House (Japan, 1977)
House is a film that needs to be put into context: 1. It was made in a post-Tsuburaya Toho that wasn’t spending money to produce films with great special effects. Director Nobuhiko Obayashi didn’t use the older effects artists anyway. 2. Obayashi was highly experimental and had insight into world cinema from having worked with actors like Charles Bronson and Kirk Douglas. The director’s imagination was rampant with ideas, and allowed sub-par effects if they effectively expressed his vision. 3. In recounting the making of The Shining (1980), Jack Nicholson stated: “anything that says there’s anything after death is ultimately an optimistic story.”
Before J-Horror blossomed in ancillary markets, Japanese horror films were treated like dramas with horrific details, as seen in the classic cases of Kwaidan (1964) and Onibaba (1964). Then, Obayashi came along with House. The story concerns a group of teenage girls who go to visit a friend’s aunt’s house but supernatural occurrences are afoot and each girl is consumed by the aunt’s ghost, who lingers for her lover (who had died in WWII). Her spirit absorbs these bachelorettes, seemingly to save them from such hurt.
House deals with caricatures as each girl embodies a certain type: the brains, the glutton, the vein girl, the naive girl, etc. Though the situation is expressed with a different aesthetic, House plays out like a traditional supernatural slasher flick. What makes House worthwhile – besides Obayashi’s visual plan, which was based on his daughter’s idea – is its theme of romantic love. One line of the film proclaims, “Even after the flesh perishes, one can live in the hearts of others together with the feelings one has for them. Therefore, the story of love must be told many times so that the spirits of lovers may live forever.” There are three times that love is mentioned in the film. The first is when the main character “Beautiful” finds that her father will be a widower no more, having found a woman to be with. Beautiful takes this as disrespectful to the memory of her mother. The second time is the telling of Beautiful’s aunt’s love life, where the aunt was waiting for her husband to come back from his tour in WWII, never to return. Deep down, Beautiful’s Aunt has been waiting for his return. The third time is when one of Beautiful’s friends expresses her crush on a teacher. The aunt turns out to be a ghost, whose killing of the girls could be out of a jealousy or a want to protect the girls from a kind of pain.
House’s claims to fame though, are its direction, photography, and art direction. It’s is a fantasy for the younger generation, so unrealistic effects can be forgiven. It looks like an anime at times. Realism isn’t the desired effect; therefore there is a mastering of the odd, which is less distracting than a failing of the realistic. Opening the film are great auteur touches which are more normative, such as a shot where Beautiful and a friend are leaving a classroom; though we see them leave the shot, a faded frame from that very shot is imposed on the shots proceeding it. This shot matches to the next continuity wise while keeping the energy of the shot lingering for our imagination to soak up as context for the rest of the film.
Make no mistake, this is Obayashi’s vehicle, he is the star of this film. While it is a good experience for general viewers who are looking for something different, House is a great film for the cinematically enlightened who will no doubt find that Obayashi accomplished something akin to what Alejandro Jodorowsky or Henri Georges-Clouzot aspired to do with their failed projects Dune and Inferno.