I’m a pretty big fan of House Party: the definitive early-’90s African American teen comedy, starring pop-rappers Kid ‘n Play and directed by Reginald Hudlin. A couple springs ago, my sister and I binge-watched the whole series over the course of a few evenings, an experience that somehow did not leave me permanently scarred; so these days, whenever the end of March/beginning of April rolls around, I think about House Party, the sequels it spawned, and the moment in urban youth culture it inimitably captured and preserved. If you, like me, have fond memories of the House Party films, read this post and you just might learn something new–especially about the franchise’s lesser-seen third and fourth installments.
The original House Party, an expanded remake of a student film Hudlin made while attending Harvard University in 1986, structures itself loosely around a single day in the lives of a group of high school seniors. Peter, a.k.a. “Play” (Christopher “Play” Martin), is throwing the titular house party while his parents are out of town. His friend Christopher, or “Kid” (Christopher “Kid” Reid), wants to use the party as an opportunity to showcase his “dope lyrics” as an M.C., but his plans are jeopardized when he runs afoul of the school bullies: hulking “Stab” and “Zilla” and diminutive, squeaky-voiced “Pee Wee,” played respectively by real-life brothers Paul Anthony, Brian “B-Fine,” and Lucien “Bowlegged Lou” George of the R&B group Full Force. Also attending the festivities are Tisha Campbell as the “bougie” upper-class girl, Sidney, who harbors a crush on Kid; A.J. Johnson as her worldly friend from the projects, Sharane; and Martin Lawrence–in only his second feature film role, after Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989)–as Bilal, the party’s irascible D.J.
The film isn’t united by a strong narrative thread, so much as a series of episodic setpieces and gags. There are plenty of iconic moments: the early scene when Kid crashes an Alpha Delta Sigma reunion D.J.’ed by none other than George Clinton; the visit to Sharane’s house, where her kid brother makes a pitcher of Kool-Aid using an entire bag of sugar; the rap battle between Kid and Play; and, of course, the part when Kid’s “Pop”–played by veteran comedian Robin Harris, who died just nine days after the film’s release–shows up at the party and proceeds to hilariously roast several of the guests. Without a doubt the most famous scene is the epic team dance battle between Kid, Play, Sidney, and Sharane, which features Kid ‘n Play doing their signature “Funky Charleston” dance to the tune of Full Force’s 1989 hit “Ain’t My Type of Hype.” But my personal favorite moment comes later in the film, when Kid and the Full Force bullies are hauled into jail and Kid has to use his “dope lyrics” to distract the other inmates, who bizarrely already want to rape him despite the fact that they are only in an overnight holding cell.
House Party isn’t exactly fine cinema, but it has a youthful energy and verve that is undeniable to this day. It’s certainly responsible for whatever lasting cultural relevance Kid ‘n Play might have accrued: while supposedly the lead roles were written for another pop-rap duo, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, they suit Reid and Martin much better–if only because they give Hudlin and the cast license to work in a lot of cracks about Reid’s trademark extreme high-top fade, from the cops who call him “Eraserhead” to Pop’s comparison of his head to a “witch’s broom.”
The original House Party cost an estimated $2.5 million to make, and grossed over ten times that amount in the box office; with that kind of return on investment, a sequel was practically inevitable. House Party 2: The Pajama Jam! released in October 1991, only 19 months after the first film, and it’s basically a textbook case of diminishing returns. This time around, Kid and his now-girlfriend Sidney are attending Harris University, a fictional historically black college named after the late Robin Harris, while Play is trying to get his music career off the ground. Kid struggles with adapting to college life and with mounting tensions in his relationship with Sidney, whose politically-minded roommate Zora (Queen Latifah) doesn’t approve of him. Then, Play “borrows” his friend’s scholarship money and gives it to Sheila Landreaux (Iman), a con artist posing as a music promoter. In order to save Kid from being kicked out of school, the pair attempt to raise funds by staging another party: “the mother of house parties, a pajama jammy jam.” But the Full Force brothers–now inexplicably working security detail for the university–are once again in pursuit.
As you can probably tell by the summary, the second House Party is a lot more plot-driven than the first, but it somehow manages to feel more aimless; the “pajama jam” itself doesn’t even kick off until about two-thirds through the movie. Producers/directors George Jackson and Doug McHenry–fresh off their success producing Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City (1991)–depart from the freewheeling slice-of-life tone of Hudlin’s original and pile on the camp, while still peppering the film with recycled gags like Daryl “Chill” Mitchell bumping into Bilal’s turntables while he dances and Randy Harris being caught in flagrante and responding with gunfire. There are, however, a few redeeming qualities. Kamron of the short-lived alternative hip-hop group Young Black Teenagers makes his first appearance in the series as Kid’s roommate Jamal, a dreadlocked white boy who earns his new friends’ respect with his love for “big booty,” “dice,” and “bean pies.” And the soundtrack is even better than the first film’s, with an infectious title track by Tony! Toni! Toné! and Kid ‘n Play’s own classic “Ain’t Gonna Hurt Nobody.”
Three years after The Pajama Jam, the saga continued with House Party 3: House Party with a Vengeance. This threequel picks up with Kid about to settle down and get married to his new fiancée, Veda (Angela Means), only for drama to arise after Sidney reemerges in his life. Meanwhile, Play is still working his way up in the music business, managing a female rap act with the amazing name “Sex as a Weapon” (played by T-Boz, Left-Eye, and Chilli of TLC). Play books the girls for a concert with ruthless promoter Showboat (Michael Colyar), but promptly becomes the target of Showboat’s wrath after they fire him and renege on their contract to play the show. And Showboat’s enforcers are out for blood for reasons of their own: they’re none other than Stab, Zilla, and Pee Wee, the bullies from the first two films.
Jackson and McHenry stray even further from realism in House Party 3, particularly with their bizarre decision to integrate the canon of the 1990-91 Kid ‘n Play Saturday morning cartoon series. In the animated show, Kid and Play are accompanied by a talking dog, Hairy (portrayed by accomplished voice actor Danny Mann), who sports a mohawk and drives the duo’s tour bus. Astonishingly, he appears in a similar capacity in House Party 3, playing a major role in the film’s surprisingly action-packed climax. After Full Force crash Kid’s bachelor party, the dynamic duo make their escape in Play’s car with Hairy at the wheel. An action-packed car chase along the California coastline ensues; then, Hairy loses control of the car and drives over an embankment, sending the car plummeting off a cliff and into the water below.
House Party with a Vengeance is probably best remembered for its cliffhanger ending, which signaled a new, darker turn for the series. In the film’s final scene, Play’s car is located along the Pacific coast. Bilal, Jamal, Veda, and Sidney all rush to the scene, and are hopeful when they see Hairy run toward them. But the car is empty. Kid and Play have disappeared. It’s only after the credits when viewers receive a glimmer of hope: the film fades back in, and a high-top fade rises slowly out of the water.
Despite this dramatic finale, viewers had to wait much longer than usual for the next installment. House Party 4 was trapped in development hell for seven years before it finally emerged in 2001, with the ominous subtitle The Last Party. It’s a strange sequel in pretty much every way. Kid and Play are absent for most of the film; having been missing for seven years, they are officially presumed dead in absentia, and their places have been taken by Jamal and Bilal–whose increased role can likely be attributed to Martin Lawrence’s then-recent resurgence in popularity with commercially successful films like Big Momma’s House (2000). Still mourning the “deaths” of their friends, the new central pair are tasked with throwing them the hypest of wakes. But they also face the psychological challenges of filling Kid and Play’s kickstepping shoes: especially Jamal, who as Sidney’s new boyfriend is being literally groomed to take Kid’s place, including adopting a manicured fade of his own–an homage to the relationship between James Stewart and Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
As in the case of House Party 3, The Last Party ends with an action sequence that feels at odds with the series’ original tone. First, Kid and Play make a soap-operatic appearance at their own wake, revealing that they had faked their own deaths to escape the wrath of Showboat and the Full Force bullies. Then, Stab, Zilla, and Pee Wee themselves crash the party–and, in the most controversial scene in the series, hold Sidney hostage, demanding the lives of Kid and Play in exchange for hers. Not seeing any other way out, Kid and Play dramatically step forward to sacrifice themselves. The Full Force brothers lead our heroes to an abandoned warehouse, where they plan to elaborately kill Kid and Play by lowering them into a vat of acid. But just as they’re about to go over the edge, the pair exchange a meaningful glance and break into their trademark dance, using the moves to disorient the bullies and knock them into the vat instead. Their success is short-lived, however: before Stab and Zilla plummet to their deaths, they grab Kid’s and Play’s legs, taking them down with them. At that moment, Bilal, Jamal, Sidney, and Hairy burst in and rush to save the dynamic duo. But it’s too late: the acid has destroyed their bodies from the neck down, leaving only their heads intact. Fortunately, Hairy is not only capable of operating a motor vehicle, but also apparently has expertise in cryogenics. The film ends, again, on a cliffhanger, with the multi-talented canine preparing Kid’s and Play’s heads to be cryogenically frozen until technology has sufficiently advanced for their lives to be restored (see photo above).
This time, though, fans never got the resolution to the House Party saga that they wanted. In the end, the closest thing to a House Party 5 we’ve received in the last decade was the direct-to-video House Party: Tonight’s the Night, a disappointingly white-washed South African coproduction that featured Kid and Play only in a brief post-credits cameo (see photo above)–and, since they were depicted as regular human music executives and not as cyborgs with transplanted heads, made it clear that House Parties 3 and 4 have been officially retconned from the series canon.
Still, wherever the franchise may have gone in its latter days, it’s worth remembering House Party for what, at its best, it was: a fun snapshot of early ’90s hip-hop, Black teen fashion, and awesome, awesome hair. So go ahead, rediscover these cult classic films. It ain’t gonna hurt nobody.