A group of schoolgirls visit a country house during the summer holidays only to find themselves preyed on by feral supernatural forces.
In 1975, former ad and experimental short film director Nobuhiko Obayashi was tasked to craft a Japanese “Jaws-like” thriller by Toho studios, but after being inspired by his daughter’s outlandish flights of fancy, Obayashi drafted a much stranger fable: a tale that eventually evolved into House. Established screenwriter Chio Katsura honed the yarn into a linear script which was then subsequently turned down by every major film-maker at Toho. The screenplay returned to Obayashi, who was then given the opportunity to direct it as his debut feature, and House finally arrived in 1977. Despite initially receiving mixed reviews, House went on to achieve massive financial success. Now, almost forty years later, Obayashi’s film remains a wild, unparalleled tussle in the haunted house subgenre with its oddball fusion of pantomime horror and Japanese bubblegum pop.
Throughout the chaste and spirited first half, we meet the protagonists via a series of chirpy, pseudo-musical sequences that more resemble something out of a children’s TV series than a berserk haunted house horror. The story then twists into shadier landscapes before curling into gory and abstract delirium. A key, ambiguous character suddenly turns nasty and the girls are attacked by a mixture of demented entities that take the form of flying severed heads, sloping visions, detached, animated eyeballs, evil cats, blood vomit, vampires, bleeding clocks and dancing skeletons. But House is not merely about the cheap, dainty theatrics. Obayashi meddles with devices and genre conventions in the manner of a master surrealist, tiptoeing gleefully along the edge of meta and toying with the viewers’ expectations. “It’s just like a horror film” notes one of the characters in response to the a supernatural attack. “Yes, one that’s out of date,” replies another.
Flashbacks are remarked upon by the performers throughout as though they are observing the past alongside the audience, while celluloid melts into sepia for silent movie style sequences that seethe the story into even weirder waters. Animation and stop-motion kung fu conflicts contribute to the gaudy cartoon action calamities and Obayashi utilises strobe effects for further disorientation. As a result, House feels loaded with the wild love and furious imagination that tends to work wonders in the horror genre. Obayashi’s film is mostly inimitable yet was probably more so at the time of its release due to the splatter-shot style being notable in the works of later surrealist horror directors such as; Takashi Miike, Sam Raimi and Guy Maddin. A girl being attacked by her own reflection mirrors a classic moment from Evil Dead 2, as do scenes featuring possessed furniture/ appliances and blood rupturing from the walls and exploding from framed paintings.
House is frequently woozy and mystifying, like being spun till sick in a ghost train then let loose in a room full of angry drunk monsters. It’s a unique, beguiling experience unlike any other and an opaque, nursery pop phantasm with exquisite fair-ground theatrics and mischievous eminence that’s rare in modern horror. Fans of surrealist/ kitsch cinema should get a kick out of the chipper soundtrack and faux joviality as the film grows more bonkers throughout as cannibal witches and phantom brides are hurled into the foray and battled in an anarchic, blood/ neon caked kung-fu finale. Obayashi’s debut often exudes a childlike innocence with a roguish, maniacal lode and a frenetic vigour that compliments the genre well. It’s far from scary but remains an occasionally creepy and disconcerting delve into barmy surrealist terrain that should be savoured by fans of fantasy, horror and sarcastic, surrealist comedy.
Words: Dan Goodwin