Review: Toho’s HOUSE (1977)
When sitting down to review a film like Nobuhiko Obayashi’s HOUSE (Hausu), one has to dismiss everything they know about film criticism. It’s a film that is truly one of a kind, so the “rules” of film criticism are almost impossible to apply to it. When Toho mega producer Tomoyuki Tanaka gave TV commercial director Nobuhiko Obayashi a small chunk of money to make a horror film, its doubtful that he realized he was funding what would be one of the oddest films to come out of Toho Studios.
HOUSE is a film that is truly beyond description. Obayashi took the imaginative musings of his 11-year-old daughter and turned them into what could be the most bizarre film I’ve ever seen (which is saying a lot).
Shrouded in obscurity, the film was never released in the United States. Lucky for us, the good folks at Janus Films happened to unearth this rare gem. It wasn’t enough that they decided they’d give the film a Criterion DVD release… they felt this movie had to be seen by an audience first. HOUSE has been given a limited theatrical release and I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen with an enthusiastic crowd.
The film is best described as equal parts horror, comedy, children’s television, and art film. Imagine what the outcome would be if Dario Argento had made EVIL DEAD II as an episode of a children’s sitcom. The film makes even less sense than that description. But its not supposed to make sense, which is part of the fun.
HOUSE follows a group of teenage schoolgirls on a trip to a cabin. The cabin belongs to the aunt of one of the girls. When they get to the house, they realize the aunt has been dead all along and something is killing the girls one by one. It sounds like a typical haunted house film, but it’s anything but. Its filmed with a startling use of color, has bizarre dialogue, even more bizarre characters, and some of the weirdest on screen deaths you could imagine.
None of the characters have traditional names. Instead their names are just words that describe their hobbies or personalities (Gorgeous is beautiful, Melody plays the piano, Kung Fu knows martial arts, etc). The only exception is the “fat” girl named Mac (perhaps named after McDonald’s?) There’s also the girls’ teacher Mr. Togo, who is going to meet them at the cabin for reasons that the film never tells us.
Even weirder than the characters is the dialogue and the absurd situations presented. For example, when the wheelchair bound aunt suddenly stands up and starts walking around, the only explanation given is when she tells one of the girls “You just made me feel better.” The film is loaded with scenes like this.
The dialogue is pretty much as on the nose as possible, which compliments the cheese factor rather well. But it’s all played for laughs and the tongue in cheek, unpredictable nature of the film make for an extremely fun experience.
The cinematography is gorgeous, surreal and at times ingenious. The look of the film is really one of a kind. Some scenes are bright and vibrant, and other scenes are shot with a dark, shadowy moodiness. There are other scenes that are shot in really soft focus that almost makes it look like a soap opera or one of those beer commercials from the early 90s. Backgrounds are often abstract paintings of landscapes, some even looking downright cartoonish. The film has some of the coolest and most unique scene transitions I’ve seen. For example, one scene will take place with a highly colorful and abstract matte painting as the background and the camera pans to the left without cutting to reveal a totally new setting for a totally new scene. I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like that. The film is worth repeat viewings just to notice more interesting visual touches like that.
The kills in the film are unlike any horror film before or since. Watching HOUSE, you get to see a man reduced to a pile of bananas, a man turned into a cartoon skeleton, a girl get eaten by a stop motion piano (with the fingers still playing music afterwards!), and a girl beaten senseless by a mattress, among other comical demises. And that’s not even mentioning other bizarre scenes like a girl kung fu fighting flying tree branches in her underwear, or rewound and played back footage of a cat jumping on a piano, all while we hear the film’s theme song… sung by a cat. To top it all off, we have just about every practical effect known at the time bringing all the gleeful madness to life. Effects are done using 2D animation, stop motion, wire works, puppets, reverse photography and just about anything else you could imagine in 1977.
As I stated in the beginning of this review, to review HOUSE, one has to throw out everything they think they know about how films should be made. HOUSE is a film that sacrifices anything that could be considered as logical in order to deliver something unique, fun and incredibly creative. This is the type of oddity where one can’t really say if it’s “good” or not. That’s something that will have to be left up to the individual viewer. For people looking for a linear story or a serious film, this will not satisfy them. In some regards, it’s a critic proof film. Like any Three Stooges short, the writing and acting is intentionally dumb, but it’s all done to make us laugh. In doing so, it does everything it sets out to accomplish, and in the weirdest ways imaginable. Considering that, I think Obayashi succeeded with flying colors. After a long time dwelling in obscurity, the United States finally gets a chance to experience this rare treat. Any fans of horror, fantasy, or just oddball cinema in general owe it to themselves to check out HOUSE.
HOUSE is currently playing in US theaters. Check out Janus Films’ list of upcoming venues and screening dates for more details.
For Toho fans in Europe, HOUSE was released on UK DVD (Region 2 PAL) this past January 25th as part of Eureka Entertainment’s “Masters of Cinema” Series. The DVD includes a new digital anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film; optional English subtitles; 90-minute selection of interviews with director Nobuhiko Obayashi, co-creator Chikage Obayashi, actress Kumiko Oba and Toho executive Shogo Tomiyama; the theatrical trailer; and a booklet with essays, stills, promotional material and more. The suggested retail price is £17.99.
For more information on HOUSE please see the earlier coverage here on SciFi Japan:
- Godzilla and Toho Films at the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles
- Toho Horror Film HOUSE on IFC
- New York Asian Film Festival 2009- Information and Schedule
- Japanese Cult Classics GOKE and HOUSE at the Egyptian Theatre
- Limited North American Theatrical Run for Toho Horror Film HOUSE