House (1977)

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“House” may be one of the most inventive horrors ever made. I’ve said this about other films, but this is genuinely unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, with everything about it, from performances to style to special effects, being weird and unique.

A girl called either Angel or Gorgeous, depending on which DVD you watch (I’ll go with Angel) has six best friends at school – Prof, Kung Fu, Mac, Sweetie, Fantasy, and Melody, all of whom have a defining characteristic that usually ties in with their name. They’re due to go on a school trip but it gets cancelled, so they decide to visit Angel’s auntie, who she’s not seen in a decade, at her big old house in the middle of nowhere. Angel is having problems with her Dad wanting to remarry, so her future stepmother decides to go and visit the girls at the house, as does their teacher.

On that basic plot is built one of the strangest movies you will ever see. The house, as you may have guessed from the title and cover image, is actually a demon that wants to eat virginal girls, and Auntie is…well, in on it? Part of the house? And what the hell is that cat up to?

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Every single editing trick and special effects style you could possibly imagine is used. Director Nobuhiko Obayashi, whose background is in experimental cinema, throws absolutely everything at the screen in this, his mainstream debut. The super-saturation of colour, the effects that were literally painted on to the celluloid, the huge air of unreality that hangs over everything, Auntie’s winking at the camera being both funny and unsettling…my favourite moment was when a character from the next scene leans into the shot and frightens the girls before cutting to him, serving noodles hundreds of miles away. Words like psychedelic and surreal don’t really do this film justice.

Obayashi had a hand in the screenplay’s creation too, and many of the most striking scenes were inspired by his daughter and the sort of things she said were scary, images from her nightmares, and so on. So, decades before “Axe Cop” made having a script written by an infant news, Japanese experimental horror directors were doing it. “House” captures that nightmare logic better than any film I think I’ve ever seen, and that’s just one of the strings to its bow.

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The cast, apart from Kimiko Ikegami (Angel, beautiful and ethereal), was largely non-professional, and although they’re all fine, there’s that naturalistic air that bleeds through from time to time. In what’s a fairly strange tie in, the famous Toho Studios also produced a radio play from the same source material, which would be fascinating (if I understood Japanese). The success of that radio play led to the film being made, too.

There’s a lot of discussion as to what the film’s really about. I think it’s a classic Japanese ghost story mixed with post-WW2 anxieties (Auntie’s fiancee, a soldier who died in one of the atomic bomb strikes, is a major plot driver), but this is used to tell a story about what growing up feels like, with its incredibly bright highs and horrific lows.

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I seriously cannot recommend this film highly enough. It’s a genuine modern classic, a completely out-of-nowhere gem where an avant-garde director, a non-professional cast, deliberately childlike special effects and a script inspired by nightmares came together to produce something unique and fascinating. And surprisingly funny!

Rating: thumbs up

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One thought on “House (1977)

  1. I absolutely adored this, it’s now easily one of my favourite films of all time, and I’m definitely going to try and check out the director’s other work now…

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