I had never heard of House until Criterion released it on DVD a few years back. It’s a wild ride for sure, a Japanese horror movie from 1977 that perhaps was a bit too strange to ever really land on its own two feet. It really only started to gain a wide following in the 21st century-relatively speaking, of course, as only the most eclectic viewers would ever sit down to it. It didn’t even really get a solid release in America until 2009, which was followed shortly after by Criterion typically phenomenal edition.
The premise follows a pretty traditional formula, taking a series of female friends who all fit typical archetypes and putting them in a haunted house during summer vacation. And yet from the beginning this movie is something else, something so stylish and ridiculous that you almost feel like director Nobuhiko Obayashi main ambition was to utilize every possible cinematic trick known at the time, from dolly zooms and jump cuts to the latest CGI and animation technology. The film looks completely absurd even before the girls arrive at the haunted house, for no reason I can tell but to give the viewer a new kind of experience. This is what you can do with movies, Obayashi seems to be telling us scene after scene.
And by and large it’s quite fun. The horror is no good, but visually it’s unlike anything ever put on film. It’s beyond ambitious, beyond surreal, an unstoppable venture into cinematic territory that cannot be talked about or discussed, but simply seen.
That said I’ve got some pictures to give you an idea of what the movie is like to look at. Here we’ve got a more traditional horror image of someone holding a human head (I’m not sure what the first film to feature this was—I know Re-Animator is perhaps most famous for it, but that didn’t come out till '85). Note the living girl’s dress with the ornate flowers on the sleeve and also the striking sunset in the background. It’s not just the horror scenes that look strange. Everything in House is decorative and over-the-top.
Here’s a good sense of the film playing with deep colors and animation. This type of imagery is a constant during the film’s final (exhausting) half-hour.
This next shot struck me as strange. The girls have just gotten off the bus taking them to the country house. The background is obviously a painting, and when they begin to move we see it’s exactly that—an ad for the location, I believe. What’s interesting is that Obayashi is playing with the very idea of the classic Hollywood painted backdrop. In the old Technicolor films one can often tell what’s real and what’s not. With this scene Obayashi is pointing out the fake background as if to advertise his interest in bizarre formalism. Nothing in this movie is real, not even the characters or their emotions.
That’s why all the girls are stock characters and named after their attributes: silly tags like Gorgeous, Kung Fu, Mac (the obligatory heavy-eater) Prof (of course the smartest of the bunch), Fantasty, and Melody. They’re a particularly annoying group, overly enthusiastic and animated, such that when they begin to die off, we don’t actually care that much.
What separates this from classic caricature-driven Hollywood horror movies is the absence of men. One of the girls has a boyfriend who shows up briefly, but his presence is inconsequential. Is there any meaning behind this? I don’t think so, and if there is, Obayashi can’t expect us to find it amidst his visual chaos/splendor.
I watched the film on the Criterion disc, and found it interesting that on the extras, modern horror master Ti West was given a chance to talk about the movie. His central point was that whatever greatness can be attributed to the film is due to its complete conviction in creating something new with a movie camera. It may compromise story, characters, and even some good scares, but it never falters on its agenda, and, as West says, how could anyone who likes cinema not want to see that?
I imagine many a viewer might walk away frustrated with the movie for becoming what amounts to a silly horror cartoon when it had the makings for a genuinely frightening haunted house picture (I didn’t mention that the other main presence in the film is the aunt of Gorgeous, a wheel-chair bound older woman who owns the house. The movie never really embraces the possibilities of that pretty great scenario). But I still think it’s a good horror film even if the scares are few and far between. Horror does not have to mean establishing fear in the viewer’s senses. It can leave a blank slate for the watcher as long as it is creating fear within the story. That it doesn’t extend out of the screen and into the viewer does not have to be a sign of failure. Failure is when a horror movie simply doesn’t try. That can’t be said about this one.