House (1977)

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*. This movie’s reputation is that of a freak show, something impossible to categorize. In his brief Criterion video essay Ti West, echoing the thoughts and feelings of many, refers to it as “one of the most, if not the most original films I’d seen, ever.” And yet . . .
*. It’s actually a very simple and traditional ghost or haunted-house story. Even the cat as witch’s familiar is as much a commonplace in Japan as it has long been in the West. What sets it apart, the only thing that sets its apart, is its visual texture. Put another way, ff you just read the screenplay you might not think you were in for anything more than a genre film with a couple of admittedly odd, but minor, twists. The presentation is what takes it into another dimension.

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*. Though even here I’m not sure it’s all that groundbreaking. A film like Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell came out nearly ten years earlier and was just as weird and over the top in its own way. Japanese popular culture has always had a thing for the bizarre.
*. It’s an odd film with an odd pre-history. The studio (Toho) wanted a blockbuster like Jaws, and were thrilled by Nobuhiko Obayashi’s script despite the fact that (a) none of their directors wanted any part of it, seeing it as ludicrous or beneath them, and (b) it wasn’t anything like Jaws. That’s a strange disconnect.
*. Then when the studio couldn’t go into production right away Obayashi campaigned for the project by getting the ball rolling in other media. The story appeared in both comic book (manga) and novel form, then as a serial radio drama, and the original music was released on a sound track album, all before they even started filming. This was, of course, a great way for building buzz but I can’t think of any other screenplay having this much development before going into production.

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*. The visuals stand out for being both very weird and very bad, or at least crude. This was, however, at least somewhat intentional. Obayashi wanted the special effects to seem childish and unrealistic so as to draw attention to their artificiality.

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*. Why? Obviously if the goal had been to create a suspenseful or thrilling horror film then such an approach is self-defeating. There’s nothing at all scary going on here. So I take it the intention was to turn it all into a joke or parody. At one point one of the girls says that being trapped in the house is like being in a horror movie, but adds that she means an old, “out-of-date” horror movie. So everybody in the film is aware of the conventions.
*. It’s not a large bag of tricks. The iris effect gets used quite a lot, as well as some crazy animation effects. Obayashi certainly had an incredible imagination, but I question his technical proficiency.
*. Beyond this slapstick send-up of the genre I’m not sure if there’s much going on. The main theme that’s been identified is that of the girls coming of age. In this sense it reminds me all very much of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), with the girls from the school, buzzing with budding sexuality, disappearing on a group outing. In both cases sexual maturity is mysteriously avoided: the girls disappear precisely before they can come of age. They become a lost generation as they skip being women entirely.

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*. Is there much more to say? It’s a fun film, with all the boldness, irreverence, and energy you’d expect from such a youthful and relatively inexperienced production. And yet for all its reputation it finally strikes me as a rather weightless film, a nutty bit of ’70s pop culture that spins like a cat trying to catch its own tail.

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