In honour of Halloween I will exclusively review horror movies between now and the spooky day itself. First up, the nutty Japanese cult classic House.
Nobuhiki Ôbayashi’s film House (sometimes called Hausu) came out in 1977. It came out as the second half of a double bill starting with Pure Hearts in the Mud. House sported the tagline advertising the audience’s chance to see “How Seven Beauties Were Eaten.” A lot of the film’s plot points were suggested by the director’s young daughter. It’s hard to imagine what stumbling upon this movie in its natural habitat would have been like. A presumably saccharine sweet teen romance would’ve wound to a close and House would’ve started rolling along. All smiling teen girls and crossfades and cutesy imagery suddenly giving way to the psychedelic variegated kaidan filled with mutilation and contorted nudity and Shining-like spews of blood.
Kaidan, the Japanese word for ghost story, is comprised of two kanjis. One, kai, means “strange, mysterious, rare or bewitching apparition,” the other, dan, simply means spoken story. “Strange, mysterious, rare or bewitching apparition” is a wonderfully representative series of words when it comes to the spastic carnival ride that is House. There’s not really much in House that you can see elsewhere. It’s one of those truly unique cinematic ventures. Simultaneously presentational and immersive, nonsensical and meaningful, symbolistic and random, it’s a kaleidoscopic fun house – mainlined mania in its truest form.
The movie revolves around seven teenage girls, the mythical significance of the number clearly chosen. They have a series of ridiculous, fairy tale names. Gorgeous, Fantasy, Kung-fu, Mac, Prof, Sweet, and Melody. All their names are indicative of their one overwhelming character trait. Gorgeous is beautiful and obsessed with beauty. Fantasy is prone to flights of imagination. Kung-fu is a fit martial artist. Mac, short for stomach, loves eating. Prof is a nerd. Sweet is innocent and well behaved. Melody loves music. These are broad, childlike, fable inspired, allegorical characters right off the bat.
The plot similarly plays on childhood perceptions and concerns and typical fairy tale tropes. The kids are all planning for summer vacation. Everyone but Gorgeous is planning to take a training camp with one of the teachers (Fantasy has a crush on this particular teacher). Gorgeous’ father is a musician fresh off working with Leone (who tells him he’s better than Morricone), and is basically the King in this fairytale, is planning on taking her to his villa. When he introduces her to his new future-wife, whose only character trait is being presented as comically beautiful, Gorgeous immediately perceives her as an evil stepmother and storms off. She decides to go visit her dead mom’s sister, who she hasn’t seen since the funeral.
The other kids get the bad news about their trip. The teacher’s sister, who would’ve been running the training camp, is going to give birth and consequently they can’t visit. When Gorgeous hears this she invites them all to come stay in the home of a woman she barely knows. It’s easily twenty or so minutes in before they even get to the community the titular house is in. Normally that might bother me, but the way the horror blends slowly into the manic neon fairy tale is pretty wonderful. And I can’t help think about that Japanese theatre goer not knowing what they were getting into and being lulled into a false sense of security. Like the first act of Peter Jackson’s King Kong or something.
Nobuhiki Ôbayashi’s skill set had been honed with a series of experimental short films prior to directing House. Drawing on the cinematic language pioneered by the French New Wave auteurs (these movies made quite a splash in the Japanese film scene, lending Japan its own collection of New Wave flicks), he used collage and presentational editing and hand drawn components to atmospheric effect. This incredibly affecting style made Nobuhiki Ôbayashi a shoe-in for a job in advertising. He was incredibly good at this job, crafting many incredibly popular ads. It also let him spend some two years planning for House. Not just planning but scoping out actors. Most of the cast is plucked from the non-actors he used in ads and short films.
House is a dense movie, filled with references I had no hope of catching. A myriad of clever references to the landscape of Japanese pop-culture at the time. Here’s a little bit from the Criterion essay that revealed these secrets unto me:
Care was taken, too, to season the film with timely cultural touchstones: here an appearance by a Tora-san look-alike, there a ringer for actor Bunta Sugawara in his then popular Truck-yaro (Bastard Trucker) guise; there’s even a reference to Pure Hearts in Mud, the Momo-Tomo romance to be released as the surefire A feature to House’s marketing gamble B.
Part of House’s marketing strategy came in the form of the soundtrack by Godiego. They’re a Japanese pop outfit responsible for the collection of chiefly English language pop ballads scattered throughout the film. The most memorable probably coming closest to the end – a cheery ballad about entering the house set to stylized imagery with a sinister undercurrent hidden beneath a layer of glowing elegance. The album was released prior to the movie. By quite a bit reputedly, hoping it would generate revenue and serve as advertising. The studio (Toho, responsible for so many things I’m planning on watching) was hoping they could turn this fanatically poppy horror film into a Japanese Jaws. Apparently they told Nobuhiki Ôbayashi they were tired of losing money on comprehensible films and were willing to throw something at the antithesis of that idea. Not sure how that adds up to Jaws though. Jaws, of course, had been a paradigm shifting success, cementing the idea of the summer blockbuster. Profit was the goal.
It didn’t quite happen. At least not in the way that was hoped. There was still enough revenue made to make Nobuhiki Ôbayashi’s place in Japanese cinema. He became the go-to director for manga and book adaptations, especially those centring on schools and magical shenanigans. According to IMDb, he has some 52 projects under his belt, including his few short films. He became so eponymous with this aspect of Japanese cinema he was awarded The Order of the Rising Sun. Other recipients include Clint Eastwood and George Takei. It’s the third most significant award the government can grant someone, and the highest that isn’t exclusively intended for royalty or politicians. None of the Japanese filmmakers you might peg as being deserving of this award seem to have received it, which is interesting.
The movie is based around many classic Japanese fairy tale tropes, with some of the individual scares coming from the imagination of the director’s daughter. The main legend used throughout the story is that of a Bakeneko, basically a creepy magical cat from Japanese folklore.
From the Wikipedias:
The abilities attributed to the bakeneko are various, but include shapeshifting into humans, wearing a towel or napkin on the head and dancing, speaking human words, cursing humans, manipulating dead people, possessing humans, and lurking in the mountains and taking wolves along with them to attack travellers. As an unusual example, on Aji island, Oshika District, Miyagi Prefecture and in the Oki Islands, Shimane Prefecture, there is a story of a cat that shapeshifted into a human and wanted to engage in sumo.
The creepy white cat in House doesn’t quite participate in sumo, though with a character literally named Kung-fu I’m pretty sure that would’ve written itself. The cat in House seems to be of the magical and manipulative variety, it’s quite possible it’s the power behind the cryptic and cabalistic figure that is Gorgeous’ Aunt. The aunt seems to have volition of her own, but the cat seems to be the source of power she draws from? It’s not super clear, nor does it really need to be given the tone of the movie.
After the girls arrive at the house, significantly before their teacher, they meet Gorgeous’ aunt. She’s an elegant grey haired, wheelchair bound woman who leads them into her extravagant house. The house is slightly dilapidated though, and the girls have to put in a bit of effort to get everything in order. They enjoy the process though, cleaning and storing food and chatting and bathing and whatnot. There’s a spooky vibe to the house, but nothing outright frightening. One girl does get pretty frightened when she stumbles across a medical skeleton in one room of the house. Something starts to seem out of the ordinary when Mac goes out to get a watermelon and never comes back.
Basically all hell breaks loose after this. Severed heads, hungry pianos, dancing skeletons, violent mattresses, alluring mirrors, symbolic physical transformations, blood, clocks that absorb people, apparitions from the past, kung-fu fights, dazzling and manic hand drawn special effects, cannibalism, gleaming green eyes, teleporting cats, possibly magic portraits, magical watermelon vendors, blurring identities, and a handful of perfectly normal mice make up the film’s cast of strange, mysterious, rare and bewitching apparitions.
Gorgeous’ aunt starts eating the kids to regenerate her fading strength. She knocks them off one by one. Or maybe the cat does, who seems to actually instigate most of the magical attacks. This sort of unspecified melding of demon-cat and dead, witch-like woman is a common enough Japanese trope, both in folk tales and Japanese horror films. This is the portion of the movie that generates House’s cult classic status. It takes a while to get to this leg of the film, but once House opens the lid and exposes its frenzied variation on magic and horror there’s no closing the lid again, at least not until the credits roll.
The already negligible, folkloric plot, gives way to pure experience and ensorcelling colours. Everything turns to synaesthesia and hand painted cels. The effects are made from a series of deliriously handcrafted methods. Making a schoolgirl disintegrate consisted of pouring blue paint over an actress in front of a blue screen. Images combined in a whirling, storybook style. All clear layers and half missing people composited together with painted zigzags. It’s a dizzying array of quirk and tame gore.
It’s one of those things that really deserves trotting out the old cliché that it has to be seen to be believed. It really is more sensational experience than quantifiable movie. It’s easy to type “then Kung-fu kicks the cat portrait, which starts spewing blood, cracking the floor into pieces and threatening to drown the kids” but hard to convey the insanity of that moment in context. It’s brutally fast and shockingly surreal as it goes on. Yes, a cat painting spewing blood that’s more surreal than it sounds. It’s easy to type “in order to kick the cat portrait Kung-fu has to combat the whole house, eventually gets electrocuted by a light, and tears her legs from her body and lets them kick the painting.” Actually that was hard to type, but it accurately describes the scene in the strictest sense. The truth is that the sum effect is still nuttier than it sounds.
Everything about this movie is insanely quirky. From the casting to the effects, to the soundtrack, to the development, to the studio justification, to the plot, to the story behind the plot, to the credits, to the ending, to the release history. It’s barely a horror film, yet clearly plays with the idea that it’s meant to be scary. If the audience is a kid, it might succeed too. Anyone else isn’t likely to blink at the film’s scares. It’s a movie entirely interested in atmosphere with an atmosphere that’s almost impossible to describe. A movie where a character’s fantasy is overdubbed in sped-up English. A movie where a fluffy white cat is evil. A movie where nothing makes any kind of sense and it doesn’t really matter.
Up next: something far less quaint.