Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 film House may well be the most bizarre Japanese horror film that you’ll ever see – something that is no mean feat. A cartoonish reinvention of the old ‘haunted house’ genre, the film is awash with invention and absurdity – most of which it pulls off surprising well. Even the (deliberately) dated special effects add to the surrealist charm of the movie when watched now.
The plot, on paper, is pretty straight-forward. After an argument with her father about his new girlfriend, spoiled teenager Angel (Kimiko Ikegami) invites her school friends – whose plans for a summer break vacation have been thwarted – to join her for a visit to her aunt’s house in the country. Angel hasn’t seen her aunt (Yoko Minamida) in ten years, but the woman seems oddly agreeable to having seven giggly teenagers descend on her, which might be clue that all is not right. And sure enough, the white-haired woman has a strangely sinister air about her, seemingly growing less feeble as one by one, the girls start to disappear. Only the hyper-imaginative Fantasy (Kumiko Oba) sees what is happening, starting when she pulls one girl’s severed – but still very much alive – head from a well. But the others won’t believe her until it is too late, and it becomes clear that the house itself is literally consuming them.
While the film might not sound, in synopsis, that much different than many a Japanese ghost story, it’s in the execution that House really stands out. Taking a lightweight, comedic approach to the story, Obayashi is less concerned with scares than with fun, and so the film is full of absurdities and slapstick (the comedy is, as with many Japanese films, rather broad and physical), while the characters are all charming – there’s no mean spiritedness going on here, and no bitchy rivalry between the girls as you would invariably find in a British film. With each character named after her personality (or, if you are determined to find something offensive here, their stereotypes) – there’s Sweetie, Kung Fu, Mac (or ‘Stomach’) the greedy girl, the intellectual Prof and so on – the film also manages to give each one her own individuality, not always an easy task in a film like this. Interestingly, this is a very female-dominated film – the men are largely absent and when they do appear, they are useless – Angel’s father messes up introducing her to his new fiancée, and the school teacher than one of the girls has a crush on and who is supposedly joining them for their holiday (an idea bound to raise suspicious eyebrows these days) spends the whole film in transit. The girls are left to try to escape the possessed house, the sinister aunt and the creepy cat by themselves.
Obayashi throws in every visual trick in the book during the film – there are video effects that, while crude, are impressively handled and must have looked extremely startling in 1977. And given that the effects were intentionally designed to look unrealistic, they have dated less badly that they otherwise might have – nothing of the time really looked like this either, and so watching it now, House still feels like a startling visual experience. Much of the film is green (or, technically at the time, blue) screened so that painting sets and weird visuals can dominate, and the ‘horror’ scenes (rarely designed to be scary) feature increasingly bizarre imagery – a flying severed head, fingers chopped off and so on. Don’t imagine that this is a gorefest – the dismemberment and decapitation is largely bloodless and more bizarre than brutal, emphasising the cartoonish elements of the film. Yet there are moments of genuine atmosphere and an almost poetic beauty thrown in too, with oddly unexpected sprinkling of erotica and creepiness that catch you off guard. And the reason behind the horror – wartime loss, loneliness and bitterness – are presented with a real sense of tragedy and a darkness that should clash with everything else, but somehow doesn’t.
Interestingly – and I imagine coincidentally, given how unlikely it would be that Western filmmakers were seeing House at the time – there are moments here that predict The Evil Dead, with both the trippy surreal moments and the increasingly frenetic madness that the film builds up to. Don’t get me wrong – they are very different movies, but both share a sense of the absurd and the demented that is recognisable immediately.
House isn’t perfect – sometimes, the humour and the tweeness is a little much, and the musical numbers by Godiego (who later did fine work on the TV series Monkey) is gratingly bland. The film perhaps takes a little longer than it needs to in building up the story and the characters, and I can imagine that the whole cartoonish nature of the story might be a bit much for some people. Certainly, some of the praise heaped on the film is excessive, and while a very entertaining experience, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that the film is a horror classic. But if you are in the mood for a weird, wondrous and oddly charming horror movie that is unlike anything that you’ve ever seen before, then this is well worth your time. I can’t think of many horror films that are as unashamedly fun as this.
The new Masters of Cinema edition comes complete with 90 minutes of cast and crew (mostly Obayashi) interviews, which are definitely worth a look, and a 44-page booklet giving more details of Obayashi’s career.