Tuesday, March 16, 2010

NOBUKHI OBAYASHI'S HAUSU (HOUSE) (1977)



How often have you heard someone (usually a blurb whore, but sometimes someone you actually know) describe a movie as being “indescribable” or “unlike anything you’ve ever seen before”? And then you go see the alleged one-of-a-kind work and not only is it quite describable, it’s usually describable in terms of many things have come before or since. Not so Nobukhi Obayashi’s House (Hausu) (1977), a spirited, schlocky horror comedy that is so in tune with its own inexplicable wavelength of bizarre, cutie-pie and sometimes strangely lovely images as to make David Lynch look calculated and schematic in comparison. (The frightening images that are packed into Hausu’s bulging skin are as likely to inspire peals of laughter as fear, but laughter that may after a while begin to acquaint you with genuine madness.) Obayashi’s slapdash sensibility is firmly rooted in the explosively playful attitude of Japanese pop culture, and his cluttered, strangely cheerful mise-en-scene accesses the dark underbelly of that imagery while never betraying its playful, oddball innocence. The plot, such as it is, involves a young schoolgirl named Gorgeous who recruits her pals Kung Fu, Fantasy, Sweet, Prof, Melody and Mac to accompany her on a summer trip to her mysterious aunt’s dilapidated mansion after plans for a summer camp fall through. Gorgeous also undertakes the trip as a way of escaping the impending remarriage of her father, a film composer (“Leone tells me my music is better than Morricone’s”) to another woman, the beautiful, slightly stoned-looking Ryoko Ema, who is always posing, looking off into the horizon, a wind machine keeping her hair in the perpetual motion of a shampoo ad. The early sequences in the film, particularly those dealing with Gorgeous's father breaking the news of his nuptials, are fantastic avant garde-tinged experiments in which the frame is divided, broken-down and sometimes shattered into ever-shifting geometrical forms which unsettle the viewer and work out Obayashi’s visual muscles for the real test to come. Once the girls hop the train to Auntie’s house (the train constantly shifts between a stylized live-action vehicle and a cartoon chug-a-lug, with Obayashi playing all kinds of hilarious tricks with the rear-projected, painted and cardboard representations of the passing countryside), Gorgeous relates the story of how Auntie lost her fiancé in the war (Obayashi appropriates the restrained style of Ozu here, enough to make head-spinning contrast with the girls’ giggly commentary as the story unfolds.)


But once the girls arrive at Auntie’s house, which is situated on top of the creepiest matte-painting of a mountain ever devised, they are greeted by the wheelchair-bound biddy and her sinister cat Blanche, who seems to have the run of the manse and may be behind the evil goings-on that almost immediately begin to unfold. David Edelstein, in his review of House a couple of months back, suggested that language was insufficient to convey just what Obayashi manages to achieve with his singularly grotesque and absurd imagery, and I tend to think he’s right. But even if it could, I can guarantee you that reading my account, or any other, of what you actually see in this movie—and yes, I’m pretty much willing to guarantee you have never seen anything like it—couldn’t possibly be as much mind-twisting fun as actually seeing it unfold, especially amongst a full house of dropped jaws like the ones that packed the New Beverly Saturday for the midnight show. House is, in many ways, the perfect midnight movie, because as it is gets loopier and loopier, and as Obayashi unpacks his arsenal of cut-and-paste analog mattes, superimpositions, slow—motion, stop-motion, hand-drawn animation, frame-busting camerawork and Shining-esque torrents of bloodletting (three years before Kubrick’s movie was released, mind) and all manner of baroque horror effects inspired by what scares an 11-year-old most, the slight edge of delirium that sets in from staying up late does everything to augment the movie’s will to discombobulate the viewer, all while it proceeds to dismember its characters in the most outrageous, collage-like ways.

House doesn’t set out to “scare” you in any conventional sense—it’s too over the top for that, though some of the ways the innocent girls are dispatched— by a chomping and apparently quite hungry grand piano and, most memorably, by the cinema’s most devilish lampshade—have the ability to get under your skin despite the cheerfully manic and homemade feel to many of the effects. It is a horror movie chiefly in the sense that it deals with horror tropes not so much to be deconstructed as to be experienced like something completely new, as if this were the first movie the viewer might have ever seen—it has that quality of happily perverted innocence. Evan Kindley, writing about the movie for Not Coming to a Theater Near You last October got it exactly right: “The movie feels a little too fast and too dense for human viewing, like a state-of-the-art product that hasn’t undergone enough safety testing yet.” It is a movie that is, in the end, impossible to adequately describe whose genuine maniacal level of insanity is equally impossible to overstate, and as such it may be one of the few genuine cult phenoms in Japanese horror movie culture that might successfully resist the inevitable attempts at its being remade. There’s nowhere to go but homogenization and boredom in such a task; the complete sincerity, the lack of self-consciousness apparent in every frame of House, even the appearance of it being practically hand-made, is its best defense against the rapacious tendencies of a movie culture as eager to consume original ideas as Auntie and her possessed mansion is hungry for those delicious schoolgirl morsels.

House is touring the country in limited engagements from Janus Films, and if you’re in Los Angeles you’ve got one more showing (tonight at 9:45) and again tomorrow night, before this print moves on its merry way, hopefully toward an imminent DVD release. But as I said, House is best experienced with a large group of folks who know not what to expect, so if this reaches you in time, make your way to the New Beverly or somewhere else on the Janus schedule and don’t take my word for it—see it for yourself. It’s not that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore; it’s more that they’ve never made one like this, before or since.

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11 comments:

Bob Turnbull said...

Yeah, but did ya like it? B-)

I'm so thrilled more people are getting the chance to see this - in particular with an audience. I saw this last year with friends and it was absolutely amazing - we tried eating dinner during the meal, but half went cold and half ended up on the floor. I really couldn't take my eyes off the screen for fear of missing something.

As a comment to my short review of it on RowThree, my friend Eric said "It’s as if the director came from an alternate universe where movies don’t exist, so someone explained the general idea to him and he made this."

Masters of Cinema has a Region 2 version out which I just ordered, but I'll be getting the Criterion when it comes out too. All the better to share it with people.

I also have the shirt. You need the shirt. Get 'em for the whole family! B-)

Can't wait to see this on the big screen in Toronto in July.

Paul Matwychuk said...

No sooner did I post my reactions to HAUSU on my blog than I visited your site and saw you had just done the same.

The only point of comparison I can think of for HAUSU's creepy-but-funny-no-I-was-right-the-first-time-when-I-said-creepy imagery are those old-timey Max Fleischer cartoons where humans find themselves wandering through weird environments where all the objects that are normally inanimate have suddenly sprouted faces. (Jon Kricfalusi also drew upon this tradition in his video for Björk's "I Miss You.")

What an experience! Amazing that a movie this bizarre remained unknown (at least in this hemisphere) for so long.

Jandy Stone said...

Went to see this Sunday at the New Bev, and I think I stared at it in slack-jawed amazement for the whole time. I loved it. And I loved that all the crazy stuff just kind of happened matter-of-factly - there was no sense that "okay, now I'm gonna show you something REALLY crazy"; something just happened that was REALLY crazy but it all fit with everything else that was going on.

And literally, like, every possible cinematic thing he could do, he did - cuts, pans, irises, fades, superimpositions, mattes, paintings, silent film, burning through the film, cutouts - it was very consciously cinematic (and often avant-garde), and yet completely uncontrolled in its cinematic-ness. And it was quite beautiful to look at most of the time, too, which I really didn't expect. Very glad Bob's RowThree review prompted me to look out for it when it came to town!

Phillip Kelly said...

I saw it Saturday at Midnight at the New Bev and it completely blew my friend and I's heads clear away. I've been meaning to sit down and write about it, but haven't found the time and once one or two bloggers get something up, is there really a reason?

Honestly, I felt like I did the first time I saw Evil Dead 2 at the age of 13, only times 100 and I'm twice as old.

Wow.

AllHallowSteve said...

Caught Hausu last night at the New Beverly myself and, man, was it a theatrical experience.

My own attempt at putting it into words: http://tinyurl.com/y8twbwq

W.B. Kelso said...

Hausu is one of those movies, when it's over, you're left with a "What the hell was that!?" kind of bogglement. Not in an angry or vindictive sense, but a desire to cue it back up again or unearth more of the same for total immersion.

Hopefully this tour will finally mean that long rumored Criterion disc can't be too far behind.

Phil said...

I have heard about this for a while and since I know it won't be coming to Phoenix (a shit movie town) and look forward to what I hope is a DVD release soon.

Phil said...

Other Phil -
Checking the Janus website shows Madcap Theaters in Tempe will be screening the Hausu 35mm print August 12 - August 14. That may be a bit of a wait but the Midnight Movie Mamacita will surely have other entertaining shows to tide you over until then.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Bob, I liked it, I liked it!

And they had those shirts on sale at the New Bev, but I didn't have enough cash on hand. Thanks for providing the link. I think daughter needs a new night shirt!

You will be.... impressed with Hausu on the big screen! Also, the new Japanese translation and subtitles are ones two close pals of mine did at our company four or five years ago. It looks terrific and does justice to the movie's wackiness!

Paul: What's up with this parallel universe we seem to occupy on occasion? :) So glad you and everyone here liked the movie. And for those who haven't got a chance to see it, check out that Janus schedule. I do suspect, also, that a DVD must be just around the bend.

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