Collecting Criterion – House (1977)


Though the vast majority of Criterion’s titles fall into the range of prestige art films, there is a small selection in the Collection that’s devoted to highlighting the strange and bizarre from cinema around the world.  That’s where you’ll find some of the more unique examples of horror and suspense ever put to celluloid, and it’s a special treat that Criterion devotes as much care and respect to these titles as they would to some of the more honored films in their catalog.  Some of Criterion’s horror titles include Roman Polanski’s breakthrough classic Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Spine #630), as well as early movies from David Cronenberg like Scanners (1981, #712) and The Brood (1979, #777) and from Guillermo del Toro like Cronos (1993, #551) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001, #666).  The more interesting horror titles in the Collection are the international ones however, which range from the truly disturbing to the really bizarre.  Some of these include the lyrical and gory French thriller Eyes Without a Face (1960, #260) and the silent Danish film about witchcraft Haxan (1922, #134).  But, if there’s an international body that has consistently put out the most disturbing and visually arresting horror movies over the years, it would be the nation of Japan.  Criterion has thankfully assembled some of the most groundbreaking titles from Japanese horror, all influential not just within their own domestic cinematic traditions, but also to horror filmmaking worldwide.  These include the Masaki Kobayashi epic scale ghost story Kwaidan (1965, #90) and the moodily atmospheric Kuroneko (1968, #584).  But perhaps the most interesting horror title to come from Japan found in the Collection is the very one-of-a-kind oddball, House (1977, #539)

Oh, where to begin with this movie.  House is unlike any horror film you will ever see; or any movie for that matter.  It’s probably better described as a psychedelic trip than as a movie.  The film was directed by a former Japanese commercial director named Nobuhiko Obayashi, and his commercial background definitely shows in this film.  With a near manic tone and surreal uses of mattes, collage effects and animation, House feels very much like a Japanese TV commercial on steroids.  And that was probably the desired effect on Obayashi’s part.  This was meant to be a showcase for his own bizarre style and there seems to have been no better genre to make that work than in horror.  It should be understood that not all horror is the same and not every horror film is meant to leave you scared.  House is a perfect example of creepy horror, where the chills come not from the sudden scares but instead from the constant uneasiness brought on by the grotesque imagery on screen.  Honestly, nobody who watches House will ever be scarred out of their minds by it, but it will no less be a disturbing experience.  Amazingly enough, Obayashi was able to get studio funding for his artsy project, by no less than Japanese powerhouse Toho International (the studio that brought Godzilla to the world).  Toho probably didn’t realize what kind of movie they had just underwritten, but their gamble did allow for Obayashi’s imagination to be fully realized on film and as a result, it has become one of their most influential movies.

The story of House is just as basic as the title itself.  It’s essentially a haunted house movie, where a group of characters (in this case, Japanese schoolgirls on a field trip) must survive through a spooky night in a decrepit old home while it’s deceased inhabitants pick them off one by one.  Even the characters themselves are purposely archetypal, down to their names being representations of their personality.  The characters include Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) who pridefully obsesses over her good looks, Melody (Eriko Tanaka) who likes playing music, Mac (Mieko Sato) the chubby one who likes eating, and Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo) who, well you can already guess what her thing is.  Together they take a trip to the mountains where they will stay at the home of Gorgeous’ ailing Aunt (Yoko Minamida), who is wheelchair bound and lives with her fluffy white cat.  As they stay longer at the house, the more they notice that not everything is as it seems, and soon more and more bizarre things start to happen.  Not only that, but some of the girls begin to disappear and/or are found brutally murdered around the house.  Thus begins a string of some truly strange and at times very creepy moments as the girls are suddenly consumed by the house as it becomes clear that it has a mind of it’s own.  Shattered mirrors cause the skin to peel off a girl who is looking into it; another girl’s disembodied head tries to eat her nearby friend; another girl is consumed by a carnivorous piano; and there’s even a demonic painting of the fluffy white cat that spews blood and fills the entire room with it.  Overall, the flow of the story is less about delving deeply into these girls’ stories and is more about finding weird circumstances to put them all into, and the crazier the better.  And that’s essentially the overall appeal of House; no holds are barred in this crazy ride of a movie and it’s more than anything about the experience than the narrative.

Now, as imaginative as House may be, it can also polarizing.  Those looking for a scary cinematic experience may be disappointed in this movie, because more often than not, this movie is more inclined to tickle your funny bone than to give you goosebumps.  I think that the description on the back of the Criterion box for this movie says it best when it states that it’s like “an episode of Scooby-Doo as directed by Mario Bava.”  This movie revels in it’s absurdity while at the same time not shying away from showing some really disturbing imagery at times.  That sometimes jarring contrast between tones can often times give you whiplash, but Nobuhiko Obayashi still manages to make it resonate despite the inconsistencies.  I especially admire the fact that he just goes for the most ridiculous ideas possible, throwing away all reason in the process.  The overall effect helps to give this movie the feeling of a feverish nightmare, which helps place it comfortably in the horror genre.  It may not make you jump out of your seat, but it will disturb you by it’s unrelenting assault on the perceptions of reality.  In addition, there’s also a beauty to be found in the movie’s surrealism.  Obayashi has said that the ideas in the film came to him from a short story written by his daughter, and there is indeed a childlike wonder in all the mayhem on screen.  Obayashi’s style certainly has a playfulness to it, even when what you’re seeing is freakishly disturbing, like when a piano chomps off the fingers of the girl playing it, and then those disembodied fingers begin to play the piano on their own afterwards.  It may be an aquired taste for some, but those who go for this kind of absurdist horror have made this movie a cult favorite for many years.

What I admire most about this film however is just how stunningly beautiful it is.  Nobuhiko Obayashi clearly wanted this movie to be as removed from reality as he possibly could make it, and it succeeds at doing just that.  Almost nothing was shot on location, except for a couple exemptions.  The majority of the scenes were filmed on soundstages with some incredible matte paintings used to fill out the background scenery, each of them exaggerated in their own way to give this movie a very storybook look.  Couple this together with some interesting uses of animation and some groundbreaking green screen effects, and what we get is an art show collage come to striking life.  The green screen effects in particular are the standouts, because Obayashi almost revels in the limitless possibilities he can have with the technique.  He uses it to create some rather striking visuals, like the crumbling of Gorgeous’ face in the mirror, revealing an inferno underneath her skin.  He also puts multiple layers of these effects on top of one another, making impossible to film angles and images come to life.  It’s really amazing watching this movie and realizing that nothing  was aided with CGI; that all the effects were done in camera.  That’s the benefit of having someone directing this with a commercial background, because a director of Obayashi’s type would understand the power of visual stimuli a bit more.  In addition, the color cinematography by Yoshitaka Sakamoto is both vibrant and daring, perfectly supporting the zaniness of Obayashi’s imagery.  For me, it almost feels like what a live action anime would look like, and by that I mean in terms of it’s visual energy and unbounded sense of reality.  It wouldn’t surprise me if more than one anime film in the last few decades took a few inspirations from this movie, especially some of the more horror based ones.

Criterion’s treatment of the film is as expected.  Given the cult status of the movie, it’s not at all surprising that Criterion would jump at the opportunity to include this film in it’s Collection, especially if it means giving it a spotlight to help it find a larger audience.  The movie has thankfully been well cared for in the Toho Studio vaults through the years, but even still for a movie it’s age, there needed to be an extensive restoration to make the film sparkle more in high definition.  For their edition of House, Criterion gave the movie a new high-def transfer for it’s blu-ray release, and if there was ever a movie in the Collection that deserved a blu-ray, it’s this one.  The HD scan of the movie really makes the colors pop, which is a blessing for a color driven movie such as this.  The background mattes also are more stunning to look at in this transfer, allowing the viewer to see all the fine detail of the craftsmanship behind them.  Of course some of the visual effects will look dated in this transfer, as the seams behind the effects are more clearly defined in HD causing the illusion to become a little less effective, but it’s no more glaring than any other effects film of that era.  In fact, I think Obayashi’s intent was for his audience to be more aware of the artificiality of his movie, because that’s a part of the overall experience.  As long as the visuals still retain their impact, it doesn’t matter how obviously fake they look, and thankfully the HD transfer makes those visuals as stunning as ever.  The uncompressed soundtrack likewise runs that fine balance between the natural and the unnatural, and Criterion has also given it a respectable restoration.

There’s also a healthy sampling of bonus features that both celebrate the film as well as gives us the audience a look into it’s making.  Perhaps the most substantial feature on the blu-ray is the Constructing a “House” featurette.  This newly filmed piece made by Criterion features interviews with director Nobuhiko Obayashi, as well as his daughter Chigumi, who like I stated before was the one who came up with the story originally.  The two talk about how the movie came to be and how Obayashi was able to get it made, despite his lack of experience in features.  Some of the movie’s most notable visual moments are touched upon as well as how they were able to make those groundbreaking effects work.  Screenwriter Chiro Katsura is also interviewed in the featurette, explaining the challenges of creating a cohesive story-line around all these imaginative set pieces.  Next is an experimental short made by Obayashi in 1966 called Emotion.  It’s a neat, if strange little half-hour film that helps to show us how the director was trying to find his voice in his early years as a filmmaker, and how that would soon be reflected in the more ambitious House years later.  Some of the director’s manic editing style and trick photography are clearly noticeable in this short film, and it’s good that Criterion has included it here as a comparison point for showing the evolution of Obayashi as a filmmaker.  Also included is an appreciation video from American horror filmmaker Ti West, who helps to put the legacy of the movie into perspective, including it’s influence on his own style.  Lastly, there is an original theatrical trailer, which rounds out a small but still very welcome collection of supplements for this Criterion edition.

House is a difficult movie to recommend, because it’s really hard to tell how someone might respond to it.  If anything, I would say just watch it once for the experience and see if it’s you’re type of horror movie or not.  I for one admire the movie for it’s originality.  It’s safe to say that there is no other film like it, ever.  The manic uses of absurd imagery are riotously funny to watch, but it’s also balanced with a macabre sense of foreboding that helps to make it effectively creepy at the same time.  That’s a blend that you see lacking in many horror films today, many of which seem more concerned with throwing scares at you than trying to establish a sense of terror.   But, you can see some of the influence that House has had in the horror genre over the years too in many different ways, whether it be the absurdly graphic murders committed by Freddy Kruger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, or the blending of humor and horror found in the films of Edgar Wright.  Or even the graphic design similarities that this movie shares with the medium of anime.  It’s a cult movie for a reason and it’s great to see something this completely original find it’s place in cinema history.  Criterion of course have done their part to give this movie a respectable presentation, and many Criterion collectors would be well served by having this on their shelf.  I would say that it’s even worth getting just for the striking box cover art along, which uses the iconic painting of the demonic cat from the movie to great effect.  That eerie image will really stand out on your blu-ray shelf.  Overall, for a good Halloween movie experience, you can’t go wrong with Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House.  It’ll make you laugh out loud even while you’re chilled to the bone by it’s visually vivid house of horrors, and that’s a cinematic treat that’s perfect for this spooky time of the year.

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