I’m not sure how exactly I first heard about the Japanese film House (or Hausu) from 1977; it was probably on one of those lists of “crazy horror movies you need to see once in your lifetime,” I’m imagining. It also, I should note, began garnering a much larger cult following around 2009 or so, when the distribution rights were acquired by Janus Films, and the movie was not only released as part of their Eclipse line (a sort of cult subset of Criterion), but also toured cities across the United States on the big screen, to wildly enthusiastic audiences.
House is one of those films that’s sort of hard to classify. It isn’t really a horror movie per se, although it concerns a haunted house and features buckets of gore in the third act. It’s sort of a comedy, I guess, though the comedy itself is very juvenile and bizarre. The acting is sort of awful, and the special effects are laughably amateurish, even for the time, but it’s framed in such a way that those negatives almost work in its favor. It’s just an odd, childlike, kinetically edited little goofball of a movie, where every single possible thing was tossed at the wall to see what stuck. Imagine if Sam Raimi was a slightly disturbed and faintly horny eight-year-old who was all coked up on Lik-M-Aid, had access to really shitty 1970s blue screen effects, and attempted to make the most ridiculous live-action cartoon imaginable within those limitations, and you might begin to get an idea of what you’re dealing with. I’m not sure yet if I enjoyed this movie or not, to be honest; it’s actually pretty entertaining just for how bafflingly batshit it is, but it seems as though it was never intended to be taken seriously as a comedy or as a horror film. Make of that what you will.
How House was conceived goes part of the way toward explaining the final product, though admittedly there’s still plenty of WTF to be had. In 1975, filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi, known mainly for his commercials and experimental films at that point, was approached by kaiju stalwarts Toho and asked to come up with something similar to Steven Spielberg’s massively successful blockbuster Jaws. Obayashi, who had either never seen Jaws or decided he was just going to do whatever the fuck he wanted regardless, consulted his then-pre-teen daughter Chigumi for ideas. A few of the ideas she came up with included a house that eats girls, someone being killed by falling mattresses, having piano keys eat someone’s fingers, and a watermelon that turns into a severed head. All of these ideas made it into the final film.
Once a script was completed, no one working at Toho wanted to direct it, because they thought it was nonsensical and would probably ruin their careers, so Obayashi shrugged and took on the duty himself, even though he didn’t work for Toho. In casting the film, he simply chose a bunch of teenage models that had been in some of his commercials, almost none of whom had any real acting experience. To class up the joint some, he brought in veteran actress Yōko Minamida, whose substantial filmography stretched back to 1952, to play the villainous Auntie.
The story of the movie, such as it is, concerns a group of seven teenage girls whose names are all very obvious markers of their defining personality traits. There’s Gorgeous, who’s pretty and fashionable and likes makeup; Kung Fu, the strong athletic one who (duh) knows kung fu; Fantasy, who’s always daydreaming; Melody, the musical one; Sweet, the…sweet one, I guess; Prof, the smart one with the Velma glasses; and Mac, the “fat” one who’s always eating (and by fat, I mean Japanese fat, which translates to “still very thin, but with a slightly rounder face than the other girls”).
Apparently, these girls usually go to some camp or something for summer vacation, accompanied by their teacher Mr. Togo, who Sweet has a crush on. But this year, Mr. Togo’s sister had a baby and he can’t go, so the girls have to go someplace else instead. Gorgeous, whose wealthy, widowed father has just returned from Italy where he was working on a film, is very put out by the fact that her dad brought home a fiancée half his age, so in a snit, she decides to write to her Auntie, who she hasn’t seen in ten years, and ask if she and the girls can come visit for the summer. Auntie agrees, writing in her letter that she’s been waiting for Gorgeous for years. Also, an adorable, fluffy white cat named Blanche arrives and starts hanging out with Gorgeous, so there’s that.
After some silly shenanigans with a watermelon salesman and some random animation along the journey, the girls get to Auntie’s remote house. Auntie seems nice; she’s confined to a wheelchair and laments about how lonely she is, but she’s very welcoming. Oh, and pretty much the minute the girls walk in the house, crystals start flying off the chandelier and impaling various things, so you know there’s some witchery afoot.
From there, the girls begin to mysteriously disappear one by one. Mac is the first to vanish; she goes out in the courtyard to retrieve the watermelon from the well where they’d been keeping it cold, and never returns. Fantasy goes out to look for her, but when she pulls up the rope from the well, Mac’s head is at the end instead of the melon. The head then kinda flies around and bites Fantasy on the ass, and no, I’m not making that up. Fantasy tells the other girls about this, but when they all go out to check, the head is just a melon again and they all tease Fantasy for being, y’know, fantasy-prone. I mean, the name’s right there on the tin, so what did they expect?
Sweet gets assaulted by falling futons at one stage, and when the other girls dig through the pile to look for her, all they find is her clothes, after which one of the girls sniffs Sweet’s panties. It’s a little weird. Melody begins playing the piano to cheer everyone up, and the keys eat her fingers; the piano then just kinda eats her and her body parts hang out inside the piano while Melody smiles happily.
Among the other oddities: Kung Fu is later devoured by a lamp, Gorgeous goes into a mirror dimension, there’s a flood of blood that dissolves Prof (who by the way is naked when it happens, because reasons), Auntie has a secret passage in a broken refrigerator, and a guy turns into a big pile of bananas because he’s scared. None of it really makes all that much sense, but it sort of works in an acid-trippy, fever-dreamy kind of way, since the house itself is established as a space where absolutely anything can (and does) happen.
Believe it or not, there is a sort of story behind Auntie and the house. Turns out that Auntie was once engaged to a handsome young man who went off to fight in World War II, promising he would return to her. He never did, but Auntie was convinced that all she had to do was wait for him and he would come back. She died while she was still waiting, and her bitterness made her come back as an evil ghost/witch who gained energy from eating unmarried young girls who wandered into her orbit. Also her powers come from the cat? I dunno. At one point, after Gorgeous goes through the mirror, she seems to become the new incarnation of Auntie, complete with bridal outfit, and I think everyone else dies. At the very end, Gorgeous’s hated new potential stepmom, who I had absolutely forgotten existed, comes to Auntie’s house, and only Gorgeous is there, clad in a classic kimono and saying that the other girls would wake up when they were hungry. So yeah.
Just as this is a difficult movie to describe, it’s also difficult to recommend. By all means, if you’re into very weird Japanese movies from the 1970s, you’ll probably get a kick out of it, but anyone not versed in this type of whimsical cinematic quirkiness will probably not be able to get past the janky special effects (apparently done on purpose to give it a more “a kid made this” vibe), the silly acting, and the senseless plot. But hell, it’s a pretty fun little movie for all that, though you might want to indulge in an adult beverage or some choice chemicals while watching in order to get the full experience.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.