In the 1980s there was this weird trend of making sequels that had nothing to do with the movies they were supposed to be sequels to. “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” was entirely separate from the “Halloween” series. “Troll 2” bore no resemblance to “Troll.” “Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2” wasn’t connected to “Prom Night.” “Rain Man” had none of the same characters as “Purple Rain.” The list goes on.
Among these sequels-in-name-only was “House II: The Second Story,” a title that I wish had a face so I could smack it. The first “House” was an R-rated horror comedy about an evil house. “House II” is a PG-13-rated adventure comedy with some supernatural elements but no horror, or any of the same characters, or even the same house. (You know a sequel is bad when even the sets refuse to come back.) The TV show “House” has more in common with “House” than “House II” does, and is eminently more watchable.
Besides the pun, another reason “House II: The Second Story” is a bad title is that the movie has nothing to do with any houses. I mean, yeah, there’s a house in it. The characters live in one, like most people. But it’s not an evil house or anything. So why bring it up? The characters in “Toy Story” and “Fight Club” live in houses, too, but no one tried to force the word “house” into those titles.
This movie is about a goofy man named Jesse (Arye Gross) who is too slight and unremarkable to be the protagonist in an adventure movie, and yet here he is, being the protagonist in an adventure movie. He and his girlfriend, Kate (Lar Park Lincoln), have just moved into an old mansion that’s been in Jesse’s family for generations. It was in this very house that Jesse’s parents were murdered when he was a baby, so you can see why he’d have a sentimental attachment to it.
The murder of Jesse’s parents occurred in the film’s prologue and was carried out by a zombie-ish demon-ish mummy-ish creature who demanded, “Give me the skull!” When they couldn’t produce the skull, on account of they didn’t know what he was talking about, the monster shot them with a pistol. Yes, a pistol. Apparently a fiend who can journey from the netherworld into the mortal realm in search of skulls does not necessarily possess any supernatural killing powers.
While looking through some family memorabilia, Jesse discovers that his great-great-grandfather was an explorer who found a crystal skull in some Aztec ruins. (The Aztecs made a lot of crystal skulls. It was kind of their “thing.” Not so special now, are you, Indiana Jones?) Legend has it that great-great-grandpa was buried with the artifact, so Jesse makes the obvious decision to dig up the grave and retrieve it. He is assisted in this by his wacky friend, Charlie (Jonathan Stark), who the movie thinks is very “quirky” and “wild and crazy,” possibly because the movie has suffered an aneurysm.
I don’t know how much grave-robbing Jesse and Charlie have done before, but they probably did not expect the person they were digging up to still be alive. That sort of thing is rare. It is much less common than, say, a movie in which the characters live in a house. But sure enough, great-great-grandpa, whose name is also Jesse, wakes up and hops out of the coffin, a little creaky but overall pretty spry for a man who is 170 years old and has been dead for half that time.
Grandpa Jesse (Royal Dano) is a friendly coot who looks and talks like an old-timey prospector, if that old-timey prospector had a face made of fruit leather. He is disappointed to discover that the crystal skull granted him immortality but did not restore his youthful appearance, a design flaw that the Aztecs ironed out in the later models, including the one they gave to Ryan Seacrest (who turns 138 this month). Grandpa Jesse is eager to get back to the family mansion and put the crystal skull back on the mantle over the fireplace, where it belongs, unaware that home-decorating tastes have changed since he was interred and crystal skulls are now more commonly placed in guest bathrooms.
The deal with the skull is that it’s powerful and everyone wants it. (This is as specific as the movie gets.) It was important enough for Grandpa Jesse to murder his business partner over it. It was that business partner, also immortal but ancient-looking, who traveled all the way from Hell to fire a gun at Jesse’s parents 25 years ago. So Grandpa Jesse must protect the skull, which he does by putting it on the mantle, out in plain sight, where anyone can walk off with it.
Someone does this almost immediately. First, though, there are shenanigans. Oy gevalt, such shenanigans there are. Jesse opts to hide Zombie Grandpa from Kate — most girlfriends aren’t cool with that kind of thing — so he and Charlie do a lot of bumbling to keep him out of sight. Then suddenly there is a Halloween party at Jesse and Kate’s house, and Zombie Grandpa is able to mingle with the guests without anyone suspecting he’s actually an undead 170-year-old and not just a guy in a Larry King costume. In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that Bill Maher is involved in all this, playing a record-label executive who works with Kate, who invited him over because Charlie’s girlfriend is in a rock band that Kate thinks should get a record deal. This has even less to do with the plot than the house does, though, so forget I brought it up.
It’s during the Halloween party that a hulking caveman-looking fellow barges in and takes the crystal skull from its carefully guarded position on the fireplace. He takes it to an upstairs room in the mansion, and next thing you know the room has become a prehistoric jungle, complete with dinosaurs and stuff. Jesse and Charlie are not as alarmed by this as you’d expect them to be. They continue to engage in moronic banter that would have been rejected by the writers of “Perfect Strangers” for being beneath Balki and Larry’s standards. I didn’t write down any of their specific dialogue while watching the film, as the rivulets of blood flowing from my eyes and nose prevented this. Just take my word for it.
The caveman gets killed by a dinosaur, leaving Jesse and Charlie to retrieve the crystal skull from a baby pterodactyl, which follows them back through the dimension portal into the present, don’t ask me how, or why, or if I care. Seconds after being put back on the mantle, the skull is stolen again, this time by Aztecs, which at least makes some kind of sense. Then an electrician arrives, played by Cliff Clavin from “Cheers,” and it turns out he’s not just an electrician but an adventurer, and he shows Jesse that, son of a gun, there’s a dimension portal in your wall. One of the code inspectors really should have caught that when you did the walk-through. All the Aztecs are in the wall, chillin’, about to use the skull as part of a ritual sacrifice. This is bad news because, as any exterminator will tell you, Aztecs are even harder to get rid of than termites, and once they’ve performed a sacrifice, forget it.
So there’s more fighting and adventuring and so forth, Jesse and Charlie constantly risking their lives to retrieve the stupid skull. And why? Because without it Zombie Grandpa will die. Again. After having already been dead for 70 years. This would be tragic, apparently. But for all the trouble they go to in preserving Zombie Grandpa’s unnatural, laws-of-God-defying life, it doesn’t matter when the business partner he murdered shows up and shoots him. The crystal skull can keep you alive forever, but it’s no match for bullets! (?)
To recap: Jesse dug up his great-great-grandfather’s grave to retrieve a priceless artifact, woke up the old man himself in the process, discovered the priceless artifact is the only thing keeping the newly alive old man alive, risked life and limb several times to protect it, then discovered that keeping old men alive was the skull’s only tangible power, and that this power can be canceled out by a gun anyway. Also, despite its questionable usefulness, the skull is very much in demand among time-traveling cavemen and wall-dwelling Aztecs, one of the few things those two cultures have in common.
Sometimes “House II: The Second Story” is a broad, cartoonish comedy seemingly aimed at children and the mentally enfeebled. Other times it feels more like an experiment to see how long a movie can be without containing a single moment of entertainment. You would think that over the course of 90 minutes something amusing would happen, if only accidentally, but “House II” painstakingly avoids this. Mostly I feel bad for the house, a fine-looking old mansion that should not have had its good name besmirched by this production. The house gives the best performance in the movie, but I bet it has quietly removed all references to the film from its résumé.