It isn't as if they'd named it Happy House, so no false advertisement there.
Monster House is, as ds describes it, funny, scary, weird and sad. It's the last that is most surprising, and that has ds most thrown. (Don't read if you don't want to know too much, and please do not use this review alone to make a family decision. It is very wise for a parent to pre-screen this film).
Dh warned me about the following issues, but encouraged us to go anyway, so I'm passing along the same warnings, with maybe a little more information than he gave me (it was midnight, afterall, when we discussed it):
The story involves two neighborhood boys (later joined by streetwise and private academy educated Jenny): DJ (intense and thin, with pixie-features reminiscent of James of the Giant Peach) and Chowder (round and oafish) who may have accidentally caused someone's death (Chowder: "they call it manslaughter if it's an accident."). The house across the street may or may not be haunting them (in a startling dream image, reaching its shadow hand across the street and into DJ's room as he sleeps), and may or may not murder neighborhood children on Halloween, depending on the success of DJ, Chowder and Jenny's intervention and the willingness of the adult world to cooperate with these barely pre-pubescent three (when the babysitter, disbelieving the trio, DJ his real problem, he suggests "Puberty," and the tension between the two boys is driven by their acceptance or rejection of their impending young manhood) The man across the street (voiced by Steve Buscemi) may have killed his wife, may still have her body in the basement.
I can't give any more of that away.
But I will give you this:
Seemingly well-meaning but clearly inept and disconnected parents (the father backs into his son's best friend in the driveway, though the blame falls to the child) leave their son with a manipulative babysitter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who transforms herself from Elizabeth to "Z" and brings her stoner boyfriend (Jason Lee) to the house, drunk and drinking. She tosses him out after "unwelcomed advances" (this is putting it mildly), only to search for him later.
(Chowder's dad apparently doesn't notice when he slips out of the house and remains out all night - though he is mad when he calls the next day.)
The representation of African Americans is astoundingly poor. In a seemingly all-white community, the black rookie cop (voiced by Nick Cannon) appears to have been trained more by Police Academy than by the police academy. He may be the only adult to consider the possibility that the children are telling the truth, but this is only because he is seemingly forever a man-boy, with everything that connotes, all of the American history that that reveals or hides.
The representation of obesity and difference is ambivalent: a principal figure is both adored and malevolent.
The ending is sad and poignant, perhaps too much so for a young audience. While possibly cathartic, it may also be confusing. My son followed the film up with questions about love, loss and the afterlife, and felt that all the calamity of the film resulted from the old man's inability (forty years prior) to accept loss and love again. Ds gave this example: "When we are older, and you die, I will just have to let you go and remember that there are more people to love. And when I die, those people will have to . . .".
The children's heroism is the saving grace of the film, and the end really is redemptive (many families left after thirty minutes, stuck forever, I'm sure, with the image of the haunting house reaching for that poor boy) though their heroism involves their (albeit hesitant) use of explosives and a construction vehicle parked with keys in the ignition (a fact we discover early in the film).
In the end, the film is barely this side of Goonies in terms of the fear factor. In positive ways, too, the comparison is apt, given their concerns with puberty, and their affable boy-heroes (think Chunk/Chowder).