Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 debut feature House is clearly an odd movie. The reasons for this are endless: weird imagery, action that occurs so fast it’s incomprehensible, non-sequiturs, and supreme ambiguity abound. While these are reasonable snap observations, focusing on the weirdness of House, or acting as if the film operates outside the bounds of logic, is to ignore the foundation behind the images. Truth is, House is an orthodox haunted house movie that uses the conventions of filmmaking to create a tone that separates House from any other haunted house movie I’ve ever seen.
The plot is a thin one, even for a horror movie. It’s the start of summer vacation, and Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), is excited to go on holiday with her Father (Saho Sasazawa), who has just gotten back from Italy. However, her father has brought his new fiancé Ryoko Ema (Haruko Wanibuchi) along, which Gorgeous views as a betrayal to herself and her deceased mother. When she discovers that her friends’ vacation plans have been ruined as well, Gorgeous invites them to her spinster Aunt’s (Yōko Minamida) house. Before starting their journey, the girls find an uncanny cat that they name Blanche, who they discover belongs to the Aunt. The girls are excited to be spending time in the country, but soon they begin to disappear in mysterious ways, and eventually they realize that the titular house has a secret as sinister as it is weird.
The first thing that you may have noticed in the synopsis is that the there aren’t a lot of actual names in this movie; rather, most of the characters go by archetypal nicknames. Gorgeous’ friends are Prof (Ai Matsubara), who is bookish; Melody (Eriko Tanaka), who plays piano; Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), a martial artist; Mac (short for stomach) (Mieko Sato), who loves to eat; Sweet (Masayo Miyako), who is ultra-feminine and Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), who has an active imagination and acts as the Cassandra of the group. They all go by nicknames based on their hobbies and personalities, and, like most horror movie victims, are one-dimensional. Common sense dictates that this would make them unlikable, but rather it is the opposite, as I found myself often hoping they would come out of this ordeal unscathed. Of note is Jinbo’s portrayal of Kung Fu. I found her to be endearing, and the most talented actress, making Kung Fu more than a flat stereotype. The other actors do a great job as well, although a few don’t let their characters pop out from their archetypal roles.
The archetypal nature of the characters is just one element of the self-referential nature of the film, which helps to create its surrealist feel. House has no desire to be realistic, and actively avoids a naturalistic style. The editing is extremely jarring; with scenes of the characters walking and talking slowed down to a dreamlike pace, only to have the action scenes so rapidly paced that the viewer can’t tell what’s going on. The film also borrows editing and stylization techniques from other films, most noticeably with the constant use of iris wipes (wipes that take the shape of circle that grows or shrinks), which gives the film an “old-timey” feel, but also in a scene where the girls are walking across a bridge and we see their faces juxtaposed against the backdrop with their names prominently displayed, as if we were watching the opening credits of a TV show.
In addition to the already stylized look of the film, we have two fantasy sequences that are stylized in a completely different manner. The first is Aunt’s back story, which is told in the style of a silent movie; the other is one of Fantasy’s fantasy sequence, where she imagines her crush, Mr. Togo, coming to rescue her in true fairy tale/western style, with her in a princess outfit and him, dressed as a prince, their lines in English as they ride off in the sunset with the William Tell Overture playing in the background. It is obvious that Obayashi is using familiar television and film conventions to break the fourth wall; I was reminded of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, although I found House’s genre sampling to be more alienating than Killers’.
Outside the formalist style of the film, the most surreal elements of the film are the ghosts and the kills themselves. While House may have the conventional “pick ‘em off one by one” plot, it makes up for it by having some imaginative kills. The most memorable are Kung Fu fighting a lampshade and Melody being eaten by a piano. Not only are these unusual deaths, but the special effects are downright cheesy. Again, for many, unrealistic special effects are a death knell for enjoyment, but I think the bizarre effects work, and their cheesiness is definitely a conscious decision. Obayashi has created a world that is obviously set on a soundstage, with the fakest backdrops possible. Every frame references the act of filmmaking itself, so why shouldn’t the special effects call attention to themselves as special effects?
Not only does this give the film a unique style and mood, it also has a practical edge to it as well. If Obayashi had tried to make the world of House realistic in every sense except for the supernatural, the effects would stand out, our suspension of disbelief would have been dropped, and the film would look horribly dated. But Obayashi has created a world where nothing is realistic, and unreal effects are expected. This embracing of the fabricated also lets Obayashi get away with the other great cinematic sin that many horror films are subject to: characters doing things that don’t make sense, but advance the plot. Many of the characters do things that don’t make a whole lot of sense, but in a world that is set up with all the conventions of a horror movie, it’s logical for them to act like characters in a movie.
Even going into the movie knowing that this film was created with the intent to bring the conventions of film making to the forefront, you may still not enjoy House. This is understandable, since surrealism is all about unconscious reactions, as opposed to intellectual reasoning. Preferring naturalism over formalism is simply a matter of taste, not intelligence. However, if you think House makes no sense at all, or that the surrealist tone of the film is just weirdness for weirdness sake, you may want to take a better look at the why of the things on the screen, as opposed to the what.
By Marshall Oliver Estes 7/14/2011
Part of a series:
How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Introduction
How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Just Before Dawn (1981)
How I Spent My Summer Vacation: The Burning (1981)
How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Cthulhu (2007)
How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Mystics in Bali (1981)