House

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November 20, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

Once in a while we come across a piece of art so outlandish that it defies all our categories; something for which we can’t summon the generalizations to neatly define our experience. Hausu is one such work of art for me, and I suspect I am not alone. If you haven’t seen it, it may very well be the most bizarre cinematic experience of your life.

Typically billed as a horror-comedy, Hausu barely qualifies as “horror,” at least not in the way Western minds conceive it. In 1977, when the “house” was constructed, director Nobuhiko Obayashi was principally a director of bizarre, avant-garde short films and television commercials. Spielberg’s Jaws had recently met huge success in the West, so producers in Japan naturally sought to emulate its amateur, low-budget appeal to reinvigorate a film industry largely dominated by yakuza (gangster) films. Obayashi was up to the task, and what he produced is a genre-bending, fourth-wall breaching, goofy, psychedelic, fantastical ghost story, one that only resembles horror as we now think of it.

In a film like this plot is practically irrelevant. We are introduced to the protagonist, a high school girl named Gorgeous, and her six friends (Sweet, Melody, Prof, Fantasy, Mac and Kung Fu) who are anticipating a summer of fun in the sun until their camp trip is suddenly canceled. Gorgeous, bereaved by the prospect of her father marrying a much younger woman, proposes that she and her friends travel instead to the countryside to spend their summer with her aunt. When they eventually arrive at the house, the spooky dial is turned up to 10 in short order. One by one the girls meet their demise, each dispatched in a decidedly cruel and ironic way. Melody, for instance, is attacked and devoured by a piano in such a way it defies description and Sweet is pummeled by flying futon mattresses.

The film’s first expository act is successful in some areas. Obayashi cleverly identifies the seven girls with nicknames indicating the most obvious character trait of each. This contrivance allows us to distinguish each girl in a rather large cast of seven, and it neatly captures the often one-dimensional character of horror film protagonists. Obayashi also succeeds, perhaps in spite of himself, in creating an occasionally potent, ominous atmosphere. House’s humor is usually punctuated with sounds of thunder or ghostly voices, or otherwise accompanied by suggestive portents (such as the mysterious white cat that enters Gorgeous’ bedroom window as she writes the letter to her aunt). Of course a film this goofy necessarily undercuts the suspension of disbelief so crucial to terror, so the director’s many flourishes ultimately undo his attempts at a sincerely haunting atmosphere.

Despite its gratuitous blood and oddly gruesome deaths, Hausu is a very childlike film. In fact, the entire film can be seen as the perspective of a child. So it’s no surprise to learn that the director’s 10-year-old daughter is responsible for the scenario (credited as a writer)1. Obayashi was wise to enlist her help if his goal at the outset was parody. The entire first act feels like a Japanese television sitcom, rife with pop music (like much of the rest of the film) and cheeky humor. Once it takes off in the second act Hausu becomes a broad parody of horror films, incorporating various allusions to other movies with their tropes and clichés in tow.

The film quickly descends to melodrama, and returns often, but Hausu isn’t memorable for its believable acting or witty scripting. It has none of the things we tend to associate with “good” cinema. In fact the melodrama contributes much to its kitschy allure in the first place. While it features some intentionally chaplinesque humor it can also be as unintentionally funny as Raimi’s Evil Dead, a film whose slapstick style, imaginative sets and absurd situations makes it most easily comparable to this film. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine Raimi being unfamiliar with this film prior to conceiving his boomstick trilogy.

Where House truly excels is in its remarkably inventive use of myriad cinematic devices and techniques. Every conceivable in-camera trick is used, from slow-motion and stop-motion to matte painting, hand-drawn animation, chroma key, irising and puppetry, as well as numerous editorial devices such as flashbacks, wipes, cutaways, dissolves, multiple exposure, blue screen and a number of other techniques I’ve never seen before or since. There are lessons for film students to be found here, or at the very least it’s instructive in how not to use these techniques. One memorable scene has us follow the girls down a staircase to a phone to call for help and then to the front door. This takes two to three minutes. It’s an entirely handheld, blurry, time lapsed sequence, like a hazy recollection of a dream or a waking nightmare involving us directly.

There is hardly a dull moment in this film. Even outside of the carnage, every scene is dense with multiple exposures, mattes and other techniques, occurring with headache-inducing frequency. And even when this trickery is toned down in fleeting moments, single frames exude so much visual information that the viewer is forced to consider what it is they’re really experiencing. For all its weirdness, Hausu is foremost an art film, one that breaks apart and reassembles the elements of so many campy, low-budget movies to its own ends.

So we’ve just seen a decapitated head floating and self-propelled, followed by a girl drinking blood from a well. A whimsical piano ballad cues up. Accompanying scenes like this with ominous music might enhance the horror at the expense of the weird. Instead, Obayashi has the music serve as counterpoint to the images, heightening the bizarre atmosphere. Clearly he was interested in creating his own cinematic reality.2 One can only wonder to what heights of thrills and terrors it might climb if House took itself seriously.

After 33 years of relative obscurity Hausu has been brought out in to the light, largely due to a stunning new transfer from Janus films, recently packaged as a Criterion release (on Blu-ray no less). For the last year it’s been playing all over the United States in various art houses and independent theaters (the director even toured his own print in New York), and, if you live in or near Iowa City, it will be making its way to our very own bijou theater this month from December 3 – 9. No string of adjectives could possibly capture Hausu, so if you’re an open-minded filmgoer I can only recommend you experience it for yourself.

1 The film became a surprise hit for Toho studios, particularly among kids and young adults. The director notes in the making of doc from the Criterion release that “kids, all of them under 15, would line up down the block to see the film.” This was unprecedented at the time during Japan’s newly realized television era. Despite it’s success, somehow House was almost completely unknown outside of Japan for decades.

2 Again, the “Constructing a House” doc from Criterion is instructive. Obayashi claims that realism was the norm in Japanese cinema of the day, so he set out to breach this from the beginning. He insisted his special effects be intentionally bad or obviously fake to draw the audience in to the experimental expressionism he calls a film.

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