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teaser Hausu (1977)

There is a long and creative horror tradition in Japanese cinema but Nobuhiko Obayashi's 1977 House is like nothing seen in the genre before or since. Even the horror classification isn't quite accurate. Call it a haunted house/high school romp/demon killer/surreal fairy tale: a stylized candy-colored bomb of a ghost story more jaw-droppingly unreal than scary, an experimental piece of pop-art genre filmmaking with a cartoonish flair to its art direction, special effects and graphic expressionism.

The bare bones of a plot sends seven high school girls from a pastel-colored world out of a romantic manga, all heightened emotional melodrama with a palette and decor to match, and into a weekend in the country. Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), fleeing the sudden upending of her home-life when her widower father brings home a new wife, takes her best friends with her to the country home owned by her seemingly benign spinster auntie (Yko Minamida); the place turns out to be a demonic funhouse, a bit like Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (1981) cabin as reimagined by a child. The seven girls, much like the Seven Dwarfs, are described as much as named: accompanying Gorgeous are Kung-fu, Fantasy, Prof, Melody, Sweet and Mac (short for Stomach).

The first suggestion that there is something, shall we say, odd about this isolated, out of time villa and their unusual host comes when auntie remarks, "Mac, you sure look tasty, being round and all." Sure enough Mac is the first to disappear into this hungry, hungry house, which proceeds to dismember and devour the entire cadre of teenage youth in cartoonish scenes of carnage that are more like performance art pieces than sadistic exploitation. The limbs and fingers of one girl (animated with cut-and-paste images and blue-screen effects) appear to dance in celebration at their liberation. There's nothing mean-spirited or gruesome here, and no effort made to scare the audience. Nobuhiko just wants to dazzle your senses and blow your mind.

Nobuhiko Ohbayashi was a successful commercial director with a thriving career in advertising when he was approached by Toho Studios to write, "a script for a film that would be entertaining and a huge success like Jaws [1975]," he explained in a 2010 interview. Reluctant to simply make a Japanese knock-off of a "When Animals Attack" thriller, he turned to his 10-year-old daughter, Chigumi, for ideas. "Children come up with things than can't be explained," he observed, and sure enough she imagined a list of inexplicable terrors that she found frightening: a reflection in a mirror suddenly attacking her, a futon turning into a monster, a piano snapping at the fingers of the girl at the keyboard (she was, no surprise, taking piano lessons at the time). Ohbayashi handed these unformed nightmare scenarios to screenwriter Chiho Katsura, adding his own themes of the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a ghost of the war that attacks the innocents who know nothing of their loss; Katsura turned it all into a weird ghost story about a haunted house that eats girls. The ten-year-old Chigumi, meanwhile, received screen credit for the scenario, which Ohbayashi gave an English title: House.

Ohbayashi, in a 2010 interview, confessed that he never believed the film would get made. To his surprise, Toho gave the project a green light, but it stalled when no director would take it one. Meanwhile Ohbayashi transformed the story into a successful manga and a radio drama and it spun off a number of product tie-ins (including a soundtrack album) before production even began. After two years of searching for a director, Toho finally offered the project to Ohbayashi, who had made a successful surreal short in college before his career in commercials but never tackled a feature film. He approached the unconventional script with an equally unconventional production method. For the seven young leading roles, he cast young, untrained models he had worked with in advertising and commercials, all non-professionals when it came to screen acting, and continued the practice through the rest of the casting. The watermelon farmer, for instance, was played by Asei Kobayashi, who composed the film with the pop group Godiego, while friends, family (including Ohbayashi's daughter Chigumi, the scenarist) and members of the production took other supporting roles. The exception is Yoko Minamida, the screen veteran who played the old auntie and whose performance anchors the film.

Toho was the company of Godzilla (1954) and dozens of great monster movies and science fiction films that followed in its wake. It was at the forefront of special effects in Japan and Obayashi was excited to work with the effect department, but he had a completely different aesthetic in mind. "I wanted the special effects to look fake," he confessed. "I wanted to make special effects a kid would make." The result was a film of visual experiments and flights of fantasy, unreal images designed to look beautiful and outrageous. According to Ohbayashi, it was also the first Japanese film to use video effects, which he applied in a scene to make one of the girls "dissolve" underwater through low fidelity video and a simple chroma key effect.

To say it's like nothing you've ever seen isn't exactly accurate. It's in fact like a whole lot of wonderfully weird things you may have seen, from Technicolor melodramas to Mario Bava horrors to Looney Tunes cartoons and more, blended into a surreal puree of cinematic delights. "I don't think of House as a horror movie," says screenwriter Katsura. "Horror movies are more suspenseful. House is a fantasy film about young girls."

Against all odds, the crazed mix of storybook fantasy, adolescent imagination, wild imagery and bubble gum pop became a hit, especially with young audiences, who embraced the imagination and surreal quality. Critics and industry executives, however, didn't know what to make of House. The reviews at the time were largely negative, yet it made a strong impression on young filmgoers and remained a cult favorite through the decades. But it was largely unknown in the United States until a few successful screenings in 2009 led to a limited release across the country (to largely rave reviews) followed by a DVD and Blu-ray release by The Criterion Collection.

More than 35 years after its original release, House remains unique, a one-of-a-kind film that is to Japanese horror what Seijun Suzuki's late-sixties crime movie freak-outs were to Japanese gangster films: an idiosyncratic, individualistic reworking of genre conventions. House is maverick filmmaking from an industry outsider given free reign by a major studio, a mad manga fairy tale with a psychedelic blast of creative invention running wild though the conventions of a horror movie.

Producer: Yorihiko Yamada, Nobuhiko bayashi
Director: Nobuhiko bayashi
Screenplay: Chiho Katsura (screenplay); Chigumi bayashi (original story)
Cinematography: Yoshitaka Sakamoto
Music: Asei Kobayashi, Mikk Yoshino
Film Editing: Nobuo Ogawa
Cast: Kimiko Ikegami (Angel/Angel's Mother), Miki Jinbo (Kunf), Kumiko Ohba (Fanta), Ai Matsubara (Gari), Mieko Sat (Makku), Eriko Tanaka (Merod), Masayo Miyako (Suto), Kiyohiko Ozaki (Keisuke Tg), Saho Sasazawa (Angel's Father), Asei Kobayashi (Farmer Selling Watermelons).
C-88m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Sean Axmaker

"Constructing a House," documentary by Marc Walkow
"The Housemaidens," Chuck Stephens

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