House (1977)

95

I was discussing House with a friend, and we came to an agreement – we aren’t entirely sure if this is a good film or a bad film but it is a film. In fact, to call it a film itself is troubling because it is more of a “thing” above all else. No one quite knows what House is or what it means, but it certainly is an experience. It is probably the most baffled I have ever been by a film, with its bewildering story and offbeat filmmaking serving to be the ultimate mind-bending experience. There aren’t many ways to describe House, and it is best to say that it is just perhaps the strangest, most peculiar film I have ever seen. It is an audacious and puzzling film, but one of the most extraordinarily unique films I have ever seen, and something that I feel really needs to be seen to be understood, even though you are likely to not understand what this film is about – even after two viewings, I am still completely bewildered – but I still adore it.

In order to understand House, one needs to try and break it down to the bare minimum. It is a traditional haunted house film because that’s exactly it – a group of seven school girls with the creative names of Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), Mac (Mieko Sato), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Prof (Ai Matubara) and Sweet (Masayo Miyako) set off to visit Gorgeous’ aunt (Yōko Minamida) who she hasn’t seen in years. Their summer vacation starts off well, with the girls planning a trip filled with joyful fun and pleasant company. However, her aunt’s country home proves to be far more sinister, and one-by-one, the girls are devoured by the house in gruesome and hilarious ways.

Like many slasher horror films, House makes use of a relatively obscure cast of unknowns – none of these actors were professional or well-known in the industry, with the majority of them giving their very first acting performances in a film here. Despite this film’s bewildering nature, the characters are all well-developed and played perfectly by the young actresses. For some strange reason, these characters were not giving very traditional or normal names, each one having a name that represents their character traits – I must say, it did help keep track of the characters and foreshadowed their eventual demises and the roles they played in the narrative, but it was also just a further example of the outrageously weird nature of this film. The performances weren’t memorable on their own, but together it is a strong ensemble of young actresses, who I can only imagine looking back at their participation in this film with complete and utter bewilderment because if I took part in this film, I would also be baffled about what I got myself into.

So let’s get into what we are all here to talk about – what exactly this film was. I am still reeling from what I just experienced, and I really cannot get my head around it. I am completely and fully confused, and I haven’t quite been this puzzled by a film in a long time. Even looking at this film from a purely thematic point of view is confusing. I have never found it more difficult to assign a genre to a film than I did with House. Immediately after watching this film, I handed it over to my brother to watch – and he perhaps summed it up best when I asked him what genre he thought it was – “Japanese!” he exclaimed. House is a film that managed to capture the genre-bending weirdness that we have come to know from Japanese entertainment – long-gone are the days of Akira Kurosawa or Yasujirō Ozu or Kenji Mizoguchi. We are living in a world where Takashi Miike can make Yakuza Apocalypse that ends with a fight with a giant frog, or House. But in all seriousness, the weird and wonderful peculiarity that comes from many Japanese productions is put on show here, with the gloriously unhinged and outright mind-boggling narrative being supported by the pure intention to just make this film as utterly weird as humanly possible (or rather, inhumanly impossible).

There is an inherent genius to House, as anyone going into this film without any prior knowledge will not have any idea what this film is about or what genre it falls into – and only nearly halfway through does the audience start to realize what this film actually is – before that, it teases us with the idea of it possibly being a quaint comedy about friends going on holiday, or a family melodrama (as evident by the subplot involving Gorgeous’ father getting remarried to the beautiful but distant Ryoko Ema) – there are even implications that this will be a farce, as evident by a sequence where the girl’s teacher and subject of their affection, Mr. Togo (Kiyohiko Ozaki) injures himself on the way to the bus-station, which comes right out of the films of Jacques Tati. Only when this film has substantially progressed and the audience is fully engrossed do we get the first taste of the true nature of this film, a macabre and grotesque horror film.

It is impossible to imagine a film like House being made in the modern day. Despite the fact that we have the technology and special effects that would make House look far more professional, the charm lies in how utterly artificial it looks. The special effects are, with all respect, awful. Completely and utterly dreadful – and it is fantastic. Never before have I seen something quite as mawkish in terms of special effects – and it becomes so endearing and wonderfully unique. There was clearly a lot of effort put into this film – it would be wrong to imply that the filmmakers didn’t attempt to do their best – but the fact that the budget was low, and the story was so strange just meant the most advanced effects weren’t at their disposal. The result is something truly terrific in its artificiality. It fully embraces its low-budget aesthetic by emphasizing its high-concept brilliance. The special effects may not be very good, but they are truly endearing.

Most importantly, House has a sense of genuine humor about it. Nobuhiko Obayashi was trying to make a fun film, and while House could’ve very easily been a straightforward and deranged horror film, it made sure that it was amusing – and unlike many genre films that derive unintended humor from its low-budget filmmaking and laughable performances, House tries to be outrageous and hilarious – the manner in which the girls die are bizarre and truly atypical. It sometimes feels like Obayashi was intentionally trying to make the funniest horror film ever made, and to some extent, he did succeed. There is a lurking sense of dread throughout this film, and the final act is actually properly terrifying and shocking. Yet it is all made better and more comforting by the fact that this is an extraordinarily funny film, and one that often resorts to some truly juvenile humor (like the floating decapitated head of one of the victims biting the buttocks of another one of the girls), but in the end it manages to be a fantastically odd film that is perfectly entertaining and unique.

The low-budget special effects were a notable feature of this film, and are perhaps the most memorable part of this film. They are only made more obviously artificial when you consider that for the most part, House is a tremendously well-made film in all other regards. The performances are very good, and the story (while ridiculous) is well-composed. The production design was actually stunningly beautiful – the titular house is a beautiful mansion, and the sets were designed gorgeously. There wasn’t any lack of effort in trying to make House as beautiful as it could possibly be, and even if the special effects do often seem laughable (the intention, I imagine), they are contrasted with the sheer beauty of this film in other instances. The cinematography in House is some of the most unconventional I have ever seen – the way Obayashi manipulates color is unlike anything I have seen before in a horror film. This is a film that may have a lingering sinister tone, as well as a full descension into complete and utter anarchy towards the end, but it never strays away from being unconventionally unique in its aesthetic. In fact, the most unsettling moments of this film aren’t the macabre death scenes, but rather the uncanny moments of complete and utter joy that precede the more horrific sequences. House is a beautifully shot film, and anyone who just thinks of it for its questionable artificial special effects is missing out on a film that is actually quite a technical and narrative marvel.

Much of the tone of this film is set by the soundtrack – a combination of the work of veteran pianist and composer Asei Kobayashi and the upbeat rock music of Godiego create this film’s unconventional soundtrack. The score is truly something amazing because the music manages to create the perfect atmosphere, and there is a wide-ranging set of themes covered throughout this film, and Obayashi managed to play with various genres of music. My personal favorite moment of this film came very early on, set to the upbeat pop song “Cherries Were Made For Eating”, which just contrasts with the dark tone of the film’s later moments. Strangely, the soundtrack of House often threatens to overshadow the film itself, but luckily it avoids that and rather works in conjunction with this film to create an unusual but brilliant cinematic experience.

You will never see a film quite like House. It is an irreverent, odd and utterly bewildering film that will leave you questioning what you just experienced. However, it is also an audacious, unique and highly entertaining film that has the intention of being amusing and terrifying. It is often very dark, but also very funny. It may not be the most advanced film in terms of technical prowess, but considering this film was made four decades ago, and it actually manages to be far better than any horror film made today that utilizes advanced filmmaking techniques. It is a truly strange film, and it is going to be on my mind for a very long time, but that’s a good thing. I love original films and House is just about as original as it comes.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Andre says:

    Here’s one production story which may help orient us when thinking of this film: it was written by Obayashi in conjunction with his 11 year old daughter! That should at least partially explain the film’s completely irrational child-like feel.

    Your friend sounds like a genius by the way.

    1. Oh he is. He just relies on his love of Mario Bava a bit too much!

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