One can never be completely certain about these things, but “Monster House” — a frightfully fun animated horror flick from executive producers Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg — may boast the first anatomically-correct single-family home in the history of the haunted house genre.
Which isn’t to suggest that the movie is inappropriate for kids. They may simply emerge with a richer understanding of uvulas and gag reflexes.
Using the same motion-capture technique that Zemeckis employed in “The Polar Express,” first-time director Gil Kenan tells the story of DJ (Mitchell Musso), an awkward, somewhat anxiety-prone middle-schooler left to fend for himself over Halloween weekend by his parents, played by Fred Willard and child-abandonment specialist Catherine O’Hara (“Home Alone”). Like all of the young’uns on his street, DJ is mortified by Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), a gnarled, tantrum-throwing neighbor who confiscates any toy, tricycle or basketball that wanders onto his property.
After Nebbercracker keels over from a heart attack during one his tirades, DJ starts to notice odd, carnivorous tendencies in the old man’s now-deserted clapboard house. With a Persian runner doubling as a tongue, the infernal dwelling plucks unfortunate passers-by off the street and spirits them away into its dark, bowel-like environs. Only by extinguishing its boiler — the heart of the beast — can DJ and his friends hope to end the carnage (bloodless, though smaller children may still find it too intense).
Director Kenan clearly borrows a lick of two from “Goonies” (1985), the Spielberg-produced kid caper that has become something of a childhood fetish object for twentysomething movie fans. Instead of Chunk — the portly, talkative sidekick played by Jeff Cohen in the earlier movie — “Monster House” has Chowder (Sam Lerner), a near-identical character who engages DJ and pretty over-achiever Jenny (Spencer Locke) in an amusing repartee. When Jenny notes that the house’s ornate chandelier functions as a uvula — the hanging flap of flesh at the back of the throat — Chowder’s response is riotously daft: “Oh. So it’s a (ital)girl(ital) house.”
In fact, Kenan and a trio of screenwriters — including Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab, who wrote the lost pilot for the Jack Black/Owen Wilson buddy show “Heat Vision and Jack” — have crafted an homage not just to “Goonies,” but to the 1980s in general. There are sightings of Atari 2600 consoles and non-cordless telephones, and the characters similarly have a bygone look.
Of all the hair-raising effects in “Monster House,” Nebbercracker himself — with his advanced tooth-decay and crazed, rheumatic eyes — might be the most frightening. But the character — in a somewhat improbable rebirth — reveals a human, vulnerable side that both deepens the plot and adds some Tim Burton-style phantasmagoria to the mix. In both form and function, this is a haunted house story with a human face.