I wanted to start with a fun one. One of the best ways to start looking for good films is to check out the Criterion Collection. They are a private group that focuses on amassing and distributing the greatest films ever made from around the world. One of my favorite discoveries from their list has to be the incredibly funny, yet morbid 1977 Japenese film HOUSE.
House (or Hausu in Japan) is a fascinating film – it seems to fail to do what you’d expect a horror film to do. Yet, its brilliance comes from its not-so-subtle subversion of everything you’d expect from a Japanese film of the era. It definitely surprised audiences of its day, and it continues to delight viewers who find it now.
1. House is Hilarious!!!!
The stylized editing, the campy tones, the ridiculous sets – every part of the visual style plays as laughable. However, this is not a case of a film being so bad it is good; no, House was intentionally created to appeal to a younger audience. Director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, in a behind the scenes video, cites his daughter’s input as one of the primary sources of inspiration for the film. He recounts asking her when she was about thirteen what would scare her, and her answers directly correlate to (if not perfectly describe) what happens in the film. The humorous stereotypes for each girl and the tinkertoy score lend themselves to what amounts to be a very funny while still scary movie.
Yet he genuinely makes some terrifyingly unique horror scenarios – heads flying around, hellish trips through a mirror, and a killer concerto. And the ending leaves one with a beautifully disturbed feeling. However, what truly defines the film is the wonderfully laughable editing and rapid tone shifts. The 70s stylisms play humorously today, and it is a joy to behold.
2. House impacted Japanese cinema and culture.
Director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi specifically set out to subvert the seriousness of Japanese cinema at the time (mainly brooding samurai or yakuza flicks) and make a movie his daughter would like to see. In fact, Toho Company specifically asked him to create a Japanese commercial hit like Jaws. What Ôbayashi ended up doing was create a piece of Pop Art which was hotly contended at the time but which helped shape the future of Japanese pop culture. It constitutes a sharp shift towards a campy fun tonality in the cultural milieu. You can see this best in the sequence near the beginning when the girls recount their understanding of World War II – focusing on the Romanticism of the Aunt’s relationship and mostly ignoring the horrors of war. The film presents some of its society’s anxieties, but does so in a campy way, shifting the cultural tone towards optimism or at least enjoyment again.
There are some cinematic techniques which also worked their way into the culture. The wacky edits – hard cuts and quick zooms – and silly graphic effects seem to have influenced their style of television. Also, you might notice some elements in the film that can be reflected in Anime’s evolution – ridiculously mugging to camera, a fascination with School Girls, and bizarre Horror situations. However, I don’t have a complete grasp on modern Japanese culture, so I’ll just let those impressions make themselves and let you see your own connections.
3. Montage + Compositing
Finally, the technical execution of the film is just a joy. Ôbayashi came from a background of making commercials so his cinematic eye is one unlimited by the “traditional rules” of storytelling. Thus we get a hack-and-slash choppy editing job which works rather well towards achieving the unnerving effect a good horror film needs. One of my favorite sequences is a conversation had over a piano, which swings back and forth across the open Grand as a metronome counts time. It is wildly over-indulgent and clearly gimmicky, yet perfectly captures the tone of the film in one scene.
Also on display is a masterful work of film compositing. Before the days of CGI, compositing meant physically cutting pieces of film and pasting them to other frames. This almost lost art is paraded proudly throughout the film, particularly in the psychedelic ending sequences. While a bit cheesy these days, it is an incredible talent to pull it off which this film does wonderfully. Be on the look out for compositing in other movies – you might just see behind the veil a little.
I absolutely love House. It is a mysterious blending of terror and silliness, of guffaws and goosebumps. The beautiful artistry demonstrates a unique way of approaching filmmaking – one which makes for a lovably watchable film while still being an interesting and culture-changing piece of art. For those who are concerned about content, I will advise that the film depicts some gory deaths (albeit within the wacky, campy stylings of the movie) and there is a few shots of young women with their tops off. However, viewed as a product of its time (1977), House is tame compared to the American-flourishing genre of exploitation. House’s camp and humor make it a joy to watch, and when viewed with a critical eye it provides an interesting look in the changing culture of a Japan trying to put the World War behind it and move on. A great watch, House is definitely a film that you should not only see, but love and spread around.
Though I suppose the real warning I should give you is that the theme song is so catchy, you will have it stuck in your head for months!
How to find it
Telling you to watch a movie and then not providing ways of seeing it would be a terrible injustice. I’ll keep my soap-boxing brief but DO NOT PIRATE THINGS. More than hurting an industry that makes billions every weekend, or damaging the financial security of people like me who work in the film business, the reason you shouldn’t pirate things is because it says something bad about you. When you say you cannot be bothered to hunt down a good film, when you act like it should just be given to you, when you justify your theft by saying “they won’t miss the money”, you tell me that you are an jerk. It will cost you about the same amount as a lunch to see most of the movies I’m going to promote here in this series, so please just do it. Keep our economy going and don’t act like a pretentious idiot.
Rant done. Below are links to places where you can purchase or stream the film. Enjoy the movie and check back for the next Why You Should Love.