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“Any old cat can open a door. Only a witch cat can close a door.” —House (Hausu)
“…a modern masterpiece of le cinéma du WTF?!” —Chuck Stephens
Last year, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 experimental horror/comedy House burned up the repertory circuit, once word spread about its sublime, nearly indescribable fucked-upitude. I was late in catching up—I recently saw it when the Criterion Blu-ray came out—and whenever I asked friends who had seen it, the reaction was more or less exactly the same: a smile, a shake of the head, an exhale without words. When I followed up with a question about what it was like or what it’s about, no one could tell me about its stylistic antecedents, or explain much about the story, other than “There’s this house and some crazy stuff happens, and for Chrissake, just see the damned thing for yourself.” Chuck Stephens’ superb essay on the Criterion disc puts it best: This is “le cinéma du WTF?!,” and, as such, it’s an experience far easier felt than articulated.
But articulate I shall, after a smile, a shake of the head, and an exhale…
Make no mistake: House is a singularly bizarre entertainment. Any movie where, say, a girl comments on the “naughty” movements of her disembodied legs as they wriggle under the lid of a piano she’s playing with her chopped-off fingers gets points for originality. But it’s not an unprecedented effort in the weird, wild world of Japanese youth films, which long sought to rebel against the country’s more austere cinematic traditions, and to reflect or channel the energy of a friskier generation. You can see that impulse in “pink films” like the 1974 “nunsploitation” classic The School Of The Holy Beast, which showed a willingness to experiment after providing the requisite softcore titillation. It’s also present in early Nagisa Oshima movies like 1966’s Violence At Noon, a portrait of a serial killer and rapist edited at the Cuisinart pace of 2,000 cuts in 99 minutes, or the entire filmographies of directors like Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale) or Seijun Suzuki (Branded To Kill), who spent four decades trying to bottle the turbulence within the culture. In other words, if there’s any country on earth capable of producing a pop experiment as radically silly as House, it’s Japan.
Remarkably, House was Obayashi’s feature debut after spending the ’60s refining his surrealist bent in experimental films, and later making a name for himself in the lucrative world of television commercials. Clearly, Obayashi was intent on making features conform to his restless, caffeinated, doodle-a-second style rather than easing into their more relaxed conventions. Obayashi doesn’t miss an opportunity to break up scenes with old-school in-camera tricks and silent-movie tinting, clip art, primitive matte paintings, or the countless other tricks in his arsenal. His insistence on throwing out the rulebook and staging each sequence like its own independent unit makes for choppy viewing, to say the least, but with exhilaration comes a certain measure of exhaustion. Watching this film is like jamming fistfuls of delicious candy into your mouth for 90 minutes. It’s a rush chasing a rush.
Set to a disconcerting pop score that’s like the aural equivalent of shag carpeting, House takes place during summer vacation, as a teenager nicknamed Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) decides to retreat after her widower father proposes to a pretty imposter half his age. Gorgeous pleas to her mom’s sister Auntie (Yoko Minamida) to allow Gorgeous and her friends to stay in Auntie’s home over the summer, and gets an eerily enthusiastic response. (“Your aunt has been waiting for you for years.”) So off goes Gorgeous to the remote countryside, taking friends with helpfully descriptive nicknames: Kung Fu (good reflexes), Melody (musician), Mac (huge appetite), Prof (egghead), Fantasy (daydreamer), and Sweetie (sweet). Once they arrive at Auntie’s creepy estate—via a train ride that morphs into a moving illustration from a children’s book—they can barely scarf down a Scooby snack before strange and terrible things start to happen, and the girls start disappearing one by one.
From there, House shifts from crazy to batshit, piling up horror-comic setpieces that marry the wacky and surreal with a manic style that’s perpetually reinventing itself. A watermelon turns into an ass-biting severed head. A fluffy white housecat (or “witch cat”) showers the heroines in bloody projectiles, rivaling The Shining or Evil Dead 2 in gore volume. Fear turns the girls’ intrepid teacher/rescuer into a pile of bananas. Though the finale is unforgettably over the top, Obayashi isn’t interested in the slow build of conventional haunted-house movies. He’s more interested in creating a space where anything can happen, and the spirit world has the effect of liberating him from the constrictions of time, space, gravity, rationality, and the most basic elements of cinematic grammar. Here’s a taste of the madness, a scene that tops Death Bed: The Bed That Eats for harrowing assaults by inanimate household objects:
So what does it all mean? It could be read as a send-up of bubbly, empty-headed teen exploitation movies, with its gaggle of inappropriately sexualized schoolgirls reduced to shorthand types. It could also be read as an irreverent deconstruction of the haunted-house movie, containing all the elements expected of the genre—evil spirits, a malevolent cat, creaky floorboards, and thumps on the walls—but animated to triple speed, so they’re exposed more as silly than scary. Either way, House seems born out of restlessness and contempt for the status quo; it’s one of those movies that doubles as a piece of film criticism, intent on exposing and exploding all the tiresome clichés that commercial cinema constantly recycles. It doesn’t come across as an angry film or a polemic any more than the similarly playful A Hard Day’s Night, but Obayashi’s spirit of radical invention feels like a reaction to a film scene gone stale.
Have I emphasized enough how insane House is? The piano death scene alone is a glorious mishmash of old-fashioned in-camera effects, hand-painted frame animation, and crude cut-and-paste collage, and it’s all hacked together like a terrible assault on epileptics. And that isn’t as wacky as it gets: The film progresses from a disconcertingly strange beginning, when Obayashi seems so bored by his nattering heroines that he (and sometimes the camera) tunes out, to a blood-soaked finale that’s so manic and over-the-top, it’s like he’s slashing his canvas at the same time he’s painting it. House exists in the ghostly realm between narrative and experimental films, relentlessly picking itself apart as it goes along, creating and destroying with delirious abandon. When it ends, there’s nothing left in its bag of tricks.
November 11: Clue
November 24: Session 9
December 9: Martyrs
Bonus clip: Obayashi did a series of cologne commercials featuring Charles Bronson. Even by the standards of Japanese TV commercials, they’re pretty out there.