I don’t know what it is about Japan’s culture that makes them a cult film factory, but they really are. When a Japanese films turns towards the bizarre, there is nothing stranger in the world of cinema. Case in point: 1977’s film House (Hausu), which has the honor of being the first film in the Cult Club series to be a part of the much beloved Criterion Collection. Someone, somewhere thought that House should sit on the shelf beside Brazil, The 400 Blows, and The Seven Samurai.
And you know what? That person is a genius.
[The Cult Club is where Flixist’s writers expound the virtues of their favourite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.]
In order to get the full effect of what I am going to be telling you, you need to listen to the song from the above video while you continue reading. If the song stops, restart it. If it begins to grate on you, restart it. If you start to hate me and everything I have ever done, restart it. Because that’s what the film does. You will hear that song and variations of it through almost the 88-minute run. It’s simple, obnoxious, and unacceptably catchy, but it is the best thing I can do to help you understand what House is without you actually watching it.
Speaking of watching House, it is a truly surreal experience. I honestly do not know if there are any films quite like it. I suspect there are, though chances are they haven’t been localized, but I want to believe there aren’t. I want to believe that House is a truly unique experience, that it stands alone as a testament to someone’s drug-fueled psychosis.
The film opens with the above image. If you have watched silent films, you might recognize the technique at play here: tinting. It’s something that disappeared with the introduction of sound in the early 1930s, but if you go way back, you will see it everywhere, setting the mood with colors instead of sounds. Now I can’t honestly claim to be a fan of tinting, especially when the tints rapidly shift from shot to shot, but since the film is neither silent nor black and white, it becomes clear immediately that you are in for something unlike anything you’ve seen before.
I should put a disclaimer here: I don’t like experimental films. They’re boring. I’ve seen a few, studied them, and come out the other side liking them even less. Especially the works of Stan Brakhage. Words can barely describe how much I hate Dog Star Man. I say all this, because it’s clear that much of House is experimental. The cuts, the shot compositions, the bizarre use of green screen, all of these things add up to something that has the mask of an experimental film. There is a key difference, however, and that is the existence of a narrative.
Experimental films, by their very definition, lack narrative. They can be enjoyable to watch (I think Bruce Conner’s A Movie is pretty fantastic), but they serve no purpose for people like me, who are not particularly interested in what goes on deep below the surface of the film. I will never seek out an experimental film. I will, however, seek out an experimentally-charged narrative film. Which is what I would call House.
If you have made it this far without saying, “So what’s the movie actually about?” Good for you! For the rest of you, sorry about that. Kind of went on a tangent. House is about seven teenage girls: Gorgeous, who is supposed to be pretty (but really isn’t); Kung Fu, who is a martial arts master; Mac, who is fat and eats a lot; Prof, who is scientifically literate and questions any and all supernatural occurrences (and thus the majority of the movie); Sweet, who is really nice; Fantasy, who is prone to fantasies; and Melody, who plays the piano. During their summer break, all of the teens head out to Gorgeous’s aunt’s house, because why not? It becomes clear almost immediately that things are amiss, and the young girls start being picked off one by one. It’s like an old-fashioned slasher flick in a way, except the deaths are so much crazier than anything Jason Voorhees or even Freddie Krueger could have come up with.
[It’s quite possible that the song has finished by now. Here it is again, so you don’t have to scroll up and lose your place.]
The film, interestingly enough, came about from a desire to have a Japanese response to Jaws, which, as you might know, was pretty popular back in the day. Some members of the Japanese film company Toho decided that Obayashi should be the man to take it on. He didn’t want to simply ape the idea and do some kind of Japanese remake, though. He wanted to make something completely different. With the belief that adults are kind of boring, he turned to his ten year old daughter who could give him inspiration, and inspire she did. She gave him the idea of a story about a house that eats girls, and many of the deaths contained in the film were based on her childhood fears.
This childishness also defines the film’s visuals. House was shot entirely on a sound stage, which means that all of the sunsets, trees, mountains, and everything else in the background are some kind of painting. They are often gorgeous paintings that look just a little bit wrong, and it furthers the film’s surreal nature. Now, I used the word surreal before, and while I often try to find synonyms for descriptors when I write, I think it is probably one of the single best words that can be used to describe House. It has much more in common with Luis Buñuel and Salvador Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou than it does Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. There are no eye-slittings, but what there is may be even stranger and, perhaps, a bit sillier. Perhaps an argument could be made that surrealism and childishness are not dissimilar with House as the thesis.
Obayashi makes extensive use of strange effects throughout the film. There are a lot of weird partial freeze-frames, things float around and bob up and down. He slows time, speeds it up, reverses it, and generally takes advantage of what film allows him to do. It’s all completely fantastical and child-like, and it’s wonderful. Blue screen effects are used heavily throughout the film (as you may have guessed from the stills), and he takes advantage of the technological imperfections that he had to deal with. The first time that a blue screen can be seen around the edges there’s a bit of an “Ugh” moment, but it quickly fades, and you learn to love it. It adds to the film’s charm. It’s almost as though he was unable to keep his crayons inside the lines. Even so, what the team was able to accomplish without the aid of computers is quite impressive.
It is the absolutely bizarre editing that truly turns House into something unlike any other film I have ever seen. I’m not just talking about effects, although those play into it. I’m talking about a man loudly eating noodles suddenly appearing on the left side of the screen while girls scream in order to cut to a noodle shop. I’m talking about the decision to transition from close-up to close-up of people sitting right next to each other rather than panning or moving the camera. I’m talking about the seamless shift from a picture-in-picture into a normal frame. These are techniques that make House stand out. Sometimes the transitions make sense, and sometimes they don’t. Either way, it’s always an experience. You don’t expect this film. You can’t. It’s an entity all to itself. And it’s wonderful.
It’s probably impossible for text and a couple of stills to really convey House’s magic. I don’t think I have done the film justice. I don’t really think there is any way to do it justice, except perhaps some kind of hilarious commentary track that you played while watching the film. I hope, however, that I have made you curious. I hope that you will go seek out a copy of House (or watch it on Hulu+ if you have an account) and see what all the fuss is about. I hope that what you have read, heard, and seen makes you into the next person to be sucked in by what is one of the strangest films ever made, and perhaps one of the strangest films that will ever be made.
Also, Noodle Bear.
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Next month… The much beloved Xander Markham returns with The Cult Club’s most modern film yet: Terry Gilliam’s 2005 insta-classic Tideland.
PREVIOUSLY SHOWING AT THE CULT CLUB
January: They Live (1988)
December: Jingle All the Way (1996)
November: The Blood Trilogy (1963-1965)
October: Dougal & The Blue Cat (1970)
September: Top Secret (1984)