House is certainly worth a first or second look now, 40 years after its initial release.
Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s House (or Hausu) was a hit in its native Japan when it was initially released in 1977, but internationally only held cult status until recently. The film had a limited release in the United States in 2009 and 2010 and gained even more fans when it was the 539th film added to the Criterion Collection. Many of the more influential films of the ‘70s, particularly genre films, have been so frequently copied and built upon that returning to the original can be a bit underwhelming. This is not the case with House; though it has surely influenced many other filmmakers, it is still a singular experience.
One could guess from the title that House is a haunted house tale, but the title structure doesn’t appear until nearly halfway through the film. Instead, we’re first introduced to leading lady Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) and her six best friends (each named after an attribute: fighter Kung Fu, romantic dreamer Fantasy, smartypants prof, always-hungry Mac, music Melody, and kindly Sweet). After their summer trip is canceled, Gorgeous decides to invite her posse on holiday to her estranged aunt’s home in the country, both as an act of charity and in order to throw a wrench in the plans of her father and his new wife. The girls traverse a handpainted landscape on their way. This, in combination with a variety of beautifully stylized camera tricks, makes it clear that this trip will be a journey into the surreal.
Though House holds off on introducing any violence, Ôbayashi does an excellent job of overstimulating the audience with a combination of bombastic colors and visual effects, antiquated audio tricks and over–the-top acting. This overstimulation creates a sense of unease: there is the distinct sense that multiple things are “off” right from the beginning of House and this increases as we learn about Gorgeous and her family history. In terms of cinematic comparison, House has more in common with genre-bending, style-driven films like Kill Bill and the recent mother! than it does with other Japanese horror titles. Like both of those films, suspending disbelief for House is nearly impossible, but the inability to spend disbelief works in the film’s favor, because the fact that the filmmaker has created a world where there are no rules and as such anything can happen.
And anything certainly does happen. House features decapitations, killer pianos, a deadly rain of mattresses, a possessed cat and a number of other horrors, all accompanied by schoolgirl squeals and visuals that flow across the screen like a living comic book. These visuals remarkably hold up even today, perhaps because Ôbayashi strove to make them unrealistic. He wanted to make them appear as if they’d been created by children in order to fit thematically with the film’s seven heroines.
Critics, scholars and fans have tried to find a canonical home for House, comparing it to the work of Italian giallo directors like Dario Argento and Mario Brava, France’s murder-filled Grand Guignol theater shows and even Scooby Doo. Though it is a horror film and is Japanese, it doesn’t really fit into the “j-horror” category either. House has some of the characteristics of famous samurai films and also shares some visual tricks with anime, but the joy to be found in House is that it isn’t like anything else.
House is certainly worth a first or second look now, 40 years after its initial release. In addition to holding up very well in terms of viewing and listening quality, its insane story, unsettling performances and unique visual style meld together to create a peculiar, extraordinary cinematic experience for which there is no comparison.