Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in 2019’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor last year’s first ABCs of Horror project. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
When reading that 1977 Japanese film Hausu, known to English-speaking audiences simply as House, came to be as the result of a suggestion that director Nobuhiko Obayashi produce a film in the mold of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, it’s a little difficult to fathom how one was meant to inspire the other. There is no family unit in House, nor a world-weary police chief with a duty to keep his town safe. Instead, our characters are a gaggle of head-in-the-clouds Japanese schoolgirls, heading to a country manor to visit an elderly aunt for summer vacation. Nor is there a shark, obviously—unless you can declare a man-eating piano as a close enough proxy. What Obayashi ultimately produced was no imitation, in fact, of anything that anyone had seen before. Instead, House proved to be one of the most deliriously inventive, colorful and downright bizarre horror films of its era—one that has undergone an impressive critical rediscovery in the last two decades, minted as a psychedelic cult classic in the process.
Determined to base his story in a frame of mind entirely outside of the conventional cinematic norm, the director consulted the most creative person he could think of—his own pre-teen daughter, Chigumi Obayashi, who ultimately received story credit on House and directly conceived many of its scenes. This radical approach, and a willingness to visualize the weirder aspects of a child’s imagination, is what gives the film both its inspired moments of lunacy and chaotic tone, which casually bounces back and forth throughout between carefree, pastoral vacationing and severed limbs shooting geysers of blood. Nothing can quite prepare you for that disorienting tonal whiplash that typifies House, which accurately captures the speed with which a child’s mind bounces between impulses and emotions. The film venerates this childish mode of viewing the world, but counterpoints it with slick cinematography, outlandish FX work and outstanding art direction.
From that purely visual standpoint, you could call House something of a prototype for the dynamically shot and disturbingly gory horror films of Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson, albeit with less blood and more hallucinogenic fervor. A closer comparison might be the acid drop experience of watching a film like Alejando Jodorowsky’s Sante Sangre, but unlike Jodorowsky’s explorations of disturbing societal taboos, there’s something more whimsical and cheerful empowering House, even when it’s gleefully killing off its characters. It’s a bit like combining psychedelic drugs with powerful mood enhancers—you’re having what is undeniably a “bad trip,” but still grinning throughout for reasons you can’t even fully put into words.
You might notice that there’s been essentially no dialog here on the plot of House, and this is hardly a coincidence. To call it a film about a group of teenage girls exploring what turns out to be a haunted house would only give an inaccurate impression that this is a film that can be neatly categorized within the boundaries of a genre like the “haunted house” or “ghost movie,” when in reality House can barely even be primarily labeled as a “horror film” in the first place. Its aim is less to genuinely frighten the audience and more to shock and awe them with its idiosyncrasies, while luring them in with its undeniable beauty. Seemingly every conceivable FX trick through the history of cinema is on display, from strikingly gorgeous matte paintings that evoke a bucolic fantasyland, to elements of rear projection, early blue screen FX, animation, blood FX and more. There are flying heads biting girls on the rear end, a painting of a cat that vomits blood, a dancing skeleton puppet and the aforementioned killer piano, and that’s still only scratching the surface of House’s individually memorable moments. Just try to make sense of the film’s out-of-context screenshots on Google, and you’ll get an idea of how disorienting it can be.
Ultimately, House was perfectly primed to be rediscovered and eventually given the Criterion Collection treatment in our modern age of ironic cinema appreciation, as its intensely colorful presentation and psychedelic eccentricities made it an immediate success on the “midnight movie” circuit, leading to its quick adoption as a lost classic among horror/Japanese historical film nerds. Beyond the endearing absurdities on display, though, film lovers are likely to find themselves admiring the sheer ambition and technical craftsmanship of Obayashi’s film, which stands out as a project truly unlike any other—a statement equally true both in 1970s Japan and 2020s America.
Note: If you’re seeking out House, do make sure that you locate Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 Japanese film, rather than the (more conventional, but still pretty strange) 1986 American horror film by the same name. The two are unrelated, other than the fact that they both, you know … contain houses. Who would have thought?
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.