You’d never know it looking at it, but Gil Kenan’s Monster House is of the same production pipeline as Robert Zemeckis’ pseudo-photorealistic animated films. They just chose to use a more cartoony look in order to animate the actors’ movements. I have less of a problem with Zemeckis’ use of the technique than most people, but I’m not so far in the Zemeckis tank as to deny that Kenan uses the technique to better effect with his visual choices than Zemeckis did. It helps the audience connect with the film a bit more easily because the characters have been pulled out of he Uncanny Valley and into a less realistic bent that we can, ironically, more easily identify with.
The movie works, though, far beyond the cartoony look. Watching this I was really struck by how well structured the story is. I was also struck by the presence of Dan Harmon’s name all over the writing credits when they started to roll, but it instantly made sense. Harmon’s a student of Joseph Campbell’s theories on storytelling which lean heavily on the ideas of structuring a story. He has very clear notions of how to build a story and they fit in well with the little story of three children investigating a haunted house that comes alive and tries to eat them.
Yes, it’s silly and designed for children (I watched it with my five year old who was very proud after fifteen minutes that he wasn’t scared of it anymore), but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be infused with effective horror elements and a surprisingly emotional core on which to build everything. The clever thing about that core, though, is that it doesn’t originate with the children but with the male adult who starts the film as the antagonist. I tend to have a problem with things that are clever for the sake of being clever, but an inventive and clever twist that then gets built upon emotionally and narratively is the kind of surprise that storytellers should strive for. The problem is that most storytellers are happy to find the twist without working anything beyond it.
So, the story is pretty simple. DJ gets left alone over Halloween weekend by his parents with an inattentive babysitter. His best friend, Chowder, comes along and they discover the depths of the problems with the house across the street, a house that has long housed a cranky old man, Mr. Nebbercracker, who yells at every child who comes to his lawn, shooing them away angrily, and who DJ accidentally sends to the hospital early in the movie. A young, ambitious girl comes to the door trying to sell candy and the boys narrowly save her from the monster house’s appetites. Of course, no adult around them believes them when they describe the house coming alive and trying to eat them. The three set off on an adventure to try and kill the heart of the house. This is all fun kid’s horror movie type stuff, handled well with lively animation, but it’s when Nebbercracker comes back that the movie reaches another level.
The house is actually possessed by the soul of his long-departed wife, a former circus act that Nebbercracker saved, married, loved, and built the house for. She hated the children who made fun of her and picked on her at her house, so when she fell into the house’s foundations, transferring her soul to the house because horror movie, Nebbercracker transferred his love from the woman to the building, defending her from the outside world and, more importantly, the outside world from her. He was scaring the kids away because he didn’t want them attacked by the house. The last act of the film is Nebbercracker learning to let go of this rather toxic relationship he has with the woman he loved and saved. As a former demolitions expert (apparently they all can just get explosives whenever), he provides the three pre-teen children a few sticks of dynamite to use against the house which develops arms and starts chasing them down the street.
The movie is actually really fun, appropriate for young kids, and a good introduction to horror filmmaking to them. It looks good and has a surprisingly strong emotional core. It’s a movie that came and went with little notice, but I did see it shortly after its release (this being my second viewing), and I can say that it has aged quite well.