Rediscovering the Japanese Horror Flick House
It may be impossible not to be stunned into dumbness by Nobuhiko Obayashi's Hausu (House), an incredibly 1987 Japanese horror lark that was actually made in 1977. An uncanny prophecy of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2 a decade later, this exhumed freaker conjoins New Agey schoolgirl farce and the cheesiest then-there-were-none haunted-house dynamic imaginable, while the painted backdrop skies suggest Teletubbies and the special effects run from solarized-video-absurd to cardboard-hilarious. The rum-stumble cast and crew obey no rules—the movie often seems to have two or three conflicting scores running simultaneously, and inappropriate freeze frames and pointless fades to black are the norm. The story isn't a story at all: A gaggle of sailor-uniformed schoolgirls (with names like Gorgeous, Prof, and Fantasy) head to a weird aunt's cheap-set house for spring break, and start getting minced up, one by one, into crude superimpositions, perambulating body parts, and rivers of blood that look like cherry Hi-C.
Self-aware enough at the time to drop a fat Sergio Leone reference, Obayashi is still making movies, and has evolved into an award-winning expert on warmhearted fables and mainstream pulp (he won at Berlin, too, for 1998's Sada). House, his first feature, isn't just not mainstream—it's a torrential, Troma-style goof (but without Troma's resources or consistency), prone to cannibalism-inflected dance numbers and abstracted passages that kaleidoscope together severed limbs and giant flowers. When one girl gets literally devoured by a grand piano, the scene suggests the happy shortcuts of the Kuchar brothers (1975's Thundercrack! is another corollary)—that is, until her five separated fingers return to play a song. There's an '80s Hong Kong sequence choked in blue fog and a kung fu battle with autonomous firewood. When things get really hectic, Obayashi scribbles "crazy" comic-panel action lines right over the image. Reportedly, Obayashi's grade-school daughter, Chigumi, dreamed up the original story, though that hardly explains everything.
Contemporary Japanese pop culture makes the hophead nonsense of House look quaint by comparison, if not necessarily inspired. But though it plays like a retarded hybrid of Rocky Horror and Whispering Corridors, it is, moment to moment, its own kind of movie hijinks. It even won a directorial-debut critics' prize back in the day. Gigglers and cultists, pony up.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.