This year, I’m spending the month of October celebrating the horror genre with a #31DaysofHorror or #Shocktober-style run of horror films. At the end of the first week I’m a little behind schedule, with an eye on catching up over the weekends, but I’ve already bagged my first Japanese horror of the season: utterly mad cult classic House (1977), the debut feature film of Nobuhiko Obayashi. Ostensibly a horror film Toho demanded after the success of Jaws in 1975, House (or Hausu, to give it its Japanese pronunciation) is most definitely not a straightforward suspense-horror film akin to the Spielberg movie that triggered its creation. Instead, it’s a completely surreal sequence of events and images that more-or-less tells the story of a gaggle of teenage girls who visit a countryside mansion in Japan before falling prey to the old woman who lives there and the diabolical house itself. Obayashi, who developed a series of experimental films through the 1960s, imbues House with a non-stop cavalcade of visual tricks, weird FX shots, dissonant audio that overwhelms the senses. Rarely good, but never boring, House is the kind of cult film that simply must be seen to be believed.
There are any number of films where some notion of ‘objective’ quality goes out the window because something else about it makes it a must see – martial arts action movies where characterisation and narrative absolutely takes a backseat to the spectacle that is watching someone doing something that takes extraordinary skill are one such example (and a fitting one, given the nickname and skillset of one character in House). House is, on the surface, a schlocky haunted house tale. Several teenage girls, mostly played by actors with little to no experience, and all given only nicknames – Angel, Fantasy, Melody, Prof, Mac, Kung Fu, and Sweetie – head out into the countryside to visit Angel’s auntie. Inevitably, given the genre, that turns out to be a terrible idea, and the girls start getting picked off one by one in increasingly bizarre sequences. Just explaining, though, that the film looks odd, or unusual, or that strange choices have been made completely undersells the total effect. Obayashi, who until this point had worked in commercials and was known for his visual flair, uses just about every conceivable effect and transition. The film constantly employs picture-in-picture, irising, zooms, split-screens; the frame rate lurches around, sometimes in slow motion, sometimes overcranked, with the film sometimes being put on a brief loop flicking back and forth between two frames; primitive ‘70s VFX are employed liberally, from flashing cats’ eyes to painted backdrops, chroma key fadeouts to fountains of fake blood. All the while, the dialogue is atrocious, the music a discordant mix of ‘60s pop and ‘70s funk, and the pacing impossible to predict.
It’s wildly inventive, lurching between scenes that seem impossibly bad to works of nigh genius. One of the better gimmicks is a flashback sequence explaining the history of “auntie” and her house that is presented in the form of a silent film complete with intertitles. That’s not a completely unique stylistic choice, of course, but House then goes one step further and has the girls talk over the footage, audio commentary or Mystery Science Theatre-style (even though MST3K would not air until 1988), discussing the events and the resemblance Angel bears to her aunt in her youth as if they’re actually watching the footage themselves. Another sequence where one of the girls is devoured by a piano, incorporating plenty of both fake-looking fake limbs and surprisingly effective chroma key, is also a highlight. Other scenes are downright bizarre: one subplot involves the girls’ beloved teacher, Mr. Togo, who spends much of the film trying to get to the house in his inappropriately-’60s VW buggy, being harassed along the way by Bunta Sugawara lookalikes driving dekotora. In one of his earliest scenes, he’s involved in a slapstick sequence shot in stop motion that sees him tumble down a staircase with his ass stuck in a metal bucket; later, he encounters the same watermelon salesman who creeps out the girls and his answer to a question literally kills the salesman who transforms into a cartoon skeleton.
The explanation that “Toho was seeking an answer to Jaws” is really no answer at all to the question, “How did House get made?” Both are loosely ‘horror’ films, but there’s not much more to the connection beyond that. Jaws focuses on older men, House is all about the teenage girls. Jaws is relatively serious, House is – I have to believe – deliberately comic, with its Truck Yarou references, Kung Fu’s musical theme, and man being transformed into a pile of bananas, amongst other things. They don’t even particularly share a common subgenre of horror: Jaws is in effect a monster movie, and while the house in House does chew up its inhabitants as much as the shark in Jaws does, if not more so, the haunted house vibe is very different to a wild creature roaming the seas.
I keep being drawn back to a piece on Obayashi from Midnight Eye where he recalls that, “his producer told him that the studio was tired of losing money on completely comprehensible films, and was ready to let Obayashi produce his own completely incomprehensible script.” This more than anything else seems to explain the philosophy behind House: making logical, comprehensible movies had failed, so why not let an auteur, even an inexperienced one like Obayashi, throw everything at the wall and see what sticks? The complete and total madness on display in House might not always work, but it’s never boring, and it surely has had a long legacy in Japanese cinema. In particular, the wilder works of Takashi Miike, like Happiness of the Katakuris and Yakuza Apocalypse, feel tonally similar to House. Could either of them have existed without it?
House / ハウス
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Japanese Release Date: 30th July, 1977
Version Watched: 88 min (Eureka! Masters of Cinema)