Classic Horror Movie Review: 'House' 1977
Nobuhiko Obayashi's House is a spectacular and haunting art-horror classic.
House or Hausu has its origins in a strange place. According to legend, the film was dreamed up after executives at Toho, the company famed for creating Godzilla, had seen Jaws become a worldwide phenomenon and they wanted their own horror phenomenon. The executives tapped well known commercial director Nobuhiko Obayashi to develop the concept and after failing to find anyone inside the company to direct House, and after Obayashi used his commercial instincts to create a small cult around the movie before it had been made, Toho allowed Obayashi to bring his bizarre vision to life.
And while not much of House resembles Jaws, there are coincidences. Obayashi’s villain does eat people and somehow, a house, fully landlocked, does become completely flooded leaving the protagonists floating on makeshift elements, ala the heroes of Jaws floating on the remnants of their ship. Beyond that though, House could not be anymore in opposition to Jaws. Where Jaws feels like a traditional movie with a typical narrative, dialogue and a three act structure, House is a series of bizarre, outsized visual elements in which even the characters are functions of the bizarre, fetishistic vision of its director.
House is the classic on this week’s Everyone’s a Critic Movie Review Podcast to coincide with the release of the spooky new entry in The Conjuring franchise, The Conjuring The Devil Made Me Do It. It’s not a one to one comparison, aside from potentially demonic characters in House, House is a great deal more challenging, strange and exciting than anything in The Conjuring universe. The Conjuring movies are a cash machine intended to extract dollars from undiscerning horror and non-horror fans alike.
House is not a movie for all audiences. House is for an audience looking for something different from any kind of tradition that ever existed. Obayashi’s vision is horror as an art project, a borderline send up of horror tropes that verges into terrifying by the skillful oddity of Obayashi’s transgressive vision. It’s a vision that is based in sexual fetishes but also in shocking nightmare visual elements that, even shot through the strange prism of Obayashi’s commercial eye, are nevertheless haunting.
House tells the story of seven Japanese schoolgirls, yes, all decked out in school uniforms, because Obayashi is an unapologetic pervert. The seven are about to leave for summer vacation until all of their plans fall through at once. That’s when Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), yes that’s her name, and the names of her friends all coincide by being based on physical or personal traits, gets the idea to invite everyone to her Auntie’s (Yoko Minamida) castle somewhere in the woods.
Joining Gorgeous on this trip are Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Sweet (Masayo Miyako) and Mac (Mieko Sato), as in ‘Big Mac.’ Mac likes to eat, it’s her defining trait though she isn’t overweight, her eating is fetishized in a fashion reminiscent of those who fetishize eating in mukbang videos, though slightly less gross. The girls have been given these names as a function of quickly giving them personalities that Obayashi doesn’t then have to write back stories about.
That each will find an ironic end based on their particular trait is intentional, it’s another shorthand storytelling aspect. Obayashi is all about shortcuts in creating tension and telling us about the characters. Thus when Melody plays the piano, there is a growing tension as to when the piano will be her downfall. These shortcuts would be easy to criticize if one were so inclined but that would be missing the point.
House is not about storytelling and character development, House is a spectacle of visual artistry. The film is a dizzying work of art filled with disturbing, outsized, over the top, blood and guts. The film has deeper meanings that I will touch upon, but the main point of House is a series of spectacular horror visuals and an overall palette that is so strange as to be disorienting. Watching House is to become drunk on the experience of the odd visual splendor on display.
A dismembered head is pulled out of a well, it floats in the air with a terrifyingly gleeful smile before biting a former friend on the backside in a comically low rent visual but one no less striking for how strange it looks. Later, a horrific scene is enacted when a character is assaulted by a series of sheets and bedding. Here, Obayashi takes a risk by breaking many of the rules of editing and filmmaking. Without establishing it, Obayashi films much of the scene from below the floor. We are looking up at the action as various forms of bedding attack poor Sweet. It’s a jarring switch in visual presentation and it’s effective for being so jarring.
The most famous death in House is that of Melody. I mentioned earlier how tension is built through Melody playing the piano as death appears linked to the nature of each character, Mac died retrieving food, gorgeous died touching up makeup, Sweet died while being a sweetheart and cleaning the house out of the kindness of her heart. Thus, when Melody is playing piano we are waiting for the inevitable moment when the piano will become sentient. When it happens it’s a surreal and glorious payoff filled with bold and strange elements including the seeming delight that Melody takes in her own destruction.
I mentioned the deeper meaning of House and while that deeper meaning is rather abstract, and will be lost on those who aren’t students of history, it is there. In an interview for the Criterion Collection release of House, Obayashi talked about House as a representation of generational change in Japan. The young women represent a generation of young people who grew up after World War 2 and in the peaceful ignorance of what happened in Japan in 1945 when nuclear bombs leveled cities and killed thousands.
Obayashi was acutely aware of the devastation. He grew up not far from the town of Hiroshima and lost several friends and schoolmates in the disaster. House was his reaction to a generation that he felt had grown complacent regarding the past. Thus, Auntie is a woman who lost her fiancé in the war and the trauma that occurred from that loss left her forever pining for him while feeding on the youth of the town around her to sustain her life until her love was returned. Having eaten all of the local girls, Auntie welcomes Gorgeous and her friends to consume them and their youthful ignorance of pain and loss.
The subtext of House is laid out in an ingeniously presented scene. As the girls are riding the train to Auntie's village, Gorgeous tells the painful story of Auntie's life, having lost her soldier fiancé in the war. Obayashi presents Auntie's story in the form of a newsreel that somehow all of the girls can see. The scene is surreal and brilliant, even layering in perhaps that Auntie may be responsible for the death of Gorgeous' mother. It's a gloriously bizarre scene delivered with artful panache and the inclusion of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima that the girls observe with complete detachment, is a subtle indication of the deeper meaning of House.
It’s abstract but all of House is abstract, a perverse exercise in abstract film art. It’s absolutely brilliant if you are on the film’s wavelength. If you are not, I can sense where you might look at House as weird for the sake of weird. It is kind of weird for the sake of weird, in some ways. For me however, House is a trip, a visual spectacle of strange, comic, and disturbing images that resonate in unforgettable fashion.