House (Hausu) at 45
While watching the Japanese cult classic, House (1977), you sometimes can’t help but chuckle at its sheer audacity. There are transitions between scenes as unsubtle as a PowerPoint slideshow, cheesy sitcom-style character introductions, upbeat music at inappropriate times. Even while these aspects might be a sign of amateurish filmmaking elsewhere, in this film they combine into an incredible viewing experience. It’s campy and surreal horror, with a real sense of experimental freedom in its design.
Nobuhiko Obayashi, the creator of House, spent much of his early career directing commercials. With just under 3000 advertisements under his belt, the TV medium was a space where he tested out his penchant for surreal imagery and experimental visuals. His commercials were strange, fun, and slightly off-kilter. One notable advertisement for ice cream featured a singing and dancing woman on a chessboard of ice crystals, seemingly surrounded by stars. Fantasy images were perfect for the desires that advertisements were supposed to provoke, and his incredible imagination seemed to never run dry.
House was Obayashi’s directorial debut, his first full-length film. He was initially approached by Toho, a Japanese film company, who desired him to create his own horror film. Looking for inspiration, he picked the brain of his pre-teen daughter, Chigumi Obayashi, who inspired many of the plot points and horrors of the film (such as a talking watermelon and possessed futons). Obayashi leans into the realm of childish fears and fantasies here, the film having a fairy-tale feel at first with clear-cut character archetypes and unrestrained surrealism.
House follows a schoolgirl and her six friends as they travel on holiday to the home of her reclusive Auntie. She has not seen her Aunt or the house in years, and things are not initially as they might seem. Like Snow White’s dwarven friends, each character has a clear role denoted by their name (‘Prof’, ‘Kung-fu’, ‘Melody’). It is a charmingly childish touch, one which has clearly mapped payoffs as each character meets their respective fates. As the title might suggest, this is a haunted house movie – but one which has the feel of a fever dream.
The effects and style add to this feverish atmosphere. Obayashi purposefully wanted the effects to seem unrealistic, the work of a child, and in doing so the film becomes more surprising. We see body parts suspended over a green screen, looking at times like collage. Objects fly through the air with huge whooshing sounds. The use of chroma key makes characters dissolve and burn with a sharp vibrancy. Obayashi’s experience in the world of advertising is useful here, as every effect is created to be as eye-popping, as attention-grabbing, as possible. It is an absolute joy to watch and a truly unique kind of horror film.
While it doesn’t pack many actual scares for a horror movie, it instead shocks you with its sheer creativity, bringing each and every threat to the highest extreme. It’s deliciously funny, in a mix of the campy and the macabre. Expect spooky hijinks, buckets of blood, jolly music, and dancing skeletons. Earning the title of cult classic, House is truly unique.
- Ryan O’Shea