Stop me if you have heard this one before: seven teenage friends take a trek across country to go to one of the girl’s auntie’s place to have a week away together. When they arrive at the house, they soon realize that both the auntie and the house itself are not what they initially thought and the young girls end up dying one after the other in gruesome and imaginative ways. I know what you are thinking, this sounds like the usual generic “haunted house” / “cabin in the woods” type scenario, but let me tell you, Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 feature debut “House” is unlike any other film you have ever seen….seriously. It is often referred to as something similar to a Dario Argento film on acid, and I suppose that is an apt (if somewhat hyperbolic) statement. There are scenes and events that happen in this movie that I can guarantee that you have never seen before (and likely to ever see again).
The genesis of “House” is an interesting story in itself as after the massive success of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws”, Japanese film producers Toho wanted a smash hit of their own in a similar vein and went to untried television commercial director Obayashi to come up with an idea. Understanding that adults can only think of things in terms of reality (and thus would only come up with a killer bear story, to replace the shark), he spoke to Chigumi, his young daughter at the time, for ideas on what she and her friends would find scary. Knowing that children are that much more prone to the fantastic and magical, Obayashi knew he would get something unique speaking to his daughter and this is certainly the case, as the stuff Chigumi came up with, ended up being the basis of all of the deaths in the film and they are most absurd. We are talking about deaths like a man-eating piano, death by futon, and death by lamp to name a few.
The influence of children on “House” is quite evident because the whole film has a sense of innocence throughout, even when all of this death and bloodletting occurs. Due to the absurd nature of the deaths, it is hard to actually be scared during “House”, and in fact I hesitate to call the film a horror film. For the first half an hour of the film, it is basically about giggling teenagers getting ready to go to their friend’s auntie’s place, joking about boys and the like, and then suddenly out of the blue, the girl’s start dying. Also the comedy infused with the horror scenes actually works against the fear and suspense that is trying to be achieved. A great example of this is when one of the girl’s severed head is found, which is a nice moment, however the head then proceeds to giggle and bite the girl who found her on the bum, which just ruins any kind of atmosphere achieved.
Obayashi has stated that he wanted to do the opposite in every way possible to what would be the norm of Japanese cinema at the time (even to the point of giving the film an English title which was considered taboo) and he also wanted it to be obvious that this film was not meant to reflect reality and that this was fantasy cinema. This is the reason behind some of the very obvious and silly special effects incorporated in “House”. Obayashi actually had the services of Toho’s great special effects team at his disposal if he wanted them, but realized that their work was so good and realistic, he decided to do the effects themselves and all in camera. In this regard, the plethora of film techniques used within “House” to achieve the insanity of the story is something I respect greatly. Obayashi was not afraid to try anything to get the job done using matte paintings, fast zooms, animation, crazy angles, slow motion, rear view projection, video techniques; it didn’t matter, as long as it helped tell the story. It is impressive at how adept Obayashi is in these techniques; I’m just not sure he needed to use them all, although I do respect his ability in doing so.
Just through the names of the characters themselves, it is obvious that Obayashi was creating caricatures rather than characters. The names of the girls are Gorgeous (the pretty girl), Fantasy (the girl with her head in the clouds), Kung-Fu (the athletic girl), Mac (the fat girl), Prof (the intelligent girl), Melody (the musician), and Sweet (the innocent girl). All of the girls are basically cardboard cut-outs and exhibit no real emotions. With the exception of Gorgeous, who was played by Kimiko Ikegami, the rest of the girls were played by unprofessional actors and I think this adds to the giggly and silly nature of the film itself. They appear to just be a group of girls just having fun and this is probably not far from the truth. While the girls don’t really add up to much, the character of Kung-Fu just stands out from the crowd. She is so cute and adorable, and has a groovy little theme that plays whenever she bounds into action. It is actually a shame when she dies (especially the way she dies too).
The look of “House” is absolute insanity, but when the film does actually calm down and the tempo slows, there are some truly gorgeous shots within. The scenes with Gorgeous walking into her auntie’s bedroom to brush her hair in front of the (demonic) mirror are all stunning and the production design of this room is top notch. As I mentioned above, Obayashi extensively used matte-paintings to extend the sets he had built and I must say that they have been done amazingly well. I understand that he deliberately wanted artifice to show through, however it is very easy not to notice the paintings they are that good. The use of matte-paintings is sadly a lost art since the advent of CGI in cinema and it is always great to see them done so well when watching older films.
Surprisingly, “House” turned out to be a smash hit in Japan, especially amongst teenagers so Obayashi obviously knew what he was doing when talking to his daughter about the project. However while it was popular with kids, due to the violence and nudity and strangeness of “House”, it was definitely unpopular with the parents of these kids. Now that these kids have grown up and are making films themselves, “House” has been rediscovered as its influence on today’s filmmakers is showing, and they often talk about the film in the highest regards. Interestingly, while young filmmakers today have embraced “House”, the director I most thought about whilst watching the film was actually Seijin Suzuki with certain shots looking very similar to his own crazy work. Scenes that especially involved the character of the aunt looked very much like certain moments from Suzuki’s “Pistol Opera”.
Overall, while I respect the madness that is contained within “House” and the amount of technique used in making it, the film just didn’t resonate for me. It was far too quirky and silly for me and as such I resisted a lot of its charms. That said, “House” has a lot of fans, and at least I can now say that I have seen a film that includes a demonic cat, a guy who dies and turns into a bunch of bananas, killer pianos, futons and lamps, and a mirror whose reflection is deadly. Did I mention the killer grandfather clock? I can guarantee I will never see another film like “House” again in my lifetime, and it is a shame that I did not respond to it like I hoped I would.