How do I describe Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 freakout film “House” to the uninitiated? Heck, how do I describe it to cult film veterans? This is a film that is completely without precedent. Its images do not relate to anything that came before it, do not stem from any ancient mythology or contemporary filmmaking tradition that I was able to discern. It is 88 minutes of nightmare-inspired, skullcracking, blinding, face-melting weirdness that is, I feel, a new standard for fans of the psychotronic.
Yes. “House” is a new standard. This is the kind of film that video-store junkies, seekers of the extreme, and people like me – who are constantly on a quest to find something that will crack open a new level – have been looking for. It is a film to remind us, in no uncertain terms, that there are still new depths to be plumbed when it comes to batshit crazy genre films of ages past. This is a film for people who have grown jaded by the low-tech gore of Herschell Gordon Lewis, who think that David Cronenberg has grown soft, who feel that Peter Jackson hasn’t made a good film since “Meet the Feebles,” for people who think Jörg Buttgereit didn’t go far enough, for people who wish Mario Bava took more crystal meth.
I realize that wondrous, thick, holistic printed movie books like Michael J. Weldon’s seminal The Psychotronic Video Guide to Film are rarely published in this modern age of callow Internet chat boards and mostly-accurate online catalogues, but “House” comes from that old tradition of well-documented whacked-out subversive subculture weirdness that has shriveled over the last decade. “House” is one from the old school. One that delivers on all its promises. One that reminds us that we can still be legitimately baffled and disturbed. Something to stir us from our cult film complacency.
Here’s something that’s fun: the DVD editions of “House” were put out by The Criterion Collection.
A bit of history: director Nobuhiko Obayashi was known in Japan for his slick, fast-paced TV advertisements. As is the case with a lot of prolific director of commercials, Obayashi’s true dream was to direct feature films, and had an obsession with making a horror/comedy movie. For material, he went to his four-year-old daughter, and asked her what she was afraid of. Since, as children, we all have odd things that we fear (I had a crippling phobia of insects and beetles, a phobia that continues to this day), he learned that his scary film should contain things like evil housecats, flying severed heads, rancorous mirror reflections, and a piano that feeds on human flesh. Obayashi started working on the film, and even hired a composer, Godaigo, to write the score. Godaigo finished with the score (and even a few songs) promptly. Filming had not yet begun. Indeed, filming would not commence for another two years, as Obayashi kept running into money troubles.
“House” resembles an episode of “Scooby-Doo.” A septet of teenage schoolgirls gather together for a trip to a cabin out in the woods. The teen girls are all inscrutably adorable, and have nicknames that match their personalities. The lead girl is very pretty, and is named Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami). Her flighty best friend is named Fantasy (Kumiko Oba). The musical one is named Melody (Eriko Tanaka). The token fat girl is named Mac (Meiko Sato), and the toned one with the athletic skills is named Kung-fu (Miki Junbo).
When they arrive at the cabin, we discover that it is haunted. One of the girls is decapitated, and her head falls down a well. When it is retrieved, the head flies about after one of the girls, and bites her in the butt. Kung-fu is attacked by flying tree roots, but she dispatches them with a few kicks, explaining that they are only a figment of her imagination. Obayashi hired all of his actresses from a local modeling school, so the line readings are stilted and borderline hysterical. He was also good enough to keep most of the cast in sexy outfits for the bulk of the film; the party I viewed the film with was especially fond of the taut, muscular legs of the underwear-clad Junbo.
There’s a flashback scene that the characters in the present seem to be riffing on. There’s a weird fat guy who sells melons and gives grave warnings about the haunted house. He turns into a skeleton. There’s a creepy aunt who seems to want to eat people, and is bound to a wheelchair, but only some of the time. There is indeed a bleeding grandfather clock. There are wicked housecats, and a scary housecat painting that pukes blood. The piano does indeed eat someone. A hunky hero is called to the rescue, only to spontaneously turn into a pile of bananas. There’s a bear that prepares ramen in one scene; no one remarks on this. The film’s finale features a room that fills with spectral cat blood, a character who is perhaps possessed by another, and a large sucking, swirling portal to another dimension.
The color photography is saturated and lurid and borderline abrasive. The dialogue is nonsensical, frantic, and edged with a healthy dose of adolescent sexual hysteria. The music – composed two years before the fact – crashes in and out of appropriateness; some of the incidental scenes have needlessly creepy music, while many of the creepy scenes have bombastically cheerful 1970s folk ballads. You may find yourself singing along.
“House” is a horror/comedy version of Jodorowsky. One would suspect that Obayashi is playing some kind of protracted prank on the audience, or that he is, at the very least, is trying to make some sort of surrealist social statement on the perceived maturation of teenage girls, using the images of Japanese ghost stories as his gleefully gory fodder. But I suspect that Obayashi, despite all the brain-molesting lurid excess, is actually trying to make a sincere, straightforward J-Horror classic; there doesn’t seem to be any self-reference or cynicism in his approach. “House” is content with every last frame of itself; it really means it.
Which only makes the film all the more gobstoppingly enjoyable. Most people will reject its weirdness outright. Many college students will throw it on at parties where marijuana is freely being consumed. Some will see it as a symbolist tome of impenetrable images and a deep, ineffable statement of subtle adolescent sexual attitudes. Most importantly, though, I feel that “House” gives us new images and psychotronic enjoyment to contend with.
I implore the brave to seek out “House.”