HOUSE (1977)

  • Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
  • Writers: Screenplay by Chiho Katsura, Story by Chigumi Obayashi
  • Starring: Kimiko Ikegami, Miki Jinbo, Ai Matsubara, Kumiko Oba, Mieko Sato, Masayo Miyako, Eriko Tanaka, Yoko Minamida, and Kiyohiko Ozaki
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video or Apple TV

There are lots of really, really crazy movies, and then there is House. I always enjoy watching the special features that go along with movies on The Criterion Channel, which typically include filmmakers or scholars intoning very classily about the movie. One such feature for House begins: “House is a 1977 film from Nobuhiko Obayashi, and it is just completely nuts.” While listing the things that happen in the movie would make them seem bizarre enough (a girl getting eaten by a piano, an evil, but fluffy, cat with telekinesis, one girl’s severed head biting another girl on the butt…), even that would not fully convey the manic headspace of this movie, where every scene seems to involve five new ideas. Another of those Criterion talking heads comments: “It feels like every horror director for years after saw this movie and decided to take one thing, because if they took two things it would have been too much.” This movie has like a thousand things.

At its core, House (though I’ve seen it called by the Japanese version Hausu, Obayashi purposely named the movie in English because he thought it would be “taboo”) is a haunted house story. Seven schoolgirls (who all have names like “Gorgeous” and “Prof” (she wears glasses)) go to visit the aunt of one of them at her old country house, only to find out that it is haunted, or malevolent, or possessed by an evil, fluffy, telekinetic cat, or something. The wikipedia article on this movie then goes on to contain phrases such as “disappears after being attacked by mattresses” and “as Kung Fu lunges into a flying kick, she is eaten by a possessed light fixture.”

Interestingly, the horrors to come are barely hinted at for nearly the first half of the movie. We spend our time with this group of girls who are almost unbearably chipper and comically innocent. Even then, Obayashi is indulging in haphazard, mid-scene iris shots (there is more than one rapid-fire iris shot of the cat) and giving us weird, slapsticky moments like their teacher (Kiyohiko Ozaki) getting his butt stuck in a bucket and sliding down some stairs in fast motion. The story of the girls’ Aunt (Yoko Minamida) is by contrast very serious, even though it’s narrated playfully by the girls. She lost her love to the war, then had to watch as her sister (Gorgeous’ mother) got married in the traditional wedding gown meant for her. Now she keeps insisting that he will come back for her one day.

The biggest key to unlocking exactly what is going on here may be the fact that director Nobuhiko Obayashi was born in Hiroshima in 1938, meaning he was 7 years old when the atomic bomb destroyed his city. He later very openly said that all of his friends died in the bombing, and now decades later he tried to make a movie about it. This is much more subtext than text here, but there are a lot of clues if you know where to look, like the way flashes of light presage doom throughout the movie, and a final, not really explained scene where two women shake hands and one of them immediately bursts into flames. More to the point, this is a movie contrasting the young, carefree generation, who have never experienced loss, running into an older generation who have nothing but pain. That’s the reason the schoolgirls are so comically innocent. There is one two second shot of an atom bomb explosion in the movie, during the flashback sequence, and it is accompanied by one of the schoolgirls exclaiming, “Ooh, it looks like cotton candy!”

But you don’t actually have to think about any of this with House, you can just sort of let it wash over you and let the things that happen happen, and, y’know, maybe take an edible beforehand or something. Or you can watch it from a filmmaking perspective and marvel at the sheer variety and ingenuity that goes into all of this. House came out in 1977, and there somehow isn’t a single piece of computer graphics. Many of the shots are composites, done in-camera, and not just composites but several layers of composites, something that wasn’t exactly routine at the time. Many other shots, like those of the girls’ various piecemeal body parts flying around, were accomplished with “chroma-key,” a similar technique to that used with a green screen (i.e., replacing everything in the shot that’s the color green with another shot). In this case, all of the parts of the girls except for the body part we were supposed to see would be painted blue, then layered into the separate shot. The result is not realism, but there’s a handmade quality to everything in this movie that draws you into its world far better than many movies with a hundred times the budget.

Despite feeling like a completely unique slap in the face of the viewer (in a good way), House seems to have been very influential on a lot of horror movies that you’re probably more likely to have seen. Consider one climactic scene where the girls smash a portrait of the evil cat on the wall, followed by a massive fountain of blood spurting from the hole in the wall. The room fills up with blood, leaving one girl floating in a red sea, clinging to a single plank of wood. This scene pre-dates several other scenes in American movies involving massive, room-filling floods of blood, including The Shining, The Evil Dead, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The general atmosphere of macabre insanity is also thought to have been a major influence on movies like Beetlejuice or the early, weird movies of Peter Jackson. And so on.

I have been hearing about House now and again for multiple decades now, which is why I decided to include it in Horrorfest ‘21. But nothing I read about it could have prepared me for the experience of actually watching it. I’ve seen weird Japanese media in my time. This is way weirder than that. If you are a horror fan, and maybe even if you’re just someone who likes completely crazy movies, I think House is a must-watch.

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