(1977) Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi; Starring: Kimiko Ikegami, Kumiko Ohba, Yôko Minamida; Available formats: DVD & Blu-Ray
From the land that invented weirdness comes the über-oddity, House (Not to be confused with the 1986 House, starring the Greatest American Hero himself, William Katt). This Japanese import turns up the WTF meter to overload, with 88 minutes of pure, unadulterated insanity. Is it a horror movie, a comedy, or a musical? Maybe it’s all of those things, none of them, or something more. Okay, so what the hell is it? Well, if someone put a gun to my head, I’d have to say it was a horror film, but that label doesn’t begin to do justice to what has just transpired. Various genres are merely colors in the director’s paintbrush, to be applied generously when the script dictates – lather, rinse, repeat. House is not a movie that will inspire apathy. Viewers will either love it or hate it. I suspect it will frustrate many and be strangely rewarding to others, but it’s unlikely that you will see this and not have an opinion. The creators of House probably never intended to cater to mass appeal.
The central characters of House are seven (presumably) high school-aged girls. Not unlike the Seven Dwarves, all of them are archetypes, characterized in broad strokes by their names: Gorgeous, Fantasy, Prof, Melody, Sweet, Kung Fu, and Mac. Taken individually, they’re two-dimensional stereotypes, but I’d venture to guess that they were intended to be viewed as a whole, representing different aspects of Gorgeous’ personality. Hey, this ain’t the Seven Samurai. Nope, with the exception of the aptly named Kung Fu, no one even has any fighting skills to speak of. Admittedly, the symbolism of the last name on this list is a bit of a mystery. Mac’s claim to fame is that she likes to eat a lot. Were the filmmakers referring to the Big Mac – flagship sandwich of the McDonald’s chain and fast-food pariah for health advocates everywhere? Was this a not-so-subtle commentary on the westernization of Japan? Was McDonald’s even a concern in 1977-era Japanese culture? The world may never know. Before I plunge even further into the deep end with socio-cultural exploration, I’d better return to the review at hand (Take a deep breath, exhale, and relax. There now, doesn’t that feel better?). The girls decide to embark on a trip to Gorgeous’ aunt’s house, far away from the problems of the big city. A subplot involves Gorgeous, whose father has decided to remarry after her mother died eight years ago. This thread is brought up early and ignored for most of the film, only to be picked up in the final few minutes.
The director, Obayashi, came from the world of television advertising, and it shows. Pacing is frenetic and often visually striking, utilizing optical effects, animation, and location shots mixed with obvious sets to emphasize mood and setting. Scenes seem to flit around with a weird kind of kinetic energy, like a five-year-old on Red Bull. He employs quick cuts and a bold “everything-but-the-kitchen sink” approach to his visual style, throwing it all out there and seeing what sticks, and making impressions in short bursts. It’s almost as if he felt that he only had one shot at making a motion picture, and decided to use everything in his arsenal. To borrow a quip from Mystery Science Theater 3000, “It has all the coherence of a fever dream,” but somehow this makes sense in the context of the film. Once you get into the rhythm as the scenes unfold, the dream logic implores us to “stop making sense,” as David Byrne would likely attest.
The only thing remotely conventional about House was the roughly linear narrative, with a discernible beginning, middle and end. A plot synopsis would be deceptively simple: seven friends take a trip to an aunt’s spooky house, and strange things start to occur. The plot, however, is almost certainly not the point. You have no idea what’s going to happen next. There are elements of the typical horror movie clichés, as one by one, the girls succumb to awful ends, but that’s where House’s resemblance to a standard horror film begins and ends. Perhaps it’s best described as a dream on film, rather than anything else. The only thing that comes even remotely close would be The Happiness of the Katikuris by Takashi Miike, with the same odd blend of family drama, broad comedy and horrific elements and non-sequitur lapses into musical interludes. If this sounds more like a weather report than a movie review, then you’re getting the picture.
House lends itself to multiple interpretations. The seven friends and their chaotic encounters could be seen as an allegory for the coming of age. Gorgeous’ animosity towards her soon-to-be stepmother is evocative of the Elektra complex, the flipside of Sigmund Freud’s Oedipal complex. Whatever your interpretation, it’s one weird trip. Would I recommend this movie? Well, it probably depends on your tolerance for ambiguity, incoherence and downright lunacy, but the less you know about it the better it will be. I’ve never been to Tokyo Disneyland, but in my mind’s eye this is what a trip through the Japanese version of the Haunted Mansion would (or at least should) look like, if we existed in an alternate dimension. If you’re willing to check your expectations at the door and just go with what unfolds, then you’ll have a good time. Give it a try… You’ll thank me (or curse me) later!