House (Japan, 1977)
For the past year, House has been one of the closest things that genre film has had to an “it girl”. Anyone who’s had to see one of its screenings during that time will usually start their House experience with statements like, “I just saw the craziest movie” and “You have to see this movie”. The fact that Criterion has released the film in its vaunted Criterion Collection among works by Bergman, Ozu, Truffaut, and Fellini is no faint praise, especially for a film that, until only recently, was known only to the hardcore Japanese genre film fans. However, entry into the Collection has not always been an indication of quality or artistic merit; as a Japanese film fan, I still question their selection of Ko Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit (1956), for example. So the choice of House, a film some may consider ridiculous and childish, over other works will seem odd and even blasphemous to some. Are Criterion holding up their standards or just trying to cash in on the latest weirdness?
House‘s premise is the simplest of haunted house movie setups: six young, female classmates (with “hip” names such as Oshare (“fancy” in Japanese), Kung-Fu, Mac (for stomach), and so on), on their summer break, decide to spend some time at Oshare’s aunt’s old house in the country. As everyone knows, though, old houses have secrets and this one wants to literally consume them. What the film is really about, though, is free-form experimentation. Obayashi and his crew pulled out all of the stops and incorporated nearly every visual effect they could think up. Carnivorous pianos and clocks, paintings spewing blood, magical cats, and disembodied, flying heads are all imaginatively employed in ways that run the gamut from cheap and tacky to effectively spooky – the clock scene was one that freaked me out in particular. Even the sound design is such that multiple effects will be colliding with dialog and music in a cacophonous manner which, coupled with the onscreen action, produces an unsettling effect. It’s almost as if Obayashi didn’t want to audience to experience one second of relief from his haunted House thrill ride.
Does Obayashi’s grand experiment work though? Yes and no. House is a visually interesting not unlike, say, Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) or Tetsuya Nakashima’s Kamikaze Girls (2004). However, also like those films, the stylistic flourishes can prove to be a little too much for the eyes and ears to catch in one viewing. Another issue is the story. When not in its chaotic moments, the narrative tends to drag and the amateurish acting does not help matters either. It’s obvious that Obayashi had to use first-time actresses who are fine in the film’s earlier moments when they are required to be energetic and genki, but fail to deliver in later parts when more hysterics are required. In a way, that will be a part of the film’s charm; there’s a strong “this is a movie set and we’re all having fun” self-awareness throughout, reminiscent of Sid and Marty Kroft TV productions that thirty and forty-somethings grew up on in the same time period.
Obayashi started in the early ’60s as an experimental filmmaker, creating shorts under the famed Art Theatre Guild, once home to ’60s “new wave” directors such as Nagisa Oshima and Akio Jissoji. His first commercial jobs were television advertisements and House very much feels like the intersection between surrealistic art and pop commercialism. Ironically though, the movie may be too pop for the artsy crowd and too artsy for the pop crowd, but, for everyone else, House is well worth adding to your collection.