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“One of the most, if not the most, original films I’ve ever seen… and I’ve seen some weird stuff.”–Ti West, director of House of the Devil
DIRECTED BY: Nobuhiko Obayashi
FEATURING: Kimiko Ikegami, Miki Jinbo, Yôko Minamida
PLOT: A group of fun-loving Japanese school girls plan to spend their summer at a beautiful, isolated mansion, but after experiencing paranormal activity they come to realize the house itself may want them dead. Their mysterious wheelchair-bound hostess seems to have a nefarious fate in mind for her guests, but the girls are oblivious to the warning signs. Their affable, mutton-chopped teacher is en route to the house, but may not make it in time to save them—and indeed, has no idea they are even in danger.
- Hausu was writer/director Obayashi’s first full-length feature. He had previously made a name as a director of commercials, though he had also made some experimental art films in the 50′s and 60′s.
- The movie draws concepts from popular Japanese folklore/horror movie tropes, including a kaibyo: a half-feline, half-demon who can move between cat and human bodies. Much of the plot was actually inspired by the “eccentric musings” of Obayashi’s eleven-year-old daughter.
- Hausu was initially intended as a horror-thriller meant to appeal to a teen audience, as Toho Studios tried to compete with Hollywood blockbusters like Jaws that were dominating the Japanese box office. The film was released on the bottom half of a double bill along with a sweet teen romance, sporting the tagline “How Seven Beauties Were Eaten!”
- Obayashi spent two years working on the story and music, working with pop group Godiego on the soundtrack. He also inserted cultural and era-specific references in his casting of the teen-idol lookalikes. Hausu was a big hit in Japan, establishing Obayashi as a well-known and successful filmmaker. Today he is popular for his anime and manga adaptations. In 2009 he received the imperial badge of the Order of the Rising Sun, along with Clint Eastwood.
- Despite its popular success in Japan, House was never released in the United States until recently. After a spectacular success debuting at the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival, the film was picked up for screenings across the nation.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Almost any scene could fit the bill, but the most infamous and iconic sequence is the ravenous piano gradually chopping up the music-loving “Melody” as her friend helplessly watches. With a mixture of live-action and animation techniques, the scene depicts various body parts flailing throughout the instrument (after she’s somehow been stripped of her clothes, of course) and colorful effects. Sounds of pounding piano keys mix with screams and, for an unknown reason, laughter, as a display skeleton dances goofily in the background. It’s a strange scene, both hilarious and terrifying.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A more apt question would be, what doesn’t make it weird? Rife with images of flying heads, murderous furniture, laughing watermelons, an invisible wind machine, and a truly demonic kitty, the film’s surrealist atmosphere and ever-shifting styles are as hilarious as they are inscrutable. There is no way to get a handle on Hausu—the viewer is completely at the mercy of Obayashi’s bizarre whims.
Criterion Collection trailer for House (Hausu)
COMMENTS: This movie starts off as a laughably saccharine, soft-glow teenage drama, seemingly focused on a popular student named Gorgeous (!) and her response to her widower father’s new fiancee. She laughs with her friends, agonizes over her father’s decision, reminisces over old photographs of her mother, and reaches out to her long-lost aunt with the hope of getting closer to her family roots. She shows all the signs of an impulsive, selfish teenage girl who just wants to get away from her dad. The trip to her aunt’s house involves her aunt’s sad backstory, colorfully animated backdrops, and an uplifting walk through the woods punctuated by introductory freeze frames of each character (despite the fact that it’s at least 20 minutes in).
So far, Hausu is just an eccentrically cheesy dramedy with some silly 70’s hairstyles and exaggerated performances. Nothing egregiously weird about that, right? But when the girls—helpfully nicknamed Gorgeous, Fantasy, Melody, Sweet, Mac, and (everybody’s favorite) Kung-fu—reach the titular house, the “horror” theme picks up as paranormal happenings and creepy hints arise, escalating into a number of gruesome deaths and crescendoing in buckets of blood flooding the entire first floor. It may sound grisly on paper—what with all the dismemberment, nudity, demonic possession, and, you know, murder—but Obayashi interjects with bursts of campy humor and unexpected asides, resulting in an attention-deficit form of horror that continually surprises. It’s funny not just for its insanity, but for its remarkable ability to confound even on re-watches.
Visually, Hausu is a real marvel. Sure, it was originally intended as a midnight b-movie and today it is primarily appreciated for its comedic weirdness, but the filmmaker’s creative eye should not go unnoticed. His palette is inundated with psychedelic pinks and yellows set against stark whites and reds, often incorporating a pleasant soft-focus that calls back to Obayashi’s career in advertising. He utilizes a wealth of techniques, from stop-motion animation and quick cuts to super-imposed images and color filters. The hodgepodge of ideas keeps viewers on their toes with their eyes wide open, not wanting to miss a second of the enticingly original imagery. There are so many concepts running around here that many might be missed the first time around, especially some of smaller scenes—the shot of knotted hair crawling up Gorgeous’ back in the bath, the aunt dancing on the roof beam, Kung-fu high-kicking a wayward ball—but Obayashi renders each scene with such intricacy, such all-out bizarre brashness, that every shot feels unforgettably stamped onto the brain. His visual ideas have been compared to Henry Darger’s little girl warrior fantasyscapes and dada cut-paper collages, among other touchstones, but I’m content to leave him in a realm of his own.
The visuals are often simultaneously campy and unsettling, juxtaposing gruesome mangling with over the top shenanigans. Everything is so stylized that it’s never actually a scary or gory film, just strange and silly, with no hint of its level of self-awareness. The characters exhibit little awareness of their own predicament, often ignoring or just forgetting that their friends are missing, or that objects are acting of their own accord. The audience has little footing in the events of the story, and no character offers much explanation or sympathy for our confusion. There is little need to focus on the plot, however, with entertainment derived from how it is told as opposed to what is actually happening in the narrative. It’s been said—accurately—that it would make just as much sense without the subtitles.
I can honestly say that there is nothing like Hausu, and it needs to be seen to be believed. It is weird and wonderful, combining such a range of ideas and churning them through such a surreal filter that anything remotely recognizable is rendered strange and new. Obayashi establishes a wacky, nonsensical universe inundated with trippy imagery, nubile young women, transmogrification, flashing lights, ghost cats, kung-fu action, and a repetitive instrumental track that will never leave your memory. You want weird? This movie transcends weird. And cracks you up while it does it.
366weirdmovies adds: I don’t have too much to add to Alex’s excellent synopsis. Although there may be some psychological depths here (Gorgeous’ rivalry with her father’s new lover motivates the story in a mysterious way), House isn’t a film that is enriched by deep analysis. It’s mostly a sensory experience. Although people sometimes suggest the movie is incoherent, I think that one of the reasons it works so well is because it’s actually very easy to follow. Little more happens then that seven girls go into a haunted house and are killed off one by one, a concept so simple that a child could grasp it. We are never confused about what is happening in the story, but instead we’re free to focus our attention on the unpredictable way Obayashi shifts the stylizations every couple of scenes. We never get lost, and at the same time we never know exactly what’s coming next: an impressive achievement. Furthermore, although he uses a massive array of different camera tricks and techniques, House’s look somehow stays consistent throughout: the film always has the bearing of a low-budget early morning children’s TV show, but mixed with a deadly, macabre edge. It’s that combination of unbridled craziness and a strangely centered coherence that makes House succeed so well when other kitchen-sink concoctions sometimes fall apart. Obayashi’s movie is an excellent film to use to introduce your conventional-minded friends to weird aesthetics; it’s the illogical next step up after Evil Dead II. I’ve designated House as a “must see” movie, and it is for fans of the weird; but for others, it’s a “must see to believe” movie.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Delirious, deranged, gonzo or just gone, baby, gone — no single adjective or even a pileup does justice to ‘House’… [an] energetic exemplar of pulp surrealism.” –Manohla Dargis, The New York Times (rerelease)
“House… is really the Damndest Thing: a gleefully chaotic DayGlo haunted house movie (Sam Raimi has to have seen this) that suggests the Sid and Marty Krofft universe gone mental. Ok, mental-er…”–Andrew Wright, The Stranger (rerelease)
“House is very real, very strange and even more willfully weird than I’d remembered… The result is phantasmagoric nonsense, as if Sam Raimi, Dario Argento, Russ Meyer and Roman Polanski had randomly edited together clips from a soap opera, a slasher flick and a feminine hygiene commercial.” –Corey Hall, Metro Times (rerelease)
IMDB LINK: Hausu (1977)
OFFICIAL SITE: Criterion Collection: House – Contains the original Toho trailer (Criterion adds English subtitles), an essay by Chuck Stephens, and news items
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
House – American theatrical distributor Janus Film’s House homepage contains images from the film, a large image of the poster, and a collection of positive reviews
Midnight Eye feature: Nobuhiko Obayashi, Vagabond of Time – Paul Roquet’s article for the Japanese cinema magazine “Midnight Eye” is the most complete source of information on the director available on the Web (fun fact: Roquet implies “Gorgeous” should have been translated as “Fashionable”)
Reader Recommendation: House [Hausu] (1977) – Alex Kittle’s original capsule review of Hausu, which won 366 Weird Movies’ writing competition
DVD/BLU-RAY INFO: Both the DVD (buy) and Blu-ray (buy) editions released by Criterion include a restored high-definition transfer with improved English subtitles; the featurette “Constructing a House,” consisting of interviews with Nobuhiko Obayashi, his daughter Chigumi Obayashi, and screenwriter Chiho Katsura; a video appreciation by House of the Devil director Ti West; the theatrical trailer; and a booklet with an in-depth essay by critic Chuck Stephens. Most noteworthy is Obayashi’s 40 minute early experimental film Emotion (1966), a surreal experience featuring a Japanese Dracula that would have been stunning in its weirdness if it had not been set next to Hausu, which makes it look tame and ordinary by comparison.