As crisp orange leaves blanket DJ’s suburban neighborhood the day before Halloween, his portly pal Chowder ponders what costume he’ll wear on the big day. But DJ is preoccupied with other things, specifically a cranky neighbor who bolts from his rickety house to chase children off his property and take their toys. Then he gets a little too close. When DJ ventures onto Mr. Nebbercracker’s lawn to retrieve a basketball, the scowling old man accosts him and promptly keels over. The house sees its caretaker carted off, which inflames its already seething anger.
You see, this is no ordinary house. Its windows are eyes. The front door opens into a gaping maw lined with cracked boards for teeth. And its tongue (a long red carpet) lashes out at trespassers, dragging them across the threshold. That’s because the building and surrounding property are possessed by the spirit of Nebbercracker’s dead wife, who is about to unleash her rage on a parade of trick-or-treaters unless DJ, Chowder and their new friend, Jenny, can intervene.
DJ’s mom makes it a point to articulate love for her son and urges his father to do the same. DJ’s teen babysitter, Zee, scolds her boyfriend, Bones, for putting the moves on her (“You have no respect for women”) and kicks him out of the house. Convinced that he’s responsible for causing Nebbercracker’s death and invoking the wrath of the monster house, DJ feels it’s up to him to stop the madness. He and Chowder rush to warn Jenny, a prep school girl selling candy door to door, not to ring Nebbercracker’s bell. All three of the children act bravely, putting themselves at risk to conquer evil.
[Spoiler Warning] Not actually dead, Nebbercracker returns and acts nobly alongside the kids. He also explains that his years of hostile warnings to children were meant to protect them. We learn via flashback that he rescued his morbidly obese wife from a freak show and pledged to love her and protect her from cruelty. He and DJ show kindness to wide-eyed trick-or-treaters.
Bizarre supernatural events cause a dead woman’s tormented soul to possess a house and the property around it. When the home is finally destroyed, we see Nebbercracker embracing a misty specter in the shape of his wife before her liberated spirit is whisked off to who-knows-where.
After nearly kissing Bones, Zee makes eyes at another guy. DJ and Chowder are attracted to Jenny, who kisses DJ on the lips and hugs both boys (Chowder claims, “She grabbed my butt”). Chowder is a latch-key kid whose mother is cheating on his father with her personal trainer. In a gross display, Bones pretends to tongue-kiss one of DJ’s stuffed animals, then tears it apart. DJ’s dad confesses to, as a boy, using binoculars to look at attractive female neighbors. Chowder confuses the uvula with a female organ.
Nebbercracker breaks a little girl’s tricycle and grabs DJ. A disrespectful paperboy gets knocked from his bike by a boomerang newspaper. A basketball viciously whacks Chowder on the head. Threatening, shadowy imagery invades DJ’s dreams. Upon awaking he receives ominous phone calls from the abandoned house. On two occasions, boys get knocked to the pavement by automobiles. The rumor around town is that Nebbercracker killed and ate his wife. An avid video gamer plays the violent Thou Art Dead, which features axe-wielding avatars, a fountain of blood and a mocking skeleton with blazing red eyes.
Those moments are joined by scenes of ferocious conflict and intense peril. Bones is lured into the house to retrieve a kite taken from him as a boy—bait snatched away again as the house consumes him. Men are seized by a violent tree and the dreaded tongue-carpet and “eaten” by the house. The rug also makes a snack out of a stray doggie. Jenny nearly becomes a victim when the front walk comes to life.
[Spoiler Warning] Trapped in a squad car, the three children get yanked into the house. Jenny can’t evade a malicious air duct, which sucks her up. Chowder is attacked and taken away by malevolent bedsprings. Upon stimulating the house’s gag reflex, the kids get vomited into the front yard. The house—having pulled itself from its foundation—chases the children, who fight back with construction equipment. It’s eventually blown to smithereens.
In the basement DJ finds a locked cage containing the remains of Nebbercracker’s wife (a rotund concrete form that, cracked open, reveals the woman’s skeleton). It turns out she had been tormented by neighborhood children. Fending off eggs and other projectiles one day, she staggered to the edge of the foundation and accidentally fell to her death in the cellar many feet below, followed by a splash of cement (all shown in flashback). A truly twisted tale for little eyes.
Characters call each other “moron,” “loser,” “dork” and “porky.” Urination jokes employ the word “pee” several times, while Chowder (to impress his friends) insolently shouts into a dead phone, “Dad, why don’t you kiss my hairy butt!” Inappropriate expressions extend to “oh my god,” “crap” “screwed,” “I suck” and a comment about eating vomit.
Bones appears to drink from a beer bottle. Chowder steals mass quantities of cough syrup from his father so that he can “drug” the haunted house before entering it. The sheriff finds a bottle of the stuff and takes a covert chug.
Chowder endorses Tales From the Crypt and makes flatulence noises with his armpits. For the most part adults in the film are either absent, incompetent or nasty, giving tweens little incentive to rely on them when trouble arises. We’re shown a bottle of urine as the boys argue about who generated it. The deceitful Zee acts sweet until she knows DJ’s parents are gone, at which time she morphs into her punked-out, abusive self. She even conspires with Jenny to cheat DJ’s parents out of the emergency cash they left for her. Dogs urinate on a lawn and a lit jack-o-lantern (thus extinguishing it).
Monster House is more trick than treat. At first glance the impressive computer animation and involvement of Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis would seem promising. But don’t be fooled; it’s not E.T. or The Polar Express. Despite the clownishness of several characters, this nasty little nightmare-inducer maintains a dark, occult edge and follows the typical horror-movie template. Think Stephen King, not Steven Spielberg.
Each time the titular two-story serial killer claims another victim, I heard unprepared little ones in the audience whimper louder or wail to the point of distraction. (We’re forced to wait until the final credits to find out that no one actually died.) This may not be a Tim Burton film, but Monster House reeks of his gothic cynicism, especially a series of sober flashbacks about a woman’s eerie demise that are played out in ashen tones.
OK, so it’s too intense (not to mention crass and spiritually creepy) for children. How about teens and adults? Will they embrace it? My guess is probably not. While they may marvel at the rich animation, a sophisticated horror fan will find the shocks and lack of visceral carnage too tame. And the writing doesn’t contain the subversive, self-aware humor or cultural satire mature audiences crave. In short, this is a very expensive niche movie that may have a hard time scaring up the broad audience it’s angling for. I did, however, love the bumbling lawmen voiced by Kevin James and Nick Cannon, two cleverly conceived supporting characters in want of a fun, Pixar-style story, but trapped in a joyless horror flick. I could feel their pain.