With horror industry heavy hitters already in place from the 1970s, the 1980s built upon that with the rise of brilliant minds in makeup and effects artists, as well as advances in technology. Artists like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and countless other artists that delivered groundbreaking, mind-blowing practical effects that ushered in the pre-CGI Golden Age of Cinema. Which meant a glorious glut of creatures in horror. More than just a technical marvel, the creatures on display in ‘80s horror meant tangible texture that still holds up decades later. Grotesque slimy skin to brutal transformation sequences, there wasn’t anything the artists couldn’t create. It Came From the ‘80s is a series that will pay homage to the monstrous, deadly, and often slimy creatures that made the ‘80s such a fantastic decade in horror.
If you ask many horror fans growing up during the ‘80s what their childhood favorite movie was, House is likely to come up often. Directed by Steve Miner (Friday the 13th Part 2, Warlock) and written by Ethan Wiley from a story by Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad, Night of the Creeps), this horror comedy deftly balances the humor, scares, and story that offers enjoyment for all ages. From a child’s perspective, it’s about a writer, Roger Cobb (William Katt), moving into the house in which is son went missing after inheriting it from his recently deceased aunt. The house just happens to have some haunting quirks and glorious monster action. As an adult, though, the house’s paranormal activity takes on a deeper meaning with the comprehension of that writer’s Vietnam war PTSD coming into sharper focus.
A large part of the film’s longevity is its ability to keep viewers on their toes; you’re never quite sure when the house is going to turn on Roger, and whether it will playful or menacing. Sometimes ghoulish children with ghastly grins just want to play as the run by giggling, but sometimes monstrous war demons pop out of the closet to attack. The house plays tricks, using everything it knows about its inhabitants to do so.
There’s so much about House that works well, and from a creature feature perspective it’s a pure marvel. Animatronic demon bats and mounted fish, monstrous puppets made of dead bodies and weapons, a Sandy witch, creepy ghoul children, and a skeletal Big Ben out for revenge meant a very busy, large team of special effects artists working around the clock to deliver on the most unique haunted house horror film. It’s the type of film that illustrates how much blood, sweat, and tears is poured into special effects, and not always with much payoff. The massive demon that pops out of the closet took a minimum of 27 hours to cast after multiple special effects team members painstakingly sculpted the creature, it was set on a track to shove out of the closet for its scene, and ultimately only amounted to a few mere seconds of screen time.
Though House boasts a large roster of well-regarded special effects talent, with names like Shannon Shea (Predator, Jurassic Park, Leviathan), Richard Snell (Demolition Man, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End), Joe Viskocil (The Blob, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope), and so many more, this horror comedy’s creatures can really be attributed to the legacy of James Cummins (The Boneyard, Dead & Buried, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark), the film’s creature design and creature effects designer. While Kirk R. Thatcher (Robocop 2, Poltergeist) handled some of the preliminary creature designs, namely Big Ben, most of the creatures were designed by Cummins, whose whimsical art style lent well to the nature of House’s unique sense of humor.
Under Cummins leadership, the team had to actually build the shop where they’d be creating the monster effects, which so happened to be in an old office unit on the second floor of an old Burbank strip center. With all the materials used in the molding and casting of the latex, polyfoam, and fiberglass creatures, eventually, the fire department caught wind and evicted the team from their makeshift shop. Smack in the middle of production, the operation was relocated to Cummins’ backyard, a sight to behold I’m sure. It’s the precise type of anecdote that illustrates the tireless efforts put in by the special effects team and speaks to their passion of the craft.
Between Cummins creature design and effects supervision, and his fantastic team of talented artists, House remains a standout for ‘80s creatures. Cummins passed away in 2010 due to heart failure, taking a tremendous artist too soon. That it has a great story that serves as a perfect gateway for a younger generation of budding horror fans, means that there’s perhaps no better film to perpetuate Cummins’ legacy.