“The worst song ever written” said some bloke, sometime ago, presumably, probably on Twitter, when asked their opinion of Rebecca Black’s 2011 single ‘Friday’. “Why would anybody care about the inane mutterings inside the mind of a teenage girl, let alone accompany them with a catchy pop tune before foisting it on the rest of us?” they might also have said if they were in a particularly bad mood. Well, perhaps we should not tell that imaginary person about the secret joys of a certain surreal Japanese horror.
When it comes to experimental cinema, fewer countries have achieved the status of ‘weird’ quite to the same level as Japan have managed over the years. From modern movies such as Hitoshi Matsumoto’s surreal sojourn R100 about a salesman who wobbles (that’s about all that made sense to me) and Takashi Miike’s ninja frog vampire flick Yakuza Apocalypse, to genre classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man and of course the most infamous of them all, 1977’s Hausu (aka House); the only single applicable word is “bonkers”.
Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi, with a screenplay written by Chiho Katsura based on an original story by Nobuhiko’s middle-school daughter Chigumi (with “original” being the operative word), House is steeped in the bizarre, shrouded in the mysterious, and slathered in the utterly incomprehensible. To that extent, Obayashi achieved his ultimate vision for House: to create a movie so inconceivable that its audience would struggle to understand it. Indeed, that was the objective of the task set out to him by Toho Studios vice-president Isao Matsuoka when commissioning this 90 minute test of patience, as outlined in Paul Roquet’s insightful essay ‘Unhinged Desire (At home with Obayashi)’ accompanying the Eureka’s Masters of Cinema release.
Like literally every single person without fail who has seen the trailer to House (no exceptions), I too had made it a priority to seek out the full feature. I eventually got my hands on a copy back in 2014 and was not disappointed. In the weirdness stakes, it did not flatter to deceive. Floating gurgling heads, finger-eating pianos and kung-fu school kids; I was as fascinated as I was perplexed. Hausu was every bit as disorienting an experience as it had promised to be. For a story that is essentially about a group of girls trapped in an aunt’s house that desires to devour them, the narrative could not be more confused, bewildering and yet visually appetising.
There’s charm in abundance found in the grotesque imagery. Quaint though the special effects may appear compared to fancier horrors of the period streaming out of the West, such as Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Ridley Scott’s Alien and Brian de Palma’s Carrie, the more modestly budgeted House still achieves a great deal. What it lacks in Hollywood major motion picture funds, it more than makes up for with imagination and creativity. Thanks in no small part to the mind of a schoolgirl sharing her fears with her dad about a house that might come alive and eat her.
Almost cartoonish at times, and teetering on the edge of outright comedy, House could (and occasionally does) backfire tremendously. To describe it as a horror would be to set a certain expectation in the viewer’s mind. Perhaps consider it a more liberal approach to genre filmmaking that deigns to both categorise itself and smash those boundaries all in one swoop, and it sort-of kinda maybe just about fits into horror, with a smidgen of fantasy, black comedy and even action diluting it down.
Roquet’s detailed explanation of the context surrounding the arrival of Obayashi’s project in his essay is almost worth picking up the DVD release up for alone. The influx of advertising and television decimating Japanese culture virtually proffered the film’s existence, as the brash rebellious filmmaker joined the ranks of other brash and rebellious filmmakers to deliver a new wave of arthouse reactionary pieces. Not content with the conformist conventional offerings diluting minds, the creators dared to strive towards an alternative for the medium – and man, they found it.
Nevertheless, for all its positives, there are negatives too. After 20 minutes or so, the joke wears thin, and what was fun for a while soon becomes tired and one-note. Without standard structure of plot, House descends into a mess of visual and often slapstick gags whose deeper understanding of cultural reference points is tenuous at best, and at worst non-existent. There is joy to be had from House, if one is in the right frame of mind. Its blend of outrageousness with its lack of modesty creates a series of individually fantastic vignette-type sketches, but melded into the whole, it’s all a bit too much to comprehend. But then, maybe that just makes Obayashi all the more pleased with the result.
House is out today (Monday 12 February) from Eureka Entertainment’s the Masters of Cinema series. Check out the new and exclusive trailer below.