Rabbits Full of Magic

08 March 2010

 

Nobuhiko Obayashi's "House"


House (ハウス Hausu?) is a 1977 Japanese horror/comedy film directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi. It is currently a huge obsession of mine. It is about 7 Japanese schoolgirls who stay at one of their aunts' haunted mansion for summer vacation. Each girl has a nickname that describes their character in the way animes would later be known for, and they are confronted with a demonic cat and the spooky demeanor of the aunt. On imdb people compare it to Beetlejuice or the Evil Dead series and indeed, it's as funny as it is scary. But it's also surreal and beautiful in ways that would put David Lynch to shame.



This film is famous for the low-budget effects that are employed in the latter half of the film as the girls are killed off. One sequence involves rotoscoped keying; as a girl (Fantasy?) watches a breaking mirror pieces of her face begin to fall off an reveal fire, until she is a glowing red body.


Several sequences include gratuitous use of drawing directly on the film with markers to create frantic psychedelic borders as Melody realizes she is being devoured by the piano she is playing. That scene famously finishes with severed fingers suspended in the air, plonking away at the keys. When the song finishes, the sheet music falls, the piano cover comes crashing down, and blood splatters out. The film doesn't really come across as gory when you watch it, because it feels like something taking place in a surrealist dream rather than gruesome reality.


As strange and subversive as these techniques and the horror-comedy atmosphere created in the second half of House is the truly surreal beginning sequence about the gorgeous Oshare's life at school with her friends and at home with a soon-to-be new mother. There are numerous film techniques that wouldn't be out of place 15 years later in an episode of Twin Peaks; odd superimpositions, heavily tinted images, counterintuitive sound effects, cross-fades that last MUCH longer than they ought to. The backgrounds are painted skies that are too beautiful to be real, the action cuts from scene to scene with effortless camera tricks that make it feel like you are watching a master sleight-of-hand magician. When the girls take a psychedelic train ride to the country, it resembles a daydream Michel Gondry may have had at Disneyland.


Apparently the director was tapped after the Japanese studio witnessed the success of Jaws from studio outsider Steven Spielberg. Obayashi got his start in the early 60s as a lover of experimental film, spending ten years exploring possibilities before starting a career in commercials. In an interview he explains that the Japanese commercial industry was very well-funded in comparison to films, and the experience certainly comes across in the eye-catching instantaneous beauty and split-second cuts of House.

Unfortunately House has not yet been released on DVD, but there is a copy floating around the internet if you know where to look!

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