one of roger ebert’s criteria when reviewing a film is that a film is not about what it’s about but how it is about it. the 1977 japanese horror movie house (hausu) is a great example of that rule.
to strip the plot down to its most basic elements, house is more or less a haunted house horror movie, a subgenre that must have been tiresome even in 1977 when it was first released. it was only released in japan, later bought to the u.s. by janus films and released on dvd last year as part of the criterion collection.
house has, on the surface, all the formulaic ingredients we’re all familiar with: a group of high school/college students/guests/treasure hunters/scientists go to an old mansion/building, obvious to everyone except the characters that something’s amiss in said architectural structure. first they think it’s mere hallucinations and then shit gets real and they start dying one by one. around this point they realize they are trapped. one of them is usually the leader type. someone freaks out and have to be consoled and calm down by others. eventually the origin of evil is revealed, after some backstories and expositions. most of them die and there is some kind of twist or door to sequel scene at the end right before the credit rolls.
(and as someone who doesn’t watch a lot of horror movies, i’m pretty proud of that last paragraph of generalization.)
house tells the story of gorgeous, yes that’s the character’s name, (kimiko ikegame) who is upset that his father is getting remarry after her mother’s death. instead of following the plan of being with her father for summer vacation, she instead decides to go to her aunt’s house with her high school friends.
i will not go much further than that for a plot summary. house is definitely one of those movies that the lesser you know, the better your viewing experience will be. describing it as a viewing experience is more literal than most times i’ve used that word.
it takes about 20-25 minutes before they get to the house. but instead of the cardboard characters and stiff expositions seen in most movies, house is endlessly inventive throughout. the first act set the tone of the movie splendidly. these pre-haunted-house scenes reminds me of everything from the monkees, some beatles movies, and michel gondry videos. my favorite line here is when gorgeous asks her dad “how was the movie job in italy?” and he replies “leone said my music was better than morricone’s.”
director nobuhiko obayashi uses every trick in the cinematic book including early special effects, wires (not hidden on purpose), matte, superimposed images, unexpected zooms and edits for pretty much the entire movie yet it never feels repetitious or annoying. these tricks lend the movie a cartoonish feel and it fits what he tries to accomplish. i wouldn’t go as far as to call the movie experimental but may be it was at the time. it’s no surprise that obayashi was a tv commercial director before he made this, his first film. it’s about ten years before the brothers scott.
in addition to gorgeous, her friends have names that are more or less shorthand characterization. you can figure out what they are like by their names: kung fu, melody, fantasy, prof, sweet, and mac (short for stomach). oh there’s also a white cat.
there is a lighthearted, half winking tone from beginning to end. there’s not really much gore in the movie but it builds suspense so well that you are always curious to see what’s going to happen next. unlike the newer horror movies, there’s not any lame brained red herrings or things jumping out from the side of the frames. this was before the term j-horror was coined, so there’s none of that shock for shock sake feeling. house manages to scare you but often there is something funny or creatively funny right afterward. and it is not one of those post-modern ha-ha-look-how-fucked-up/gross-this-is type of funny. this was before cynicism and irony and meta show up in every other horror movie.
i supposed there is some kind of message in the film though i can’t quite decide if there is only one of them. having only seen the movie once i can see it as a fairy tale of a girl coming of age, complete with symbols of menstruating blood in a scene that is similar to the elevator bloodbath in the shining three years later. or a tale of a girl becoming the mother figure of the house with the new young stepmom. or is it making some sort of statement of japanese pop culture in general. i have a feeling that i will take away something else on repeated viewings. regardless, it’s a thoroughly entertaining 88 minutes. best of all, unlike most cult films, it does not require revisionism or condescension for it to be enjoyable.
originally intended to be a moneymaker for toho during their leaner godzilla years, obayashi got the idea for the movie from his young daughter, though no director at toho at the time was interested in directing. it turned out to be a big hit in the summer of 1977 in japan, the same year that star wars and close encounter hit america. house no doubt inspired early sam raimi and peter jackson movies, the early 80s hong kong vampires/ghost movies, and probably sucker punch.
it paints a pretty depressing picture on the state of commercial cinema when three decades ago commercial directors made movies like this (and become a hugh hit) and now we get former commercial/music video directors doing bombastic toy movies and horror remakes. those douchebags will probably want to remake it, increase the blood and gore, tone down the funny stuff and use the latest digital cgi special effects and it will be a worse movie that takes away the spirit of the original.
when it ended, the two words i could think of were wtf and weird. i’m pretty sure it’s on the top 3 of the weirdest movies i’ve ever seen. if you’re not convinced, look up other reviews and see how many times the word wtf is in each review or how many of them starts by saying they are speechless.