House [Hausu] from 1977 is a dubious horror classic that has to be seen to be believed. When you think of J-horror, you probably think of Ring (1998) or Dark Water (2002), both invested with classically brilliant filmmaking, sophisticated metaphors and delivered like a ghost train. Japanese culture has a considerable respect for their ancestors which leads to a fascination with all things ghoulish and demonic, plus a love for being scared witless. That kind of exploitation also comes out in the terrifying realism of Audition (1999) or Battle Royale (2000).
House has all of this, but it’s more clown car than ghost train and barely watchable lunacy, yet, contrarily, you won’t be able to not watch it, even while you wonder what on earth is going on. The plot is a sort of haunted, hungry house, fairytale with a “who dies first” narrative that is best watched whilst drunk. Angel (Kimiko Ikegami) leads six of her school girlfriends to a summer getaway at her aunt’s mansion, but aunty turns out to be a sort-of vampire that lives in a fridge. Dormant emotional torment brings the fixtures and fittings to life; a light-shade eats a leg in one bit. Meanwhile, like a Dick Hallorann in (Carry On) The Shining, their teacher is desperately trying to reach them, despite problems with bananas. He missed the train because of a bucket stuck on his backside (I’m not making this up).
It’s hard to like for itself, but you need to see it if you're a horror fan and there is no denying the ability of all involved. It has a sheer unbridled but weirdly self-destructive enthusiasm. Director Nobuhiko Obayashi pulls every trick in the book and the filmmaking is full of optimism and invention. It’s clear he wasn’t remotely intimidated by what is a fairly large production and his cast give excellent performances, even if the dialogue is all over the place.
Maybe Obayashi only did it to break a monotonous routine in Japanese cinema at the time and give audiences something different. He did that alright; he was the only one who wanted the job in the renowned Toho Studio who had asked him to make something like Jaws. Don’t laugh. Things eat people, so mission accomplished. The result had the kind of cult, crowd-driven appeal of Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), or even Grease (1978) considering it was aimed at teens and showing as a double-bill with a run-of-the-mill romance (even referenced in this plot). Because of course, another side of Japanese culture is the weird bubblegum craziness. I suppose Twilight meets Braindead (1992) via Scooby Doo is another way of seeing House. It’s as brilliantly stupid as that suggests.
Looking at House 40 years down the line thanks to Eureka! releasing it on Blu-ray for the first time, this schlock horror mishmash has big problems for a new audience. It allegedly inspired Sam Raimi and you can see that clearly in Evil Dead (1981) style gags: the eyeball lodged in the gob of a vampiric shapeshifting witch is a stand-out. That sounds really cool, doesn’t it? And the severed head in the well that bites someone on the bum or the disembodied fingers playing the piano; such moments are too few and far between. The effects are largely awful, but again, purposefully so. They’re supposed to look cheap, rough and overblown with gaudy colours and hyperactive editing. Mud thrown at a wall, see what sticks, including all of it anyway. It's crazy, but you only have to look at the quality of the wonderful animated sequences to realise the talent and ingenuity involved. It’s so conflicting. You can’t polish a turd, but apparently, you can roll it in lots and lots of glitter.
The film is much better than the sum of its parts. The set production, the mise-en-scène and the characterisation are beyond reproach. There’s a sophistication and a knowing wink to the story that really does have an emotional weight it tries to disguise, and the cast are especially good, playing off one another really well despite inexperience. It bats along at a fair old pace too, incoherent though it may be, and there is a thread of bloody-minded commitment; a sense of fun that makes it far better than, say, the awful Basket Case films. As a horror film then, you can argue that House does work, and as intended, even as your jaw drops and you frequently wonder why did they do that, as much as how they did it.
Eureka! present House in it’s OAR of 1.33:1 in 1080p. It looks fantastic and to say it is the best it has ever looked is obvious really, almost a backhanded compliment. It's consistent with no obvious artefacts. It’s supposed to look rough, but there’s a good range of contrast, as despite the storyline, it’s a bright and colourful film, almost psychedelic, especially the first half.
The original monaural soundtrack is crisp and clear, despite the occasionally cacophonic nature of the film. The score is a cult favourite in its own right by Godiego. His early pieces are abrasive and confused, however this is in keeping with the conflict of the Angel character.
It’s not possible to predict what you will think of the film, but whatever your personal conclusion, it has a legacy and how it came to be is as interesting as the final production. A video essay and collection of interviews, including one with director Nobuhiko Obayashi, help put the whole thing into context.
Video Essay by David Cairns
Archive of Interviews (90m)