Crazy late-night Japanese cult hit from 1977!
Delirious, deranged, gonzo or just gone, baby, gone – no single adjective or even a pileup does justice to House, a 1977 Japanese haunted-house freakout. Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi, this energetic exemplar of pulp surrealism is made for late-night screening and screaming.
The yelps you’ll hear and possibly emit, though, will be of surprise and delight, not terror. House, which turns on a misbegotten, increasingly violent trip taken by seven teenage girls, is not in the least scary, despite its body count and gore. If the hairs on your neck snap to attention, it will be only because of Mr. Obayashi’s flamboyant visual style, his comic flights of fancy and genre manipulations. This might be about a haunted house, but it’s the film that is more truly possessed: in one scene a piano bites off the fingers of a musician tickling its keys; in another a severed head tries to take a bite out of a girl’s rear, snapping at the derrière as if it were an apple. Later a roomful of futons goes on the attack.
The decapitated noggin also flies through the air, but that’s getting, um, ahead of the story, which opens with two uniformed teenage girls putting on a little photo shoot, prettily posing and laughing. You quickly discover that one, who’s known as Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), a moniker used by both her friends and father (Saho Sasazawa), is the cente from which all the other chaotic parts flow and twist. Although she seems like a model daughter (her insistent smile could light up Tokyo or at least a toothpaste commercial), she churns with jealousy after her father introduces her to his new girlfriend, Ryoko (Haruko Wanibuchi), another wide-smiling beauty whose lightly billowing hair and clothes suggest that she keeps company with an off-screen wind machine.
In a bid to get away from home, Gorgeous decides to visit her dead mother’s sister (Yôko Minamida). The aunt agrees in a letter that arrives, partly or so it seems, with the help of a white cat that inexplicably materializes one day. Gorgeous enlists six of her friends as accompaniment, a giggling retinue of nymphs fancifully named Sweet, Melody, Fantasy, Prof, Mac and Kung Fu. Traveling by train, wheels and foot, they arrive at an isolated house, where the aunt, who’s in a wheelchair (if not for long!), lives with her white cat, whose eyes beam out ominous green sparks and who has been immortalized in artwork throughout the house. Things soon start to go very badly for the teenagers.
It’s easy to track the plot points in House and rather more difficult to grasp why Mr. Obayashi tells the story the way he does, to gauge the significance of the gaudy colors, the old-fashioned techniques (he periodically irises up and down), the superimpositions and flurries of jump cuts. The exterior backdrops tend to be overtly artificial, the skies so streaked with orange that you half expect to see Scarlett O’Hara shaking her fist at the heavens. A scene with Gorgeous, her father and his new squeeze, meanwhile, is shot through a multipaned window that separates the camera (and us) from the characters, one of several such distancing strategies. There are close-ups, but many are so glossy and stylized that they look like advertisements.
Some of these flourishes seem to express the interior states of the characters: the wind that gently stirs Ryoko’s hair and clothes whenever she steps in front of the camera suggests that she imagines herself as a kind of romantic figure. Similarly, the gauzy shot of a dreamy-looking girl playing the piano implies that she, too, sees herself in flattering soft focus. Then again, these visual fillips also bring to mind a story that the actor Bill Duke once told about working with the director Samuel Fuller. Mr. Duke asked Fuller why the camera was pointing up from beneath a glass table. Whose point of view is that? Mr. Duke wondered. It’s my point of view, Fuller responded, asserting his directorial prerogative.
House was Mr. Obayashi’s first feature, and at times it feels as if he threw everything – every movie he had ever seen, every idea he had ever entertained – at the screen, using the horror genre as a big box into which he could combine the bits and pieces he wanted to sample from avant-garde cinema, Looney Tunes cartoons, schlock Italian horror and martial arts movies.
The press notes for House state that the story originated from the ‘eccentric musings’ of the director's 11-year-old daughter, a nice, perverse touch. Whether House was her fantasy or his, Mr. Obayashi has created a true fever dream of a film, one in which the young female imagination – that of his daughter, Gorgeous or both – yields memorable results.”
– Manohla Dargis, The New York Times