I dare you to try and find a film more bizarre than Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 haunted-house horror-comedy — and adequately titled Japanese production — House. While the synopsis of the plot is rather straightforward, what transpires in this absolutely bonkers 88-minute roller coaster of gores and goofs is anything but ordinary, and barely even comprehensible. However, this is what makes House such a one-of-a-kind experience that deserves to be seen and (hopefully) adored by a larger audience. Merely describing the overview of House does it no favors, nor would it necessarily make you want to watch it. It’s a fairly simple set-up, after all. What makes House so watchable, so unique, and ultimately so great, is its unbelievably kooky execution and intentional surrealism.
I truly have never seen a film as weird as this one.
Classes are about to let out for summer break in Japan, and Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), a high school girl whose defining characteristic is her beauty, is looking forward to spending her vacation with her father who’s returning home from Italy. However, when he comes back with a new wife and step-mom to Gorgeous (whose own beauty is hilariously amplified by her flowy hair and clothing that comes courtesy of an off-screen wind machine directed solely at her), Gorgeous feels her father has betrayed both her and her deceased birth mother, who died some years prior.
Gorgeous decides against spending her summer with her father and new step-mom, and instead contacts her aunt, who she’s not seen since she was a young child. Auntie (Yōko Minamida) has lived in solitary for years, and excitedly invites Gorgeous to visit her at her remote estate. Elsewhere, Gorgeous’ six best friends’ summer plans are likewise abandoned, and so they are allowed to tag along as well. What they’re hoping will be a fun trip will soon turn into a feverish nightmare, as the house itself comes to life to devour them one by one.
The six friends all inhabit one-dimensional personalities, and even their names reflect this. There’s Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), whose notoriously playful imagination will come to bite her in the ass (quite literally, actually) throughout the film, as the others will find it hard to believe her when she witnesses the house’s impossible magic. Mac (Mieko Sato) provides some comic-relief as the “fat” girl who only ever wants to be eating anything and everything. (Side note: I’m not sure if Obayashi wanted an actress that wasn’t fat in order to add to the bizarreness of it all, or if I should attribute this to odd Japanese societal norms, but the actress that plays Mac isn’t even slightly what you would define today as “chubby”). The intellectual of the collective is Prof (Ai Matubara), who of course wears a pair of large-frame glasses to fit the nerd motif. Dedicating most of her time on screen playing Auntie’s piano, Melody (Eriko Tanaka) is the sorority’s musically-inclined member. Miki Jinbo plays my favorite character and badass of the bunch, Kung-Fu, who, I kid you not, regularly jumps through the air in slow-motion grace to defeat miscellaneous foes (the list includes a chandelier, a possessed painting of a cat, and a malevolent geisha). And last but not least is Sweet, whose thing is that she enjoys cleaning…actually, she definitely fits the title of “least.”
Following the release of the incredibly successful Jaws in 1975, Toho, one of Japan’s biggest film studios at the time, contacted Obayashi in hopes that he would write a script that resembled the American hit. It’s a piece of trivia that makes House all the more incomprehensible, but one that can be a bit more digestible upon learning that Obayashi sought ideas from his 11-year-old daughter in search of a child’s whimsical and imaginative input for the story. The impenetrable script then remained in purgatory while no one would take on the project as director (some afraid the film would literally end their careers), so finally, Obayashi stepped in to do it himself. The only man who could have seen this film through is the one who concocted its insanity in the first place.
It truly is unbelievable what happens in most of these scenes. In order to truly grasp the full hilarity of it all, the film really needs to be seen to be believed. In one instance, one of the girls is seemingly crushed to death by a copious number of beds, pillows, and sheets that fall from the ceiling (from where and with what logical reason, I do not understand). What the others discover in the aftermath, is that the victim has been stripped naked and turned into a doll. Hell, I watched the damn film and none of it made sense to me. Elsewhere, another girl is consumed by a bloodthirsty piano in a scene so inconceivable that the character herself even breaks the fourth wall to point out its absurdity. There’s also a man that transforms into a pile of bananas, a decapitated head that might also be a watermelon, and a dancing skeleton that can be spotted in the background of several scenes that none of the characters ever care to notice.
Honestly, I don’t even know what I’m typing right now, but it is this exact indescribable insanity that makes up why House is such a memorable cult classic. You never know what’s coming, and the film only gets wilder as it goes along. As long as you’re willing to accept its ridiculous nature early on, House becomes an incredibly fun and endlessly fascinating watch.
To this day, House remains a stellar piece of film history. It is remarkably ambitious, even if much of it comes off as undeveloped and low-budget. I’m not even sure that I can attribute a score to the film, simply because I don’t know what it deserves. I enjoyed the film immensely, although it is genuinely pretty horrid in standard terms. However, this isn’t your standard film, and it’s definitely worth noting that Obayashi intentionally made the film as outlandish as possible. House is an oddity unlike any other in the genre, but one definitely worth experiencing, especially with a group of like-minded friends; you’ll need others with you to prove that what you’re seeing onscreen is really occurring.
House can be viewed on streaming service FilmStruck.
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor