep your audience guessing. There were really no rules; each door acted as a portal into the past or into the future and that’s what gives House II some of the tension. You never knew what was going to happen next.”
After completing the script, it was then time for Wiley to put together the perfect ensemble to bring House II: The Second Story to life, one that would be able to perfectly capture the humor and energy of the sequel.
“The most important thing for me, when it came time to cast House II, was finding the perfect actors to play up all the humorous aspects of the script without overdoing it. Bill Maher was just that. Amy [Yasbeck] was another example of that, too. I was also familiar with Arye [Gross], because he had just finished Soul Man for Steve Miner and I thought he was really funny, a great actor who brought this wonderful sense of ‘everyman’ to the role of Jesse. You couldn’t help but like the guy and he had this wonderfully droll sense of humor that balanced perfectly against everyone else’s performances. And then, with Jonathan Stark, he had started off working in these really great improv groups and has gone on to do amazing work as a writer, so I knew that he brought all kinds of talent to the table.”
When he was cast as Jesse for House II: The Second Story, it would mark the first time Arye Gross was stepping into a leading man role. Prior to working with New World Pictures on both Soul Man and House II, Gross had only found limited success in Hollywood and had actually been contemplating a career switch before his luck changed. He discussed how both films became a turning point for him professionally and how it was the director of the original House, Steve Miner, who became a huge advocate for him when it came time to cast for the follow-up film.
“I think I knew at the time that me being hired for House II was connected to my work on Soul Man,” Gross said. “Steve Miner, who directed the first House and Soul Man, knew he wasn’t going to be directing the sequel, but I believe he saw something in me on Soul Man that he thought would carry over well for the character of Jesse in House II, and threw my name in for consideration. So I do owe so much to Soul Man, because it really put me on the map as an actor and allowed people to see what I could do. Prior to working on that film, I had quit pursuing acting pretty much because I didn’t like the way it was all going. I hit the wall and I didn’t know what else to do. So, thankfully, New World saw something in me and gave me both of these opportunities because I don’t know where my career would have gone had they not.”
“And I had seen the first House and really enjoyed it, but at the same time, I liked that this one went in an entirely new direction, too. It felt like anything could happen, where you open one door and you’re suddenly transported 65 million years into the past. You go through a window and suddenly, it’s the Wild West. I loved that it had these shifts of time to it—that’s what made House II so much fun. That, and the fact that you really fell in love with these characters,” added Gross.
A huge part of why House II has always resonated with me as a fan was precisely what Gross mention—the characters—and so much of that is of course largely due to the friendship shared on screen between Gross’ character, Jesse, and his longtime buddy, Charlie, played by Fright Night’s Jonathan Stark. While watching the film, there’s an undeniable amount of chemistry and palpable affection shared between both actors, and their equally lovable co-stars, elevating House II all the more so to me.
Gross discussed his experiences working with Stark on House II and the kinship their characters shared, saying, “That relationship between Jesse and Charlie was largely in the script, but Jonathan and I just hit it off right from the start, too, so that definitely helped. We had such a fun dynamic where I was playing the guy who has always walked the straight and narrow and whenever Charlie comes along, there’s a lot of chaos that he brings along with him.”
“I don’t remember how much time we had to prep on House II, but I do know that we all spent a lot of time together hanging out while we were making the movie, which I think only helped our performances. And Jonathan made it so easy to work with him, too, because he’s from The Groundlings, he has this amazing sense of comedic timing, so it was easy for me to embrace that and play Jesse as the straight man against Charlie and all his antics.”
“I’d say that Lar probably had the least “fun” role, just because she had to play the even more responsible adult as the counterpoint to all of Jesse’s crazy friends,” Gross added. “And even though that really allowed her to have some fun with her character, it maybe didn’t seem like she had all that fun of a character in this, but she’s so good. Bill [Maher] was also exceedingly funny to work with as this superior, put-down king, and he always had us laughing.”
For Stark, working with Gross (and the rest of the cast and crew) on The Second Story was a mutually enjoyable experience. “Arye was so great to work with; he had such an easygoing personality that I knew that us playing off of each other was going to be some of the easiest work I’ve ever done as an actor, because everything came so naturally between us. He’s such a likable guy that we hit it off immediately and his straight-man comedic timing is just impeccable. Everyone on House II was really great to work with. It was probably one of the best times I’ve ever had on a movie.”
When Charlie shows up randomly one night at Jesse’s new home in House II, he doesn’t arrive empty-handed. Accompanying Charlie is his girlfriend Lana, an aspiring lead singer of a punk rock band, who is looking for her ‘big break’ via Kate, who also just happens to be a music executive. The role of Lana would put newcomer Amy Yasbeck on the map, and the infectiously hilarious actress and comedienne reflected on her own experiences getting her first “big break” on House II.
“House II was my very first movie and my first experience on a big movie set. I’ll be the first to admit, I totally BS’ed my way there, too [laughs]. The script was the first real movie script I had ever read, so I just kind of faked my way through the whole thing. If you watch the scene in the kitchen with Arye and Jon, where they’re trying to cover things up, you will see me commit THE mortal sin of acting—I’m moving my lips along with their dialogue [laughs]. You’re not supposed to do that! But somehow, that made it into the final version of the movie, so my friends and family love to watch House II because it is kind of hilarious to watch me doing those things now, after all these years [laughs].”
“I’d have to say that the singing aspect to my character was probably the most nerve-wracking part for me because I wasn’t sure at first how that was going to go. But then they had me go to a studio before we started production and sing the song that I’d be dancing to in House II. That was a little weird, lip-syncing to yourself. And that scene was just crazy, because I was supposed to be dancing around in my underwear and I made sure that I had on an extra pair just in case. I thought of it like the girl version of wearing a cup [laughs].”
“I also loved the fact that Lana was supposed to be punk rock but ends up coming off as this sort of knock-off Madonna; it was even in the script that I was supposed to be this crazy punk rock chick, but that didn't quite happen when they dressed me for my character. There was absolutely nothing punk rock about that wardrobe [laughs]. But I do remember when I went in to audition for House II, I wanted to look as punk as possible, so this chick named Jenny dressed me up in her clothes so I’d ‘look’ the part. She put this leather skirt on me that went from the thigh, all the way up. I didn’t really realize it at first until I was about to walk into the audition and things felt a bit ‘breezy.’ That’s when I saw that I was about to flash my bits around and that wasn’t how I wanted to get the job [laughs].”
Yasbeck spent many of her scenes in House II working with Stark, and he talked about why collaborating with her on this film ultimately would lead to a friendship that has lasted over 25 years now. “From the moment I met Amy, I just fell in love with her. She has this infectious energy to everything that she does where you can’t help but like her. We spent a lot of time on set, hanging out and laughing like a bunch of fools. We’re still really good friends to this day. She’s an incredibly gifted actress and comedienne and one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet in this business, too.”
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 tomorrow for Part 2 of Heather's House II retrospective, as well as other articles in the coming days celebrating one of the most exciting graduating classes in horror and sci-fi, and check here for the latest Class of ’87 retrospectives.