Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts. Each week I take a look at one of the many offerings of everyone’s favorite arthouse/foreign home video label, The Criterion Collection, and do a write up of what the movie’s all about and why you should care. It’s easy enough to play along at home, because all of my picks come straight from the generous offerings Criterion puts up on Hulu Plus.
We’re at week five of our month of horror, and since Monday this year falls conveniently on Halloween, I figured I should save up a special movie to write about. This is not only a movie that’s infamous, with a reputation that stretches far beyond the film itself, but it’s also one of the movies that has been on my ‘to watch’ list so long I don’t even remember how I first heard of it. I’ve been saving a viewing of this one just for you guys, so happy Halloween, folks, it’s time to talk about…
Let’s get down to brass tacks on this one straight off the bat, why don’t we? House (or as the film labels itself and should always be referred to as, Hausu) is a 1977 Japanese horror film directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi. Obayashi, primarily a commercial and experimental film director, was given the task by floundering Toho Studios to make a movie that would compete with Jaws and other big budget American fare.
Hausu tells the story of a young girl named Gorgeous and her six friends. Gorgeous’ plans to vacation over the summer with her father are thwarted by him falling for a woman and Gorgeous feeling suddenly nostalgic for the past and memories of her dead mother. She decides to vacation with her friends at her Aunt’s estate out in the country. It just so happens that this titular Hausu is very, very haunted.
This sounds all well and good, maybe even a little bland, but what comes out of the otherwise lucid kernal of plot is something between the storytime of a hyperactive child and the kind of nightmarish fevered abstraction that would send Dario Argento running for the hills. Hausu is a cinematic bender of the highest order. Obayashi has told a story since production of his producer claiming that Toho was tired of losing money on normal, comprehensible films and were ready to let Obayashi do something that was decidedly none of those things.
It’s really hard to encapsulate what exactly is so terrifically wrong about Hausu without spoiling all of the best bits, so I’m left kind of grasping at straws on how to communicate the sheer level of play on display in the film. Because in many ways, that is the true achievement of a movie like Hausu–you seen enough movies and you get a clear sense of how a movie is going to go. There are decisions that are made in narrative almost by ritual. Every time Hausu makes one of those choices, instead of going with genre convention it typically goes with the least appropriate choice possible. What results is something that from a purely objective viewpoint seems utterly coherent (girls go to house -> creepy events -> girls begin to disappear/die -> secrets slowly revealed) but does it in a way that manages to surprise and delight on nearly every point.
But hell, let’s try anyway.
The seven main girls are the stereotypes of this kind of genre filmmaking extracted out to a bizarrely logical extreme. Gorgeous’ friends are the brainy, bespectacled Prof, the artistic Melody, the always-eating Mac (short for stomach), the naive Sweet, and Fantasy who as her name might lead one to expect, seems most in tune with the fact that something is seriously wrong. But also ends up spending most of the movie being disbelieved. These girls are, at their core, not much more than bald effigies of their namesakes, but it works in the same way it does in similarly stereotype-heavy fare as Goonies.
If you were paying attention, you’ll notice I missed talking about one girl. That’s because this last girl is Kung Fu, who as her namesake implies seems to get by as the character who can kick ass. She does so with a rousing heroic theme song whenever she springs to action and a kind of earthy charisma that isn’t all that dissimilar to the role Toshiro Mifune played in many of his samurai roles. She spends most of the movie running around in underwear and bare-legs that reminded me more of Mifune’s character in Seven Samurai than it did typical horror heroine undress exploitation. She is among the best heroines that horror has to offer, up there with Ellen Ripley and Ashley Williams for badassery-per-scene. Rarely do horror heroines come this compelling.
The gags of the movie itself play more as straight up weird than actually horrifying. I’m not sure who would find a movie like this scary, but certainly the amount of strangeness on display threatens to overwhelm. There’s a groundwork of folk lore horror on display with a possibly-mystical cat and a bridal ghost (both of which could have been ripped out of Kuroneko, which I covered earlier this month) but laid on top is a heavy use of compositing, rotoscoped animation, and lots and lots of fake blood, the kind of blood that’s so fake that it looks like someone shattered the translucent carapace of the Kool-Aid Man to unleash a flood of red water all over the film.
But some of the sequences are outright whimsical. As night settles over the house, we’re offered what can only be described as a musical sequence through cutting and reversed film, a cat jumping on a piano and meowing along with the already wildly-inappropriate soundtrack. This includes a prop skeleton left standing in the house, a relic of a deceased doctor, which manages to show up and dance in the background of enough scenes that it should probably look into getting billing in the credits. It also includes an ending which should be heavy with portent but instead becomes something between a farce of small-scale Japanese family drama films and a gleeful disregard for the normal rules of who the bad guy is in a movie like this.
There’s so much that I could point out, so much texture to a film like this, from its amazing mirror gags to its hilariously fake painted backdrops (and I’m not even talking about the times when the movie disregards any sense of reality and puts the characters in front of an actual animated backdrop) that lend even the smallest moments a sense of unreality. There is an entire silent film sequence in the movie that could have been pulled out of the romantic dramas of Naruse or Ozu. For a movie that is so happy with being dumb, it comes from a place of knowledge that gives it all that much more impact, the weight of someone who knows the rules gleefully breaking them at every turn.
That isn’t to say the movie isn’t without its themes.
The reality is, Hausu is very much a coming-of-age fairy tale set in a world of female fear and hatred. Gorgeous’ flight to the haunted house is driven by a new woman in her family-life, an usurper coming in through marriage. At the same time, the ghost of the house has a craving for unmarried women, devouring them in order to feed a long-denied need of the occupant to be married. For all this marriage talk, the seven leads are all much more progressive girls, interested more in their own interests (and in Gorgeous’ case a crush on one of her teachers) than in old-world concepts like settling down. The fairy tale nature of the story seems particularly in line with this, the horrors almost always taking the form of domesticity, futons and wells and pianos, stuff that could be considered ‘women’s work’ becoming the undoing of most of our heroines.
And it wouldn’t be a Japanese movie about women (or any horror movie ever) without some underlying sexual element. Not to go on to too fine a point about it, because I’m not sure how intentional it all is, but there’s certainly an element of feminine-specific horror, a nascent sense of sexuality and scenes of blood that have a decidedly menstural bent to them on a level with Carrie or Suspiria, obscured mostly due to the rest of the film playing initially as an impenetrable mess. What I find interesting is that the movie for all of that doesn’t play as necessarily exploitative, sympathetic to the plight of all of its characters (all of them female) even to the point of maybe losing its narrative drive to achieve its characterization.
Hausu is a hard film to pin down mostly because it’s just so hard to parse. Normally that would be a bad thing, but in this case it’s an example of the presentation and the experience being the thing. I’m not going to say the film is without merit without that stuff, but what you’re here for is a movie that’s deeply seated in dream logic and fantasy, a movie that has more in common with Labyrinth than The Haunting. Of all the movies I’ve covered this October, Hausu is the one least likely to be for everyone. It’s offputting and unapologetically weird, but of all the movies I’ve seen its the one I think I’m most likely to return to, the one who surprised me most. For all of its infamy, its weirdness is not its gimmick, its world as rich and as valid as any put to film. Just a little less sane.
And because nobody asked for it, we conclude with a musical interlude!