Japan (1977) Dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi
No relation to the 1980’s Hollywood horror film series and definitely not connected to the medical TV show starring Hugh Laurie, this cult classic from Japan was supposed to be their answer to Jaws but ended up much closer to a head spinning blend of Rocky Horror Picture Show meets Yellow Submarine – sans catchy songs of course – as directed by Terry Gilliam and Takashi Miike!
It is the summer break of 1977 and Angel (Kimiko Ikegami) is going away with her movie score composer father (Saho Sasazawa) but when he returns home with a new stepmother Ryoko Ema (Haruko Wanibuchi), Angel decides to spend the break with her school friends instead, inviting them up to her aunt’s house in the country.
Rounding up her gang of Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Mac (Mieko Sato) and Sweetie (Masayo Miyako), Angel leads the seven girls to the old mansion where they greeted by her wheelchair bound aunt (Yoko Minamida), having sent her white cat Snowy to keep Angel company. Everything seems fine at first but then the girls start dying in mysterious ways.
Anyone familiar with modern J-Horror films thinking they know what to expect from House is going to be in for a shock a there is very little besides some conceptual motifs that even comes close to being ripe for comparison. The overt madness of Miike is a fair reference point although one might suspect this film had a major influence on his maverick approach to filmmaking.
For Nobuhiko Obayashi, this was his debut feature having cut his teeth on experimental short films and TV ads in the 1960’s and early 70’s. Obayashi was asked by Toho studios to make a film that would follow in the footsteps of recent Hollywood blockbusters like Jaws which were burning up the Japanese box office. Obayashi went home and asked for ideas from his then 11 year-old daughter Chigumi, who felt adults make boring films that kids can’t relate to.
So, father and daughter set about creating a story which became the script for House, so you have a precocious if illogically minded pre-pubescent imagination to thank for the zany nonsensical mayhem that occurs in this film. With the presentation equally off kilter and reminiscent of an acid trip we are less baffled by what we see and more in awe of the bizarre levels of creativity since the entire tone of the movie is very tongue-in-cheek.
The first sign of this is the introduction of Ryoko, the unwelcomed stepmother in Angel’s life. Rather than being the ghastly witch type usually associated with this role, Ryoko is all fragrance and light and never without a gentle wind blowing her long hair and white silk scarf behind her. This doesn’t stop us from having our suspicions about her but this gimmick is a nice spoof on the old Hollywood romantic heroine template.
Angel’s objections come from her mother (played by Ikegami in flashbacks) only being dead for eight years and Angel doesn’t want to share her father with another woman. She writes to her aunt to ask if she can visit and a reply comes the next day courtesy of snowy the cat. Angel’s aunt, whom she has only meet one as a small child, has a tragic backstory – she was due to marry her sweetheart when he is drafted into the army and never returned, despite promising to do so.
Now, aunty lives alone with Snowy, patiently waiting for her love to return so she can wear her wedding dress but thirty years have passed, so you’d think she would have got the message by now. Anyhoo, her dusty old mansion is about receive an injection of cute, teenage zeal and brightness courtesy of Angle and her friends; shame the house isn’t as welcoming as aunty is.
Known only by their nicknames, the girls naturally have bespoke personalities and traits to reflect these epithets – Kung Fu and Prof are self-explanatory; Mac is the chubby foodie (I say “chubby” – she’s perfectly fine, just chubby compared to her svelte friends), Melody plays the piano, Sweetie is the domestic one and Fantasy is a keen photographer who dreams about her teacher Mr. Togo (Kiyohiko Ozaki).
So, what about the horror? This is where House earns its notoriety, through the catalogue of inventive, SFX heavy departures. The first happens off camera but the deceased’s severed head returns and bites someone’s bum, setting the tone for what is to come. This is followed by a cannibal piano, violent futons, murderous lampshades, psychotic mirrors, sentient telephones, and literally rivers of blood. Hell, somebody even turns into a pile of bananas!
If Toho intended to compete with Hollywood then they should have given poor Obayashi a substantially bigger budget for his SFX, which stand as some of the cheapest looking ever seen, yet add some much camp value to the film’s enjoyment. If it isn’t the ropiest green screen work, then it’s the fake looking models and cheesy animation, not to mention the Ribena blood.
Yet much of this is obscured by the manic camerawork, quick cut edits, animated overlays and red colour tints, buttressed by the constant time remapping for added eerie effects. We can forgive this as it was 40 years ago but by the same token, it was also the same year that Star Wars came out. But the effort was there and the perky, attractive and irrefutably game cast do their best to make us believe in their predicament.
“Psychedelic Horror” may not be an official film genre but if it was then House unequivocally deserves to be credited as its founding father. It is silly, absolutely bonkers and living in a world of its own but it is also inexplicably entertaining through its abundance of subversive ideas. Surreal, unfiltered and shamelessly chaotic but uproariously good fun!