House: Criterion Collection
November 5, 2010
Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House was originally released in 1977 on the bottom half of a double bill with the tantalizing tagline, “How Seven Beauties Were Eaten!” Inspired by several story ideas from his eleven-year-old daughter, Obayashi directed a gonzo splatstick horror film par excellence. However, Toho Studios hired him to make a Jaws (1975) rip-off but instead he produced a film that has been described affectionately as an episode of Scooby-Doo as directed by Mario Bava – a fantasy horror film that mixes the child-like surrealism of David Lynch’s early short films with the bloody carnage and otherworldliness of Suspiria (1977).
One of the first things that strikes you about Obayashi’s film is how it bounces back and forth from scenes shot on location to ones obviously done on a set as we follow a teenage schoolgirl named Gorgeous (Ikegami) and her six friends starting their summer vacation. The girls all have colourful names like Fantasy, Mac (short for stomach), Kung Fu and so on. Gorgeous has been invited to her ailing aunt’s house with her friends tagging along. The establishing shot of the house from afar anticipates the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980). The aunt is introduced stroking a cat while in a wheelchair like something out of a Japanese take on a Bond villain. She quickly puts them to work and each one uses their specific ability to help out.
The tone is at once high school sitcom and family melodrama. There are moments of slapstick set to bubblegum pop music like something out of The Monkees’ bizarro film, Head (1968). The horror film elements kick in with a vengeance when one of the girls encounters the severed head of another girl, still animated and flying around on its own. From there, House gets stranger and funnier as auntie’s place preys on the fantasies and fears of the girls.
When you first start watching House, you think that you’re watching The Partridge Family on acid and you wonder when the horror film elements are going appear which really doesn’t happen until the girls arrive at auntie’s house. Obayashi utilizes all sorts of deliberately cheap special effects, like obvious rear projection and clunky animation but mixes it with sophisticated effects and stunning cinematography to create a heightened sense of the universe. Throw in unpredictable segues to other scenes that have a jarring, unsettling effect and you have a unique film. These schizophrenic tempo changes and an often cartoonish take on horror can be seen in later in the early films of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson but House has them both beat in terms of sheer audacity and unhinged imagery. If you haven’t surrendered to House by the time one of the girls is devoured by a piano then this is probably not the film for you. This is a film not to be seen but to be experienced much like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970), another head trip kind of film.
“Emotion” is a 1966 experimental short film made by Obayashi. It displays a lot of the stylistic flourishes still in their infancy and that would surface again in House – these include bizarre segues, hyperactive editing and unusual musical cues.
“House Appraisal” features filmmaker Ti West offering his thoughts on the film. He sees it as being told from the point-of-view of a child. He also comments on the influence of Obayashi’s work as a television commercial director. West speaks admiringly of House’s originality and contrasts it with lack of creativity in many contemporary horror films.
“Constructing a House” features new interviews with Obayashi, his daughter Chigumi and screenwriter Chiho Katsura as they talk about the film’s origins. Obayashi talks about his beginnings making T.V. ads and how they led to making House. Chigumi talks about how visiting her grandparents one summer gave her ideas for the film.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.