An updated-in-2020 version of the following blog post can be found in If You Haven't Seen It, It's New to You: The Movies and TV Shows Some of Us Regretted Not Catching Until Later. The 2020 book was written and self-published by yours truly. Get the paperback edition of If You Haven't Seen It, It's New to You now!
This is the 13th of 15 all-new blog posts that are being posted on a monthly basis until this blog's final post in December 2017. I know I said "monthly basis" all through 2017, and instead, there ended up being two posts this October and three back in August, but I guess I discovered that in August and now October, I found plenty of shit I wanted to write about before I call it quits. "I Can't Believe I've Never Seen It Till Now!" is a series of posts in which I reveal that I never watched a certain popular or really old movie until very recently, and that's largely because I'm Filipino, we're always late to the party and that's how we do.
Director Nobuhiko Obayashi's 1977 Japanese box-office hit House is the kind of film that, had it been made in 2017, would have ended up being the subject of various audience reaction videos by YouTubers who want to show how confused and bewildered the audience members look while trying to process the extremely weird shit they're watching. Not to be confused with the 1985 American horror comedy of the same name and the long-running Hugh Laurie vehicle of the same name, Obayashi's J-horror oddity was largely unknown in America until 2010, when Janus Films introduced the Toho Studios flick in theaters to American film geeks and the Criterion Collection released it on Blu-ray. Both a Phil Chung blog post for YOMYOMF (his post is basically "I don't know what the fuck I saw, but I loved it!") and a Trailers from Hell commentary track for the film's 1977 trailer made me want to see House.
House is definitely the most unconventional haunted-house movie I've ever seen. I was expecting a Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky-type bloodbath with a bit of a Battle Royale-style attitude about not giving a fuck about brutally killing off so many innocent-looking Japanese teens.
What I got instead was something stranger than Riki-Oh. I believe I have a clip of myself reacting to every scene in House:
It's that weird and nonsensical. It's not even all that scary as a horror flick, and it doesn't really become genuinely eerie until the very last scene. But what other horror flick has come up with imagery like a girl being eaten by a piano and getting mildly aroused by becoming dinner for that demonically possessed piano while she dies? Not even David Lynch could come up with something as nutso.
House's premise is on the conventional side: a teenage schoolgirl named Oshare (Kimiko Ikegami)--or as the English subtitles call her, "Gorgeous," while "Oshare" actually means "stylishness"--takes along with her six of her classmates to summer vacation at a seemingly benign country home occupied by her disabled aunt (Yōko Minamida), and the kindly aunt's house appears to have a mind of its own. It's what Obayashi--a TV commercial director before he made House--and screenwriter Chiho Katsura did with the premise that's totally unconventional.
All the scenes before the girls' arrival at the country house are shot like a slapsticky anime sitcom instead of leaning towards the more grounded kind of light-hearted normalcy that precedes the mayhem during something like The Cabin in the Woods or Poltergeist (for the scenes of the girls traveling by train and bus, Obayashi opted for intentionally cheesy-looking matte paintings that enhance the cartooniness of the film's first half). And then as the film gets darker and gorier and the body count piles up--at one point, post-Hiroshima trauma even plays a part in the haunted house's backstory, and more on that subject later--the frivolous original score by the J-pop band Godiego (pronounced "go-die-go") weirdly remains frivolous, while House goes crazy with low-tech collage effects that call attention to how goofy-looking and low-budget they are (Obayashi wanted it to look as if a little kid worked on those effects), rather than opting for the more elegant Toho Studios equivalent of Industrial Light and Magic.
Instead of a bunch of angsty teens, House's cast of schoolgirl characters is more akin to the characters in Police Academy and Revenge of the Nerds, or as I like to call that badly aging frat movie, Rapey Smurfs. Each of the six other girls is defined by one cartoonish trait: Fantasy (Kumiko Oba) daydreams all the time; Mac (Mieko Sato) likes to eat; Melody (Eriko Tanaka) likes to play piano; Prof (Ai Matsubara) is a bespectacled bookworm; Sweet (Masayo Miyako) likes to clean; Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo) is fond of demonstrating martial arts moves in her underwear. My favorite of the girls is Kung Fu because she's the only character who takes some action and tries to fight off the supernatural being that dominates the house and also because she's always accompanied by instrumental theme music that, once you hear it, will never ever leave your brain. Kung Fu's theme amusingly sounds like an endless loop of the opening notes of Keith Sweat's "I'll Give All My Love to You" if those notes were being played in reverse.
As the above Trailers from Hell commentrak points out, Obayashi turned to his 11-year-old daughter Chigumi Obayashi for ideas about the being's attacks on the girls in the titular house. That explains a lot about the simplicity of characters like Kung Fu, the film's jaunty tone and a bunch of nightmare scenarios that are barely nightmarish but must have been unsettling to Obayashi's then-11-year-old daughter and her classmates.
I usually avoid like the plague any live-action movie where the directors weirdly turned to their preteen kids for ideas. (It's like how I hate it when film reviewers include the opinions of their preteen kids in their reviews, as if anybody gives a shit about the opinions of some kid who has no idea who Kurosawa is and thinks Fellini is a type of pasta.) The poorly received Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D--Robert Rodriguez's vehicle for a pre-Twilight Taylor Lautner and a kids' superhero movie that was thought up by the filmmaker's then-seven-year-old son--is the first such movie that comes to mind. But House is likely the only case where a kid's ideas actually improved the movie and made it one of a kind.
|Miki Jinbo, a.k.a. Kung Fu, and House director Nobuhiko Obayashi|
|Like most of the other actresses in House, which was Obayashi's first feature film, Jinbo was a model who appeared in Obayashi's TV ads and had no prior screen acting experience before starring in the film.|
So many random things take place during House, and they give off the vibe of a kid being given free rein over a horror movie and not caring that the things she likes ("Ponies! Sundaes!") and has slipped into the screenplay are elements that don't quite fit in a horror flick, like how Gorgeous' widowed father (Saho Sasazawa) randomly has the off-screen job of a film composer instead of a typical teen horror movie dad job like law enforcement or farming. It results in my favorite line of the movie: the newly remarried film composer dad, who returns home to Gorgeous after scoring a film in Italy, brags that "Leone said my music was better than Morricone's." You know right away that this movie's a comedy when a character claims to have been told that he's a better composer than the musical genius behind "The Ecstasy of Gold."
Despite Obayashi's preteen daughter's role as House's "story scenarist," House isn't a movie little kids should be watching (they would get impatient with the movie anyway). To keep House from turning into a banal family film along the lines of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, Obayashi threw in nudity involving models-turned-actresses who are clearly a few years too old to be cast as teens and occasional bawdy moments that reinforce the film's comedic tone, like this homoerotic invitation to Fantasy from Gorgeous, who's too innocent to notice how homoerotic she sounds:
Unlike Ringu and Ju-on (The Grudge), you could not remake House in America. I really want House to stay under-the-radar in America and remain a best-kept secret among Criterion Collection nerds so that some whitewasher from Hollywood will never get his grubby hands on the property. When certain parts of white America were unable to understand why a white actress being cast as Major Kusanagi in the live-action Ghost in the Shell is so frustrating to us Asian Americans, RunLoveKill comic creator Jon Tsuei nicely schooled those stupid motherfuckers about how the Pat Boone-ization of Ghost in the Shell fucks up the whole point of the story: Japan's clinginess to technology and the nation's obsession with remaining the world's top technological superpower after the damage Hiroshima and Nagasaki did to the nation.
In other words, Ghost in the Shell is a very Japanese story, and the same is true of House. It's too personal of a film (and so reflective of the idiosyncrasies of its director and his daughter) to be turned into some generic American horror cash cow for Paramount or Ghost House Pictures (a.k.a. the Grudge and 30 Days of Night folks). Obayashi survived Hiroshima as a kid, and his first-hand experience with that tragedy seeped into House.
On second viewing, it becomes more clear that House is a comment on the nationwide PTSD of a certain generation of Japanese citizens after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a group of people represented in the film by the nameless aunt, whose grief over the war-related loss of her fiancé attracted an evil spirit that took over both her body and her house. The titular supernatural menace symbolizes the anger and grief of a generation that had nuclear bombs dropped on them, and the anger and grief are still so raw and strong that they will continue to haunt future generations in Japan and maybe even result in the deaths of a few people from those generations, just like how the evil spirit picks off Gorgeous' friends one by one. It's an interesting statement that can easily be missed while the film throws at you comedic images like pianos that eat people and severed heads that bite people in the biscuits.
I really don't care for Game of Thrones viewer reaction videos--most of those recorded reactions are about as genuine as an expression of remorse from Harvey Weinstein--or for any of those pointless YouTube videos where white people or little kids are fed examples of foreign cuisine for the first time and it turns into an uncomfortable-to-watch display of ethnic food shaming. But House is a rare case where I'm really curious about how people would react when they're first subjected to that dead girl's disembodied head taking a bite out of her friend's ass or any of the psychedelic strangeness Obayashi brought into a haunted-house movie that sometimes feels like a 90-minute Mr. Sparkle ad.
If you're a fan of House--whose House? Toho's House!--you might even be compelled to record the reactions of a significant other who's never seen the movie before and is watching it for the first time. (If your significant other walks off and is unable to finish the movie just because it's too weird, dump that person. Immediately.) I've never watched the original Amityville Horror with James Brolin and Margot Kidder--the type of pop-culture footnote in which the classic Eddie Murphy stand-up routine that mocked it is better remembered today than the movie itself--and I never will, because I know that shit's never going to be as entertaining a haunted-house movie as House.
House is streamable on FilmStruck, a streaming service that's run by both the Criterion Collection and TCM.