Sometimes a film comes along that is just the right mixture of creativity, energy, and ambition, that allows it to transcend mechanics like plot, acting, and dialog. These films are few and far between, so when you find one, it’s like finding the pot of gold at the end of the Leprechaun in the Hood’s rainbow. If you’re searching for just such a film, you could do a lot worse than director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 cult film, House.
House tells the story of seven young girls known only by their nicknames, which, conveniently, also describe their personalities. The main character is Gorgeous (The Pretty One!), along with her friends Kung Fu (The Tough One!), Prof (The Smart One!), Fantasy (The Dreamer!), Sweet (The Girly One!), Melody (The Music Nerd!), and Mac (as in Stomach, The Fat One!) (Did anyone else read that like Teen Girl Squad?) When Gorgeous discovers that her widower father is going to remarry, she asks to visit her maternal aunt in order to reconnect with her deceased mother’s roots. She also invites along her friends, as their summer vacation plans have fallen through. Surprisingly, the aunt, whom she hasn’t seen in years, agrees to host the girls in her sprawling, countryside home. When they arrive, the woman is confined to a wheelchair and tires easily. But as the girls start disappearing one by one, the feeble aunt becomes youthful and virile again. Before long, the remaining girls find themselves fighting against the evil spirit that dwells within the house, as the building tries to consume them, body and soul.
House is famous for being a film that will leave you scratching your head. The plot is non-existent, the acting is sub-par, the special effects are amateurish, and the direction is sometimes jarring. While this doesn’t seem like a ringing endorsement, watching the film is highly recommended for those who love good, creative cinema. I guarantee you will see things in this film that you have never seen before. Now we’re not talking gore, or sadism, or depravity of any kind. This isn’t Salo, this isn’t Cannibal Holocaust, this isn’t A Serbian Film. House was originally made for teenagers as a way to capitalize on the success of Jaws, so it sticks within fairly safe ground for PG-13 viewing (a few stylized shots of bare breasts aside). But that doesn’t mean it’s only enjoyable by those with Bieber Fever. The film has plenty of strange moments that will make even the most jaded film fan laugh with glee and ask, “What the hell…?”
But what’s really interesting about House, is the fact that it was so far ahead of its time. Obayashi understood his target audience — teenagers — and played to their interests, their mentality, and the culture they knew to make a film that was for them, through and through. This wasn’t a stuffy studio director who was used to making epic samurai films or brooding dramas. Obayashi directed commercials and experimental shorts, and he brought those philosophies with him to his first feature film, creating a truly groundbreaking cinematic experience that would directly or indirectly influence a generation of filmmakers.
For example, while watching House, one can’t help but be reminded of Evil Dead II. Not only are both films hyperactive balls of kinetic energy, but both also share a rebellious personality. There’s a smiling chaos there; a certain joy in the fact that this film is not made for everyone. And both are unapologetic to those who simply don’t “get” what the film and filmmaker are trying to do. You’re either along for the ride, or you’re not.
House also shares in Dead‘s strange juxtaposition of humor, mixing the light-hearted with a sense of dread. A jovial scene of the rejuvenated aunt dancing around her house carries an unmistakably dark tone as she cavorts with a skeleton that moves on its own, laughs as she spins around, and later sits down to a nice supper of severed hand. But it’s all done so whimsically, with the piano plinking out a tune in the background that is nowhere near as somber as the insanity on screen, that it’s only after its over that you realize how twisted the scene really was.
While it does seem a cousin to Evil Dead, the film it perhaps most closely resembles in the modern era is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Not in plot, obviously, but in that it is so self-aware. There’s no attempt to disguise the fact that this is a film; it knows that its audience is smarter than that. Because it doesn’t hide that it’s a film, it uses techniques that make this even more obvious to the viewer. Some scenes have painted backdrops, screen wipes are used for many transitions, there’s an animated sequence, rear-projection is common, and a silent film stands in for an exposition flashback (complete with running commentary from the girls).
With that in mind, the film also acknowledges that its audience has grown up on other forms of media – in House‘s case, television; in Pilgrim‘s case, video games – and uses the visual tropes of the medium as a visual shortcut to help create a mood or build up the world of the film.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this is a scene that feels lifted from the opening sequence of a cheesy sitcom. As characters wake up on a beautiful morning, the camera flows from one to the next in a picture-perfect snapshot of this idealized world. We see a cobbler and his daughter hammering away on shoes, nodding their heads to the beat of a sappy pop song that is coming from nowhere in particular. Everyone says hello to one another and everyone is in a great mood. The sun is shining, the too-white clouds are hanging in the too-blue sky, and all is right with the world. There’s even a bit of slapstick comedy, as one of the characters falls down the stairs, all done in a choppy stop-motion animation that is intentionally bad. The whole thing is so Disney-fied, you half expect an animated little blue bird to land on someone’s shoulder and whistle “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”.
But an audience that grew up on The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, and Adam West’s Batman will recognize this for what it is — a tongue-in-cheek reference to the manufactured world of the boob tube. Just as kids of today understand what the “VS” graphics and the “KO!!!” call-out mean when Scott Pilgrim takes on one of the League of Evil Exes. Both borrow from the world of pop culture as a shortcut, but because their teenage audiences speak the same language, it works. This also serves to alienate those who are not “in the know”, which is probably why critics in Japan lambasted House when it was released to theaters. Although, unlike Scott Pilgrim, the youth of Japan were there to boost “their” film — House was a huge box office hit upon its release.
While it’s hard to say if Raimi or Pilgrim‘s Wright were directly influenced by House, there’s no doubting that the film’s impact has been felt through the years. And if you’re willing to buy a ticket and go along for the ride, it’s one funhouse that won’t disappoint.
House is available on The Criterion Collection DVD, Bluray, and streaming on Hulu Plus.
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Written by Rob Lammle (@spacemonkeyx)
Rob became a geek at a very young age. Growing up on a farm, with the nearest kid his age living five miles away, Rob had a lot of time to watch movies, read comic books, and play with his Star Wars action figures. He now finds time to write for a few… More »