How often have you heard someone (usually a blurb whore, but sometimes someone you actually know) describe a movie as being “indescribable” or “unlike anything you’ve ever seen before”? And then you go see the alleged one-of-a-kind work and not only is it quite describable, it’s usually describable in terms of many things have come before or since. Not so Nobukhi Obayashi’s House (Hausu) (1977), a spirited, schlocky horror comedy that is so in tune with its own inexplicable wavelength of bizarre, cutie-pie and sometimes strangely lovely images as to make David Lynch look calculated and schematic in comparison. (The frightening images that are packed into Hausu’s bulging skin are as likely to inspire peals of laughter as fear, but laughter that may after a while begin to acquaint you with genuine madness.) Obayashi’s slapdash sensibility is firmly rooted in the explosively playful attitude of Japanese pop culture, and his cluttered, strangely cheerful mise-en-scene accesses the dark underbelly of that imagery while never betraying its playful, oddball innocence.
The plot, such as it is, involves a young schoolgirl named Gorgeous who recruits her pals Kung Fu, Fantasy, Sweet, Prof, Melody and Mac to accompany her on a summer trip to her mysterious aunt’s dilapidated mansion after plans for a summer camp fall through. Gorgeous also undertakes the trip as a way of escaping the impending remarriage of her father, a film composer (“Leone tells me my music is better than Morricone’s”) to another woman, the beautiful, slightly stoned-looking Ryoko Ema, who is always posing, looking off into the horizon, a wind machine keeping her hair in the perpetual motion of a shampoo ad. The early sequences in the film, particularly those dealing with Gorgeous’s father breaking the news of his nuptials, are fantastic avant-garde-tinged experiments in which the frame is divided, broken-down and sometimes shattered into ever-shifting geometrical forms which unsettle the viewer and work out Obayashi’s visual muscles for the real test to come. Once the girls hop the train to Auntie’s house (the train constantly shifts between a stylized live-action vehicle and a cartoon chug-a-lug, with Obayashi playing all kinds of hilarious tricks with the rear-projected, painted and cardboard representations of the passing countryside), Gorgeous relates the story of how Auntie lost her fiancé in the war (Obayashi appropriates the restrained style of Ozu here, enough to make head-spinning contrast with the girls’ giggly commentary as the story unfolds.)
But once the girls arrive at Auntie’s house, which is situated on top of the creepiest matte-painting of a mountain ever devised, they are greeted by the wheelchair-bound biddy and her sinister cat Blanche, who seems to have the run of the manse and may be behind the evil goings-on that almost immediately begin to unfold. Critic David Edelstein, in his review of House, suggested that language was insufficient to convey just what Obayashi manages to achieve with his singularly grotesque and absurd imagery, and I tend to think he’s right. But even if it could, I can guarantee you that reading any account of what you actually see in this movie—and yes, I’m pretty much willing to guarantee you have never seen anything like it—couldn’t possibly be as much mind-twisting fun as actually seeing it unfold, especially amongst a full house of dropped jaws at, say, a late-night movie screening. House is, in many ways, the perfect midnight movie, because as it is gets loopier and loopier, and as Obayashi unpacks his arsenal of cut-and-paste analog mattes, superimpositions, slow-motion, stop-motion, hand-drawn animation, frame-busting camerawork and Shining-esque torrents of bloodletting (three years before Kubrick’s movie was released, mind) and all manner of baroque horror effects inspired by what scares an 11-year-old most, the slight edge of delirium that sets in from staying up late does everything to augment the movie’s will to discombobulate the viewer, all while it proceeds to dismember its characters in the most outrageous and collage-friendly ways.
House doesn’t set out to “scare” you in any conventional sense—it’s too over the top for that, though some of the ways the innocent girls are dispatched— by a chomping and apparently quite hungry grand piano and, most memorably, by the cinema’s most devilish lampshade—have the ability to get under your skin despite the cheerfully manic and homemade feel to many of the effects. It is a horror movie chiefly in the sense that it deals with horror tropes not so much to be deconstructed as to be experienced like something completely new, as if this were the first movie the viewer might have ever seen—it has that quality of happily perverted innocence. Evan Kindley, writing about the movie a few years ago for Not Coming to a Theater Near You round about the time the movie started gaining traction in cult circles here in the US, got it exactly right: “The movie feels a little too fast and too dense for human viewing, like a state-of-the-art product that hasn’t undergone enough safety testing yet.”
Hausu is a movie that is, in the end, impossible to adequately describe whose genuine, maniacal level of insanity is equally impossible to overstate. As such, it may be one of the few genuine cult phenoms in Japanese horror movie culture that might successfully resist the inevitable swing at a watered-down remake to make it more palatable for mainstream audiences who would be presumably uninterested in the very aspects that make Hausu remarkable in the first place. There’s nowhere to go but homogenization and boredom in such a task; the complete sincerity, the lack of self-consciousness apparent in every frame of House, even the appearance of it being practically hand-made, is its best defense against the rapacious tendencies of a movie culture as eager to consume original ideas as Auntie and her possessed mansion is hungry for those delicious schoolgirl morsels.
As I suggested earlier, Hausu is best experienced with a large group of folks who know not what to expect—barring its appearance at the stroke of 12:00 in a theater near you, this movie would be an ideal selection for a Halloween party screening, and the splashy Criterion Blu-ray would surely look great projected on the wall of your very own haunted house. But however it happens, see it for yourself. It’s not that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore; it’s more accurate to say that they’ve never made one like this, before or since.
If you’re having people over to bob for apples and the like (people still bob for apples at Halloween parties, don’t they?), you might want to have an atmospheric horror movie on the big screen just to help set the fun mood, or perhaps to distract from the foul stench of a well-intentioned party gone horribly dull. And Hausu would be an excellent choice. But what if you’re running dry of ideas for what to throw in the DVD player for your guests? Hopefully you would never have to resort to such measures, presuming you have a fairly high horror movie IQ , but in case you need one there is certainly no lack of usually blog-bound listicles of Halloween horror movie options—“The Best 100 Horror Movies Ever Made,” or “The 30 Greatest Horror Remakes,” or “The Greatest Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing Pairings, Ranked!” These lists are, more often than not, compiled by folks who are at best only seasonal dippers into the horror film tradition, or at worst enthusiasts who have, shall we say, a lot of holes in their horror film education that desperately need to be filled. Fortunately, comedian-writer-self-described horror film geek Kevin Maher has come up with the best Halloween horror listicle I’ve yet read: Eight Great Horror Movies You’ve Never Heard Of (But I Have Because I’m Better Than You). If you weren’t able to guess from the title, Maher’s piece is a spot-on parody of the sort of list-making exercise that takes apparent pride in what the writer might imagine to be his/her esoteric taste, which is then adorned by a thoughtlessly dashed-off descriptive sentence or two rife with errors– factual as well as of the spelling, punctuation and mismatched picture variety. Maher skewers these listicles with hilarious precision; if you’re a survivor of the Halloween horror listicle phenomenon (or maybe you’ve even written a couple yourself), you’ll find much to appreciate in his appropriately shallow, abundantly humorous ribbing. And I wouldn’t dream of spoiling any of the fun here. Check out Kevin’s listicle for yourself, and then go pick a movie on your own. You don’t need help from a bunch of bloggers, and Maher’s piece will cure you of the desire to suffer through another one of their malnourished posts ever again.
And since I know after reading “Eight Movies” that you’ll be thirsty for more of Kevin Maher’s sharp wit and observational alchemy, here are a few more road maps to satisfy your seasonal jones (with the occasional trip beyond it) for fun facts and bubbles o’ thought about some of your favorite movies:
“100 Moments in Poltergeist” that Kevin loves.
And speaking of Stephen King, it’s not “Bingo!” it’s “Kingo!”
Beware the ball! “21 Phantasm Phacts!”
And finally, just for the Tet of it, “Six Movies That Are Secretly About Vietnam.”