With the passing of prolific Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi, we look at his seminal horror flick, House.
Nobuhiko Obayashi passed away last weekend after a long battle with lung cancer. While he may not be a household name in the West, Obayashi’s stunning catalogue of films, spanning six decades, certainly shaped Japanese cinema and garnered praise for his artistry at festivals world-wide.
His most famous work, House, became a cult hit for its experimental techniques, outrageous tone, and mixed-media wizardry. In many ways, House could be Japan’s Evil Dead. The juxtaposition of humor and gore, budget effects deployed ingeniously, and transformation of genre tropes mark both movies. It feels a bit like lightning struck two directors an ocean apart at roughly the same time, resulting in cult classics both times.
Gorgeous, a Japanese teen living in relative luxury, throws a tantrum when her movie-business father returns from Italy with a new fiancé. When outside events cancel a planned summer vacation trip for her friends, she engineers a plot to get away from her soon-to-be step-mother: the girls will all vacation at the secluded mansion of her reclusive aunt instead.
Despite an idyllic setting, her aunt’s mansion is not what it seems. The old woman is wheelchair-bound and mysterious. As the days lengthen, odd visions and unexplained phenomena haunt the girls. It seems a vengeful ghost is picking them off one by one.
Get Ready for Weird.
There are a ton of merits to House from a story and craft perspective. Before you can even talk about those you have to let the creepy, blood-puking cat out of the bag: House is a supremely weird movie.
The first 30 minutes unfolds like an episode of The Monkees mixed with a teen idol flick. There are pratfalls, goofy stop-motion segments, and cornball sound effects. Each character is an unabashed stereotype: Gorgeous is the beautiful but spoiled princess, Prof is the nerdy know it all, Melody is into music, and Kung Fu…does kung fu. Seriously. Towards the end of the film she has a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon jump kick contest with the evil ghost. It’s glorious.
…Then Somebody Loses Their Head.
The silliness never fully dissipates as the plot becomes more decidedly a horror film. The gang splits up, Scooby Doo style, to find a missing friend…and the scaredy-cat of the group finds her head in the well, which promptly bites her on the ass before puking blood everywhere. Of course nobody believes her (her name is Fantasy for crying out loud!) which leads to a subplot of gaslighting where Fantasy becomes our de facto protagonist; only she can see all the terrible things the audience witnesses as well.
The weird silliness actually makes the body horror more compelling. Much like Sam Raimi’s “splatstick” humor, it is both a tension release valve and a tension building mechanism underscoring the surreal nature of the horror.
House builds on tropes from traditional Japanese ghost stories. Like The Grudge, the house becomes a living embodiment of resentment – the aunt was denied her happily-ever-after when her betrothed died in WW2. A clever twist, the house sustains itself by feeding on unmarried young women. It gives the death and dismemberment a poetic feel. Unlike The Grudge or Ringu, this isn’t just a pissed off spirit killing willy nilly. It’s doggedly fulfilling its promise to wait for her beloved forever. It just happens to run on the body parts of unlucky maidens.
Madness and Genius.
Nobuhiko Obayashi helped pioneer a new wave of Japanese experimental cinema by mixing old techniques with improvisation. His traditional matte paintings are ubiquitous and gorgeous. He even lampshades the many pastoral matte paintings by having the girls step off the city bus in front of a lush country scene, only to reveal that they’re in front of a billboard advertising bridal services. For a bigger wink, the billboard is pretty much identical to the countryside around it; there’s literally no reason to paint such a scene IN FRONT OF A NATURAL INSTANCE OF IT!
Obayashi throws everything into a madcap blender. He pilfers and weaponizes tropes from dozens of genres. He pushes the edge of film tech of the time with frequent blue-screen, allowing him to mix animation, collage, and practical effects on top of his actors. Filming over just the course of a few months, he had to improvise constantly. His blue-screen (chroma key) technique amounted to spraying his actresses with blue paint to remove various body parts, and he admitted that he had no idea how the final product would often look on film.
So. Is House worthy of all the praise and cult classic status it received. Yes, with caveats. Again, like other cult favorites such as Evil Dead or Rocky Horror Picture Show, House has clunky, weird, or outright amateurish elements. For a segment of fans, that’s going to be a feature, not a bug.
For those looking for a classic horror movie, House may suffer. The sudden shifts in tone and the gish gallop of genre tropes may sour the experience early on. If you stick with it (or just get a kick out of pure absurdity for its own sake!) House develops into a surprisingly effective horror story. About an hour in, the film is really in full gear: the story clicks, the characters make sense, and the kills become unnerving and visceral.
Overall, House is one of those films worth experiencing, even just once. It does so much that is unconventional, while paying respects to the conventions or adopting them. Like the spirit haunting the house, there’s a method to the madness. It just happens to run on the body parts of unlucky maidens.