Director: Nobuhiko Ôbayashi
Screenplay: Chiho Katsura
Based on an Original Story by: Chigumi Ôbayashi
Starring: Kimiko Ikegami, Miki Jinbo, Kumiko Ohba, Ai Matsubara, Yôko Minamida
Running Time: 88 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
The Japanese are known for making films that are pretty “out there”, and being a lover of Japanese cinema, I’ve seen a wide range of the wackier fare the country has to offer. However, I’m not sure anything quite reaches the bonkers heights of Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s House (a.k.a. Hausu). The director started his career making experimental films and popular commercials in the 60s and early 70s, before Toho approached him to make something like Jaws that would help rejuvenate the Japanese film industry, which was struggling against the new blockbusters being produced in Hollywood. Instead Ôbayashi developed ideas from his young daughter into House, a film about as far removed from Jaws as you can get. The Japanese, as mentioned, have a taste for the unusual though and House did end up being a box office hit in Japan and although it didn’t travel overseas until the 21st century, once it did, it became a bit of a cult classic in the West too. I saw it a few years ago on a rented DVD and enjoyed it, but didn’t quite know what to make of it. The lure of a HD upgrade from Eureka brought me back for a second try though and I’m certainly glad I did as I loved every minute this time around.
The basic plot of House is nothing special. School has broken up for the holidays and Angel (Kimiko Ikegami) is due to travel to the country with her father whilst her 6 friends travel go on a camping trip with their teacher Mr Togo (Kiyohiko Ozaki). However, when Angel’s father introduces his new fiancé Ryoko (Haruko Wanibuchi) and says that she will come to the country too, Angel has a change of heart about the trip. Mr Togo has an accident too, meaning Angels friends have also had their holiday plans ruined. Angel has a solution though; they could all travel with her to stay with her aunt (Yôko Minamida), who she hasn’t seen for years, in her big house in the country. Little do they know, Angel’s aunt is some kind of witch though and her house is haunted. So the girls have to face the tricks and traps set against them as they’re attacked and consumed by the house, one by one.
It all sounds so generic on paper, but this film is anything but generic. I don’t want to say too much about happens, as part of the fun comes from your disbelief of what is happening on screen. Suffice to say, little of it makes sense and those looking for a conventional horror film should look elsewhere. Ôbayashi was a big fan of genre cinema, particularly from the West and he throws all sorts of things into the pot, inspired by work he’d seen elsewhere. His film seems to have influenced Western filmmakers since (although possibly not directly as House wasn’t readily available overseas for a while). It certainly has the feel of the first couple of Evil Dead films in its style and tone, although even those feel tame in comparison to this.
Ôbayashi’s ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach is particularly evident in the various film styles and techniques implemented too. It’s almost as though, because it was his debut mainstream feature, he wanted to show people absolutely everything he could achieve with film. You’ve got overlaid close-ups, jump cuts, green screen work, animation, matte paintings, rack focus, altered frame rates etc. It’s like having a full filmmaking course crammed into one film.
It might sound like a big mess, and I guess you could call it that, but in my mind it’s a glorious celebration of all that is possible with the medium of film. It’s all done with such gusto and good humour too. This mish-mash of ideas would never work in a ‘serious’ film. Luckily, nothing is taken seriously here and the wild stylistic flourishes only add to the comedy. Ôbayashi himself described his approach as “charming chaos”, and that’s a perfect phrase to explain the film’s tone and style. There are plenty of fourth wall breaking post-modern touches too, reminding you you’re watching a film. The best of these is a flashback sequence (shot like a silent movie) that several other characters seem to be able to see and comment on.
I won’t go into any more detail, as I think House is a film that needs to be seen to be believed. It’s a jaw-droopingly insane experience. By throwing absolutely everything into the mix in a wild, delirious 90 minutes, Ôbayashi has created a dizzyingly psychedelic film like no other.
House is out on 12th February on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture looks great, with no noticeable damage and a nice soft, natural grain. Audio comes through nicely too.
Extra features include:
- 90-minute archive of interviews with director Nobuhiko Obayashi, scenarist Chigumi Obayashi, actress Kumiko Oba, and Toho promotional executive Shoho Tomiyama
- An exclusive video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns
- Original Japanese theatrical trailer
- A collector’s booklet featuring an essay by Paul Roquet; poster gallery; and archival imagery
Although they’re low tech, seemingly transferred from VHS or early digital video, and they play out largely unedited, it’s still impressive to have a feature length collection of interviews. David Cairns’ essay is as thoughtful and interesting as ever, helping better appreciate the film and learn more about its background. It’s quite fun too. Cairns avoids dry analysis, acknowledging the wacky film he’s discussing.