During its opening titles, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (Hausu, 1977) introduces itself on screen as “a movie”, briskly knocking down the fourth wall before the action has even begun. This slyly knowing gesture at the film’s outset serves as a statement of intent, with everything in House reinforcing a sense of hyper-cinematic unreality, from its painted skies and candy-coloured palette to its hyperactive editing and every-trick-in-the-book visual effects.
The result plays like a head-on collision between The Evil Dead (1981) and Yellow Submarine (1968) – a fevered flight of horror-fantasy like no other. “A movie” is right, for few films have as much fun simply being a movie as House does.
Obayashi’s darkly comic fable tells the story of seven schoolgirls, each of them named for their defining attribute, à la Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The pretty but pensive Gorgeous is joined by Prof (brainy), Kung Fu (violent), Fantasy (a daydreamer), Sweet (homely), Melody (musical) and the ever-eating Mac (short for ‘stomach’) on a summer trip to her aunt’s creaky old house in the countryside.
Despite Auntie’s hermetic lifestyle and tragic wartime backstory (her fighter-pilot fiancé never returned to marry her), she is far from the Miss Havisham type. The girls find both her and the titular house perfectly charming upon their arrival. But with spooky happenings around the house and the visiting party starting to shrink in numbers, both home and homeowner reveal their sinister true natures.
The oft-repeated origin story for House tells of a Japanese studio, the legendary Toho company, eager to replicate the runaway success of Steven Spielberg’s recently released Jaws (1975). Indeed, “something like Jaws” seems to have been the entirety of Toho’s brief to Obayashi, then best-known as a director of TV commercials. As an experienced ad man, commercials had given Obayashi a creatively permissive space in which to hone his aesthetic sensibilities, as well as affording him the opportunity to work with such Hollywood superstars as Kirk Douglas and Charles Bronson (hawking cologne and coffee respectively).
But “something like Jaws” would be the director’s first foray into feature films and, hoping to capture the imagination of the youth market, he enlisted his young daughter Chigumi when developing the concept that would become House.
Several sequences suggested by the pre-teen Chigumi Obayashi made their way into her father’s big screen debut (including a watermelon re-emerging from a well in the form of a floating severed head), as well as the central premise of “a house that eats girls”, a threat to rival any rubber shark. Moreover, it was perhaps Chigumi’s input that began moving the project further and further away from Toho’s initial brief, imbuing the emerging story with a certain dream logic. At times House almost feels like a children’s film, its opening scenes featuring broad slapstick, a cheesy pop song and endless girlish giggling.
But all this sugary sweetness is used thoughtfully, akin to Brian De Palma’s helming of Carrie (1976). Just as Sissy Spacek’s prom night is so impossibly saccharine that it could only be the prelude to a bloodbath, House’s youthful naivety prefigures its eventual carnage deliciously.
House’s twisted fairytale quality is further heightened by its storybook aesthetic and playful visual approach. Obayashi’s background in advertising shines through here, his compositions often possessing a boldly graphic pop-art quality. Utilising techniques as diverse as stop-motion, hand-drawn animation, picture-in-picture and liberal use of nascent chroma key effects, House’s visual flare is dizzying.
The editing is equally exuberant, whether it’s the rapid-fire cutting as Kung Fu leaps into action, or the endlessly inventive scene transitions, which lead the film to unfold with the eerie grace of a haunted pop-up book. It’s as if Obayashi couldn’t stand to have even a single perfunctory cut or image in his film, and the sheer hyperactivity of his technique effectively anticipates the ‘MTV aesthetic’ – a fusion of avant-garde experimentalism and commercial slickness – four years before MTV hit the airwaves.
Now, if all this sounds like style over substance to you, that wouldn’t be an entirely unfair assessment. After all, House is ostensibly a horror film and, although often a little creepy, it’s never truly scary; it’s much too excitable to establish any considerable dread or tension. But as with many other ‘midnight movies’ of the period, the style itself proves substantive, offering viewers a spooky, funny and often downright trippy ghost-train ride.
There is, however, something underpinning all the madness, a quietly melancholic undercurrent that ultimately elevates the film. Like many a good ghost story, House reflects the ways in which past events can reverberate into the present and, on some level, this is a story about seven happy-go-lucky teenagers being starkly confronted with the wartime trauma their parents’ generation endured. While House is inarguably a work of dense visual and technical complexity, its narrative may well be deceptive in its simplicity.