Every neighborhood had one. In mine, it was an old German woman who wore long peasant dresses and rushed onto her front porch with a broom she'd wave at kids the minute they tried to retrieve an errant ball or Frisbee. Then she'd walk onto her own forbidden grass, grab it, and retreat into mysterious solitude. Though she was the scary thing, not her house, we also had a ramshackle building on the same block that was cloaked in even more mystery—the kind of property that spawned dares, double-dares, and triple-dog-dares. And that's not even counting a local funeral home that became just as freaky for us at night.
Maybe that's why "Monster House," despite having a simple plot and mostly meat-and-potatoes writing, connects on a basic, universal level . . . the level of childhood FEAR. Add a basement (which you also get in this film, presented by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg) and you've got every kid's triple whammy. But make no mistake about it, "Monster House" is not aimed at kids—at least not young ones. Director Gil Kenan uses animation to tell a frightful story that simply couldn't be told using live action. More than cartoons, the characters feel like caricatures of real humans, each with an exaggerated feature that's also tied to a central personality trait. The biggest exaggeration, of course, is the house itself, which in this film becomes a living, breathing, terrorizing entity.
Using motion or "performance" capture, with hundreds of dot-sensors taped to each actor and the actors asked to use their imaginations to perform on a sparse 20'x20' mo-cap stage, the filmmakers have crafted an animated feature that's just as scary, in spots, as some of the best horror films and thrillers. When you have a great concept, it's easy to get name actors to sign up. It's also easy to get your first directing gig. On one of the bonus features, we learn that Kenan, just three years out of film school, was entrusted with this big-budget project because he had a clear vision of how he wanted it to turn out, and he showed the studio brass pictures. They must have been some pictures, because he not only got the gig, he also got every actor on his first-choice wish list to come onboard—including Kathleen Turner, as the house (and Constance, a sideshow fat lady). Kevin James and Nick Cannon team as a couple of officers who sort-of investigate, Jason Lee and Jon Heder play a heavy-metal twosome, Bones and Skull, while Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Zee, the self-absorbed babysitter who's dating Bones. Steve Buscemi does the honors as the cranky neighborhood caretaker of Monster House, Mr. Nebbercracker, while Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara play the main kid's parents. But the bulk of this film belongs to young actors Mitchel Musso, Sam Lerner, and Spencer Locke, who play D.J., his chubby friend Chowder, and a Girl Scout named Jenny who's awfully street-savvy.
Without giving away too much of the plot, Monster House has a lawn that seems to be alive. Anything that goes onto it gets swallowed by the earth or picked up and taken into the house by Nebbercracker, who's been seen talking to the house as if it was real. Of course, only D.J. across the street seems to be aware of all this, and he monitors the action like a cop on stake-out, using a telescope from his bedroom. At first no one believes D.J., but when he and Chowder keep Jenny from being swallowed up by the house, they realize that they've got to do something to stop kids from trick-or-treating there on Halloween, which is just days away. The cops won't do anything, so it's up to them. And the rest of the film follows this crew's attempts to get at the secret of the house and learn how to stop it.
The motion-capture CGI technology is really wonderful to behold. You wouldn't think that something that looks so weird and technologically cold could warm up the CGI characters the way that this technique does, but it works. There's also the occasional zinger of a line, usually an understated one, that nicely complements the artwork and animation. A video game nerd they consult, like Yoda, says, dryly, "In my travels to video game and comic book conventions I've seen wondrous things." And when the kids find all sorts of scary things in the subterranean level of Monster House, Chowder quips, "We have a ping-pong table in our basement."
"Monster House" surprised me because I didn't expect it to be played like a straight teen horror/slasher film, but with animation. I frankly expected a Scooby-Doo type venture into the world of Halloween monsters, something pitched more at children. But a solid script and acting really complement the star of this film, which is the animation itself, and enables it to connect with viewers of all ages—anyone who's ever grown up with (and not forgotten) those basic childhood fears.
Video: This hi-def (1920x1080p) Blu-ray disc is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio, and the picture quality is excellent. The climate now for HD wars is such that technology or technological claims are starting to become way too much of a preoccupation, I think. Let's remember that for most people, it all comes down to the human eye . . . and ear. How does it look, how does it sound? Let's not lose sight of the fact that the film is the thing, and any discussion of quality should be secondary to the film itself, as long as the picture and sound don't noticeably detract from the movie. In this case, the picture is vividly sharp, the colors are vibrant, and HD really provides a nice showcase for a film that's highly visual. It's a marvel to behold, and a fun film to watch in HD.
Audio: The audio options are English Dolby Digital 5.1, English PCM (uncompressed) 5.1, and French and Korean Dolby Digital 5.1. Once again, I preferred the PCM to the Dolby Digital 5.1. It just seems to have a fuller, more resonant sound that expands to take up all the space in your TV room. As with video, I'm starting to think that discussions of the audio might also be overblown. After all, though a disc might come with PCM audio, it will sound different depending upon the home theater sound system you have. Somebody out there with the high-line Bose system will get more out of this soundtrack than I can, and yet I'm pretty happy with my surround-sound system and main speakers. I don't have any complaints. When the music booms to match the frightful moments, it's enough to knock you out of your seat, even in my living room. The bass is rich, the treble is bright, and the overall sound is wonderful.
Extras: After being disappointed by so many Blu-ray releases that have jettisoned extras as if it were a medium sinking, I was delighted to find a full complement of bonus features here. The filmmaker commentary by the producer and director is excellent and crammed with information, while seven short features under the umbrella "Inside the Monster House" that run roughly 25 minutes give viewers a pretty good fix on how the film was made and what went into it. One of the biggest surprises was learning how much research the team did to find out how a house sounded. Crews went into a barn and played loud sounds to hear how it echoed and resonated, and the filmmakers even went so far as to have houses torn down to hear what that sounds like . . . and then amplify it, the way everything else in an animated feature is exaggerated.
There's also a nifty "Evolution of a Scene" feature that shows four distinct versions of a film, one layered upon the next, with the most recent demonstration occupying the large screen and past versions appearing in small screens underneath, so viewers can watch the versions simultaneously. Rounding out the extras there's a photo gallery that shows the usual blend of drawings and artwork.
Bottom Line: Though "Monster House" may be destined to become a Halloween classic, parents of small children will want to watch it with them. The film is rated PG, but some of the sequences are awfully frightening for children under six. Be prepared to shield their eyes or give them a big cuddle during some of the more intense moments.