Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hausu: The Haunted House Meets The Holy Mountain

Grace Krilanovich


When is way-too-much just right? In the face of cinematic excess, are you beaten into submission, or do you give yourself over willingly? Was that before or after the downstairs flooded with cat’s blood?

House (aka Hausu, 1977) is Nobuhiko Obayashi’s first feature, a stylized theater of blood and giggles that’s as pop and overheated as a comic book. His seemingly incongruous background in experimental film and commercials makes a kind of crazy sense here, as Obayashi piles this manic art film high with visual effects, soundtrack elements, odd recurring sound motifs and sets overloaded with clanking, reflective objects and surfaces, sunsets, cartoon cloud-filled skies, bustling cityscapes and lots of wind.

Years in the making, the film languished in the early stages long enough for Obayashi to develop story ideas with the help of his 10-year-old daughter, long enough for the band Godiego to come on board and for a soundtrack album to be released with years to spare. House is the product of lots of time and, apparently, lots of money—to wit, the flagrant incorporation of babies and animals for no reason at all. In one scene a Shetland pony looks on as Mr. Togo, the teacher, tries to wedge his butt out of a bucket (he fell down the stairs onto it, natch). In another, a Scarlet Macaw perches over a shoemaker and his assistant (young Miss Obayashi). Why? Why not?

Structured more like an amusement park ride than a horror film, House aims for different kinds of thrills. Here special effects are wielded like magic tricks, gore becomes hilarious and play is the rule. No wonder kids take to House like a controlled substance. The frenetic pace, willingly fake special effects, coupled with the girls’ energy and unflappability, creates an irresistible mix. A movie-as-pinball machine for the young and young-at-heart.

The key word: layers. Layers in every way, every second, every quadrant of the screen. Action buried deep in every shot; a cat slinking across a lower corner here, skeleton hands clapping off to the side there. The girls arranged with a choreographer’s sensibility, their chorus of voices, one upon another, in a seemingly unbroken chatter that makes your head spin. Layers of sound, diegetic and non-diegetic, crashing together, punctuated by at odd intervals by cat meows, braying seagulls, baby cries, clock chimes and synthesizer wind. The soundtrack veers wildly from soaring violins to the happy-go-lucky prog of Godiego, returning over and over again to the relentless melodramatic piano theme that immediately calls to mind the Laura Palmer theme from Twin Peaks.

Action is sped-up, slowed down, freeze-framed, reversed, collaged and composited. About as much stuff as you could imagine is wedged into every frame. The frenzied pace lets up at about minute 45, when night falls. Not that anybody gets to go to sleep.

The plot doesn’t warrant too much attention here. The set up, as comfy and familiar as an oven mitt, involves a girl named Gorgeous and six friends being lured up to her reclusive aunt’s crumbling mansion for a summer vacation getaway. Auntie, a ghost-witch with shades of every spurned vampiric spinster from Elizabeth Bathory and Miss Havisham to Dr. Frank-N-Furter, eats virgins. And it’s been a while, so when we meet her she’s hungry and weak, but soon enough she’s dispensed with the wheelchair and vampire sunglasses and is up and sashaying around the house, disappearing into the fridge, etc. Activated by death, popping up in mirrors and scampering across the rafters.

Of course, they must be girls for this to work. There’s no making a horror movie about a group of teen boys alone in a haunted house. In the tradition of Heavenly Creatures and Picnic at Hanging Rock, hallucination is de rigueur. Each in the group of seven has her own special thing going, not unlike the Seven Dwarfs. One likes to eat so her name is Mac (like “stomach”), the brainy one is Prof, the sporty one is Kung Fu, and so on. Through it all, their spirits never flag. Redefining unflappability in a way only teen girls in a Japanese horror movie can, (yes, it was “naughty” when the piano ate you, Melody!) their mania is part jubilant invincibility, part oblivious trance. So they can laugh when the blood pours down, or at least scream like they’re stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel. And just like a ride, the screams aren’t really screams; the terror isn’t really terror.

The teen girl mind has long proved irresistible to marshal at the service of the thriller. (Obayashi knew it well, having plumbed its depths for his 1966 short, “Emotion,” included here as a bonus feature). The girls’ rabid exuberance may be freaky, but it’s of the non-threatening, declawed variety, i.e., not nearly as threatening as a movie about a gaggle of hyperactive men or hallucinating adult women would be.

At some point one of the girls says, “It’s like a horror movie”—a sly reference to a genre that House is merely waving to from a distant shore. Yes, it is like a horror movie. You recognize some signposts but they don’t add up the way they should. The movie doesn’t care about tension or suspense, for one. There’s no sleep here, no being woken up by a murderer. Nobody gets to so much as shut their damn eyes till this thing is over.

It’s not a fairy tale either, but don’t tell that to the men in House. The girls’ fairy tale rescuer, Mr. Togo, crucially never gets there. There are cutaway shots of him driving his car with loud boogie-woogie that are reminiscent of Wild at Heart’s Johnny Farragut making his sweaty drive through Louisiana to the tune of “Baby Please Don’t Go.” There’s a fairy tale father —blissfully unaware of the murderous hatred brewing between his willful daughter and her new step-mom. There’s the roly-poly clown Watermelon Man, stationed at the last stop before oblivion; his warnings are no match for the illuminated husk of a haunted mansion beckoning from the hilltop.

As the body count rises, laughter accompanies a swirl of fragmented female body parts (this is a horror movie in that respect) churning in a pop psychedelic vortex. It is a thin line between hysteria and hysterical after all. If there’s horror, it’s in the slippage, the seepage between words that you’d think should be kept sorted out. What is this? Funny-strange or funny ha-ha?

Then there’s the ghostcat, Blanche. When the eyes flicker green it means somebody’s going to die. And die they do. But what else? What does it all mean? Is that beside the point? I guess you don’t ask “why” at the fair; it’s simply thrills and giggles and blood. And isn’t that enough?

There is nothing subversive about the way gender differences are presented here. Virgins are sacrificed; the bitter old witch finds a new host and the wait continues for a suitor who will never come. These are well-worn myths: the spider in its web, the vampire in its lair, everything is as it should be, untroubled and unquestioned by a freewheeling aesthetic sensibility festooning every corner of the frame. Flashy ornaments still have to hang on something—a frame, a scaffold, a Christmas tree—and that structure is usually pretty stable and predictable. That’s why it works, that’s what its job is.

In this disc’s accompanying interview, Obayashi speaks of a long-standing desire to use House to trace out a generational difference between young and old, vis-à-vis World War II and the dropping of the atomic bomb on his hometown, Hiroshima. Were it not for Obayashi’s generously detailed, insightful comments here (dated 2010), this generation gap subtext may not be as readily available to the viewer as the filmmaker intended at the outset—competing as it is with the barrage of visual and aural stimuli, not to mention numerous genre and style cues that would seem to preclude social commentary of this sort—until, barely squeaking through, there is an almost tossed off comment made by one of the girls during a breezy silent film pastiche, where she sees a photo of the mushroom cloud and screams, “It looks like cotton candy!”

More to the point is the outward reception of House itself, an apt an illustration of this age divide as there is ever likely to be—where fans, detractors, and plain don’t-even-know-what-I’m-looking-at audiences split predictably along generational lines. It’s a film greatly preferred by the young, then and now. In this way House becomes a realization of very phenomenon Obayashi was trying to—but didn’t exactly—dramatize in the film itself.


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