HOUSE (or Hausu in its native Japan) is one film that truly defies description. Combining elements of the horror genre, an experimental film, and advertising commercials, it channels a unique dreamlike quality. Perhaps the strangest thing about HAUSU is that it was a big commercial hit in Japan when it was first released. Hated by the critics but loved by teenagers, it has attained legendary status over the years. Unfortunately, it never saw North American theatrical release until 2009, when it appeared at a handful of specialty theatres.
Director Nobuhiko Obayashi moved from experimental films to a successful career directing commercials. After the success of JAWS in 1975, the search began for a young Japanese director who could match Spielberg’s success. When Obayashi was selected, the producers had something more conventional in mind. However, Obayashi delivered something decidedly non-conventional. Combining his twin influences in experimental and commercial production, he created something that resembled Scooby Doo on acid or an episode of THE MONKEYS directed by Fellini.
Inspired by his young daughter’s dreams, Obayashi fills HOUSE/HAUSU with images so strange they bear repeated viewings. I have seen the film four times and each new viewing brings fresh revelations. On the surface, HAUSU concerns the adventures of a group of Japanese schoolgirls spending their summer vacation in a spooky old house, owned by one of the girls’ aunt. The house is filled with evil spirits determined to possess and consume them one by one, which it does both literally and spiritually.
Visually, HOUSE/HAUSU is stunning. Set in a background of dreamscape matte paintings, the house takes on a character all of its own. Obayashi uses a mixture of pixilation, animation, and intentionally cheap special effects – including a demonic cat, a carnivorous piano and killer futons. Severed heads dance in the air; the piano chews up its victim; and a wall clock grinds another into a bloody pulp.
HAUSU forces you to make your own conclusions: my wife thought it was juvenile and consciously pandering, while my teenaged daughter loved its imagery and absurdity. I gave up trying to make sense of it and just enjoyed the experience.
Criterion’s package is superb, as always with a crisp high definition transfer and uncompressed soundtrack on its Blu-ray edition. The disc lacks an audio commentary track, which I think is a good thing in this particular case – an audio commentary would only distract from the weirdness.
There is an excellent short documentary featuring the director, the screenwriter, and Obayashi’s daughter, who provide an excellent background for the film, including why a studio like Toho would agree to make it in the first place. The disc also features EMOTION, a short experimental film that Obayashi did in the mid 1960s. Other features include an appreciation by director Ti West (HOUSE OF THE DEVIL), the original theatrical trailer, and an essay by Chuck Stephens.
Thanks to Criterion, HAUSU finally gets the treatment it deserves. Now North American fans have an opportunity to see where the recent J-Horror boom draw much of its inspiration.
HOUSE (Hausu, Japan 1977; Criterion Collection Blu-ray release, October 26, 2010) Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi. Screenplay by Chiho Katsura, from an original story by Chigumi Obayashi. Cast: Kimiko Ikegami, Kumiko Ohba, Yoko Minamada, Ai Matsubara, Miki Jinbo, Masayo Miyako, Mieko Satoh, Eriko Tanaka.