WTH Just Happened?: House

Movies that Have to Be Seen to Be Believed

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For all of its oddities, grotesqueries and eccentricities, the single strangest thing about Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (Hausu) is probably its heritage. How does a legendary studio like Toho commission a film to capitalize on the success of Jaws and wind up with a haunted house flick? Forget the fact that House shares practically zero DNA with that august blockbuster beyond their medium. Even if we stack Obayashi’s gonzo spook-a-blast delight next to other films of its make—House on Haunted Hill, The Old Dark House, The Haunting, Kuroneko—his movie still looks like the black (or perhaps Technicolor) sheep of its family. This, apparently, is what happens when you turn to your preteen daughter for script ideas when making big screen summer entertainment.

The “what,” of course, is pure, demented genius, the kind of euphoric cinematic lunacy that can only be attained through devotion to a singular purpose. Bad movies happen to unsuspecting audiences all the time. (See: Pixels, The Gallows, Terminator Genisys.) Movies like House—movies that are unabashedly bananas and willfully shabby—happen much more rarely than that, and when they do happen they should be cherished. American genre diehards didn’t get a fair chance to embrace Obayashi’s 1977 work until the 2000s, when Janus Films scooped up the distribution rights to the film and gave it a theatrical run throughout North America (including two shows at the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival), which culminated in its release on home video via The Criterion Collection back in 2010.

For archaeological movie geeks—fans who take their fandom to “treasure hunter” status—that’s a blessing and a king bummer all rolled together. All that hard work put into cadging your way to a bootlegged copy of House has been made moot, and yet it’s so easy to see the movie now that aiming your imprecations at Criterion feels like just as much of a time waster. It should go without saying that their transfer looks light-years better than that raggedy-assed VHS tape you scored through the Internet forum equivalent of back-alley wheeling and dealing, and hey, if you never managed to secure one for yourself, now you can just run out to Barnes & Noble and snag one off the shelf in infinitely less time than it takes to scour auctions on eBay.

Put bluntly, if you’ve been absolutely dying to see the film since before the aughts, you’ve probably caught up to it by now. If you haven’t, you should, and if you don’t want to, then you should want to. House is a kooky gift to aficionados of the weird, but the film plays even for viewers with passing interest in intentionally funky international cinema, save those stricken by an irrational fear of floating severed heads.

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Like this one. Surprise!

Let’s back up a bit as Fantasy (Kumiko Ohba) clutches the cackling animated noggin of poor old Mac (Mieko Satô) in her trembling hands, because we’ve gotten a good bit ahead of ourselves. House begins as our teenage heroine, Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), receives an unwelcome surprise from her father, who has just returned home after laying down a movie score in Italy: He’s remarried following the death of Gorgeous’ mother years prior. She’s so upset at the arrival of her new and unwanted stepmom that she makes the impulsive decision to bail on the vacation she’d been planning with her dear old dad. Instead, she makes tracks to her distant aunt’s (Yoko Minamida) countryside manse, her six friends in tow, where things get spooky and the girls slowly come to fear for their lives.

They make quite an ensemble just for sheer volume, but Obayashi doesn’t go about splitting hairs with character nuances. Everybody here lives up to their name to the fullest extent, so we never have to worry about mixing up who’s who in House’s supporting cast. Prof (Ai Matsubara) is the group’s bespectacled brainiac; Fantasy is inclined to daydream; Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo) is a martial arts badass; Melody (Eriko Tanaka) plays the piano; Sweet (Masayo Miyako) is, well, sweet; and Mac “likes” to eat in the same sense that Godzilla “likes” to blithely stomp around downtown Tokyo. (Her very nickname derives from the word “stomach.”) That’s about it. House doesn’t demand a lot from its players other than that they fully embody the chief trait that defines who they are and have fun doing it.

So if you’re focusing too much on “character” here, you’re missing the point. Circling back around to the Jaws connection, House doesn’t have a Chief Brody, or a Quint, or even a Bruce the shark, as though we needed to add to the tally of things that Obayashi’s work lacks in common with Steven Spielberg’s. Nor does it have much by way of tension, or scares, or even a prevailing internal logic. (If Toho wanted to make that movie, or even a close cousin to that movie, they failed spectacularly.)

What it does have instead is ghastly ingenuity, seen in disembodied craniums of all shapes and sizes, man-shaped piles of bananas, one seriously evil cat, pratfalls, pitfalls, carnivorous pianos, slaphappy mattresses, a frenetically trippy soundtrack, a grandfather clock filled with blood, a living room filled with blood, garish special effects work that’s so cartoonish that “cartoonish” is a woefully inadequate way of describing them, and, of course, butt biting.

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Which, incidentally, takes us right back to that whole “floating severed heads” thing. These are the things that House is made of, and one on one, each of its parts is suitably wonderful in a macabrely incohesive fashion. But movies are the sum of their parts, and the sum of House is gleeful delirium. The word “horrific” almost comes to mind, but only the most squeamish of viewers will find the film legitimately disturbing. Obayashi’s tongue is too firmly planted in his cheek, and his approach to filmmaking is too experimental and zany, for House to tap into the primal nightmare sectors of our minds. Should you need further reassurance of the film’s dearth of terror, take a second to go back over the preceding paragraph’s final sentence.

If House isn’t especially frightening, though, it remains structurally unsettling. Even as the film plays both to cultural and genre conventions, Obayashi insists on unconventionality. He strays so far from the expectations of haunted house movies—in terms of plotting, in terms of aesthetics, in terms of FX—that his deviations themselves start adding to the film’s creep factor. Once Gorgeous and her friends arrive at Gorgeous’ aunt’s place, Spooky Stuff™ starts happening: a melon-peddling merchant makes consciously ominous statements behind the girls’ backs; Mac disappears when she goes off by herself; Fantasy has her run-in with Mac’s hovering coconut; Kung Fu fights off recalcitrant firewood; and Auntie plays “peekaboo” with us using an eyeball she’s tucked inside her mouth before disappearing into a refrigerator, reappearing in the rafters, winking at the audience, dancing with a skeleton, and dining on an arm.

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Much of this fits into the established “haunted house” mold. But once Obayashi gets the requisite Spooky Stuff™ out of the way, House hits peak haunted house craziness in the amount of time it takes to blink. The sudden surge of paranormal shenanigans at the film’s halfway point would act like an adrenaline injection even for a more traditional haunted house production. In House, they just explode Obayashi’s dedicated wackiness into a formulation of cinema that stood in vivid, avant-garde contrast to Japan’s prevailing output in the 1970s, which consisted largely of kaiju flicks, pink films, flurries of comedies by Yoji Yamada, the Lone Wolf and Cub series, a bunch of gangster joints (notably Kinji Fukasaku’s excellent Yakuza Graveyard), and, occasionally, arthouse triumphs. (See: the work of Nagisa Oshima.)

So House, standing next to the accompanying movies of its era, feels “new,” at least in the sense it approaches tried-and-true genre blueprints and does its own thing with them. There is literally nothing in that period of Japanese cinema that’s at all like it. Even today it’d be a challenge to drum up a top 10 list consisting of movies influenced by House’s madcap charms. Has anybody ever sold you on a film by saying it must be seen to be believed? That’s House. Almost four decades after its release, House remains unlike any haunted house film, any horror film, any Japanese film, or hell, any film, full stop—an electric 88-minute D.I.Y. odyssey with chopped-up imagery that looks like it’s constructed primarily with neon markers and kids’ paste.

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Ms. Tanaka’s demise by piano is one of House’s most widely broadcast sequences. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably know that one of the cast members gets devoured by a musical instrument. It’s also, perhaps, the best example of just how over the top House’s effects work gets, and how even when cranked up to 11, the movie’s visuals resemble an 8-year-old’s attempt at creating decorations for their school’s annual Halloween celebrations (which, of course, is more or less what Obayashi wanted). This is not a film that cares about realism. House and realism don’t mix, much like oil and water, alcohol and smart phones, Jon Snow and knowledge, or Donald Trump and probity.

But that’s why House is great. Reality is boring. Reality can’t hope to give you this:

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Much less this:

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Good luck cleaning up that cat puke.

No, only movies like House—movies that totally divorce themselves from reality along with reason—can give us pictures with this much bizarre, eye-popping allure, and only Obayashi could have given us House. Like his film, Obayashi is one of a kind: His greatest achievement defies all our conceptions of what movies can and should be by throwing away the standard techniques and tools used in making them. The results are kinetic and trashy, a combination that fosters unexpected aesthetic pleasures from a movie intended to look like actual child’s play.

Maybe if given the chance, Obayashi would go back and do it all differently. Maybe he’d craft a less out-there movie instead of giving into his creative impulses and letting his id run wild. But a House made by sticking to the rules rather than ignoring them altogether is a House not worth remembering or even watching. Most films can’t be concisely summed up in a single sentence. House and all of its rampant quirks and kinks, however, can be boiled down to just two words:

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Indeed.


Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.

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