Bright Lights Film Journal

Spatialism, Part 1 – The ORIGINAL 3-D “Monster House”

Like Alan Vanneman (below), I thoroughly enjoyed Monster House, a better-than-average computer-animated horror film for kids, with absolutely spectacular 3-D effects – if you’re fortunate enough to see it in that format. I have no doubt that the true auteur of the piece is co-producer Robert Zemeckis, who performed similar miracles with the 3-D IMAX version of Polar Express. As for the plot-line, it’s more than a little reminiscent of the stories Zemeckis preferred when he was co-producing (and occasionally directing) TV’s Tales From the Crypt. In short, Monster House is the best 3-D haunted house film since Dino De Laurentiis produced and Richard Fleischer directed Amityville 3-D back in 1983.

The late Richard Fleischer, whose father Max produced the Betty Boop films (see again Vanneman, below), was a highly visual filmmaker who thrived on technical challenges. He directed the second Cinemascope film ever made (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), one of the first 3-D films (1953’s Arena, about a rodeo), and one of the few narrative films to make use of the multi-screen technique (1968’s The Boston Strangler) that Fleischer had first seen at New York’s 1964 World’s Fair. Almost all of his films, including Amityville 3-D, are shot in the widescreen format that he helped to pioneer. Among the first generation of 3-D filmmakers (notably Fleischer, Jack Arnold, and Andre De Toth), Fleischer was the only one to return to 3-D, thirty years later, during the second 3-D wave of the 1980s. He considered Amityville 3-D to be a vast improvement over his earlier Arena, and it is.

Amityville 3-D‘s story isn’t particularly original. It owes as much to Poltergeist as to the earlier Amityville films, and also borrows the gateway-to-hell-in-your-basement idea from Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond. Fleischer’s interest was clearly focused on the formal use of 3-D (he had 30 years to think about it) and getting good realistic performances out of a superior cast that included Tony Roberts, Tess Harper, Candy Clark, Lori Loughlin, and a hellaciously cute pre-stardom Meg Ryan. Fleischer and De Laurentiis must have thought that the 3-D effects were what the audience came to see. Ergo, the more of them, the better.

And how about those 3-D effects! The film opens with a slow circling track around the outside of the house (at night, of course) past withered tree branches and other foreground objects, finally ending on a close shot of a hanging “For Sale” sign creaking back and forth in the wind. One of the film’s odder aspects is the way it kills off its most sympathetic characters, those least deserving of the fate. My favorite character, Candy Clark’s Hawksien photojournalist, dies the most horrible death – burnt alive in her car. When the car door opens, her charred smoking skeleton leaps toward the audience. As in Poltergeist, a team of parapsychologists sets up shop in the haunted house: video cameras glide past; boom microphones jut out of the frame. The climax of the film pulls out all the stops. As the house self-destructs, rafters splinter and crash; windows smash; broken glass flies everywhere, along with other dangerous objects. Tony Roberts (and the audience) are nearly impaled by a flying stuffed swordfish; Tess Harper is lured toward her doom by a floating purple light; a horrible monster emerges from the well in the basement and comes roaring into our laps. Finally, we get an exterior view, from multiple angles, of the house exploding in slow motion, just like the house at the end of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point – minus the cereal boxes.

This year’s Monster House, though not as grisly as Amityville 3-D, surpasses it in terms of vivid spatiality. Judged apart from its 3-D innovations, Monster House is not what I would call a great example of feature-length children’s animation – Heck, I preferred Robots – but it’s certainly good enough, and, as a bonus, has a very interesting subtext. The house (whose “facial” expressions were modeled on a game Kathleen Turner) turns out to be the wife of its owner, played by Steve Buscemi. Not symbolically – actually. Seems that the Buscemi character’s wife was once a circus Fat Lady (again played by Turner) abused, tormented, and caged as if she was the mother of Dumbo (a genuinely great animated film). Buscemi’s character is the only one who ever loved her. He marries her, but alas, something terrible happens, and her soul becomes fused with the home that was originally intended to be their love nest. So, the “monster house,” aged, dilapidated and feared, becomes a metaphor for the despised body.

And becomes – ultimately – sympathetic. Per Robin Wood (American Nightmare), the difference between a “reactionary” and a “progressive” horror film is that in the progressive horror film, one eventually comes to feel sympathy for the monstrous “other.” Monster House is thus a progressive horror film, while Amityville 3-D, in which the house is simply evil, falls into the reactionary category.

Regardless, Fleischer’s film is a must-see for anyone interested in the 3-D process, and given the current audience enthusiasm for 3-D, ought to be revived.