HOUSE (1977) part 1
Nobuhiko Obayashi’s cult horror-comedy House recently got a slick release from Criterion, and shortly before that a brief art-house run. If you haven’t seen it, suffice to say that words don’t really do it justice. House is a cotton-candy colored pop massacre, a masterpiece of bad taste and sly wit suspended between classical Japanese folklore and Corman-style exploitation. You will believe a severed human leg can fly.
Abby: So, we watched House for the second time the other night and it was a really different experience for me- for a lot of reasons actually. Mostly, there was a significant difference between the big screen and my crappy little TV, which really made the film both visually less vibrant, but narratively as well. there was a sort of “3 am B movie on tv” vibe.
Chris: What do you mean “narratively?”
Abby: Maybe it’s because the film didn’t have the element of surprise on its side this time, but I felt somehow less hypnotized by the craziness of the film.
Chris: Ok, well. Somebody once said about A Bande Apart- unfairly I think- that it was less a coherent narrative than a series of gestures. Except, in the case of House, I do think that’s a more or less valid way of approaching it.
Abby: I agree with that. I guess I meant to say that there was less shock and awe the second time around.
Chris: Look at Obayashi’s background. People point to his history in advertising when they talk about House, but it’s important to note that even before that, he’d made a name for himself as experimental film-maker (note: Obayashi’s 1966 underground success “Emotion” is included on the Criterion DVD. Unfortunately, neither of us have watched it yet).
I think that in examining what works and what doesn’t work in House, the most charitable view almost has to look at it as existing in this interstitial area between the 30-second ad spot and the avant-garde movie.
It almost rewards the viewer for not having a very long attention span.
Abby: Haha, that’s true. it’s really feels like 80 min the second time through, though.
We watched the film with a friend, who I can safely say probably know a lot more about Japanese popular culture than I do, and I kept wondering what her reaction was going to be seeing this for the first time. I mean, the film gets discussed a lot in the context of horror films, satire, and the directors advertising background but I’m curious where it exists in the context of Japanese filmmaking
Chris: Well it was commissioned initially as an explicit reaction to the success of “Jaws.” You know. Toho was interested in a sort of summer blockbuster, with a lot of spectacle. And it’s interesting, I actually sat down to watch the movie this second time with the story of Seijun Suzuki and Branded to Kill in mind. But reading up on the production history of House, it’s almost exactly the opposite situation.
Whereas Suzuki lost his job for turning a sort of by-the-numbers script into this surreal phantasia, the studio really seemed to urge Obayashi into the excess we see in the final product. Although the script was shelved for a few years, when it was finally green-lit the attitude seems to have been that Toho had lost enough money making movies that made sense. They were ready to gamble on the sort of adolescent fever-dream House wound up being.
The industry was already changing, making itself ready to accommodate formal and tonal playfulness. To subvert itself. Keep in mind, the Nikkatsu had, at this point, already decided to monetize itself as a studio largely producing porn. And this was one of the oldest film studios in the country, so— in the big picture, House was a bold move, but not entirely unexpected in its boldness.
Abby: I didn’t know that. It makes the forced whimsy of the film so much more poignant- more than just a cheeky stylistic choice or satiracal nod to the glossy ad/pop work of the director, it sort of becomes a cruel choice, a way to torment the girls as well as a kind of “fuck you” to the studio
Chris: Why would you read it as a “fuck you” to the studio? It isn’t like he submitted one script to them and then shot from a secret one.
Abby: Mmm, i might take back that last part, but knowing that the studio was sort of egging on Obayashi makes the happy hyperactivity of the seven girls seem a little more sinister, no? That to match the crazyness of the house he must make the victims equally crazy. I don’t know what I’m saying really.
Chris: I don’t know if I’d call it cruel though. I mean, look. Half of these kids don’t even seem to take it very seriously when they themselves are dying. As a horror movie it doesn’t really work because the tone is so consistently buoyant. Even scenes that sound really uncomfortable and exploitative- Sweet getting smothered to death by futons from an upskirt angle- feels ludic in practice. There’s something fundamentally very cartoony about how the film treats violence and danger.
It’s almost as if, when we sit down and watch a sort of “standard” horror movie, something like Last House on the Left for example, we feel what we feel because we accept it as taking place in the same sort of universe as the one we live in. People die when they got shot, people feel afraid when they’re put in a helpless situation.
House isn’t scary in that sort of sense because it takes place in a universe with different physical and metaphysical rules. It’s like a slasher movie in which, half the world away, you sort of feel like Buster Keaton is sitting in a steamboat wheel with his hat floating away. It’s essentially slapstick in its outlook, and the reason it’s frightening is that we radically can’t feel the familiar sense of fear at the predicament these girls are in, we’re frightened because we aren’t sure what to feel.
Abby: But I think House is terrifying, or, better, electrifying in this way. Someone recently wrote about The Blair Witch Project and said that a lot of her terror when watching the film came from the fact that she had no context within which she could place the film. It didn’t look or feel like other horror movies at that time and a lot of her fear came from the fact that she didn’t know how scared she was supposed to be. The first time you watch House, I think there’s a similar reaction.
Chris: Well sure. And I think he plays with that. For example, early in the movie Melody sits down and plunks out the first few bars of the theme song. 45 minutes or so later she gets eaten by the piano. Now I don’t know about you, but the minute she sat down at that thing, I said to myself, this kid is going to get eaten by that piano.
Abby: Well it’s the most famous scene.
Chris: But consider how much absurd catharsis Obayashi got by setting that up, then prolonging the punch-line for as long as he possibly could. And even then, to what lunatic excess he took the execution of the scene itself.
Abby: But as insane as that catharsis was, didn’t you find yourself somewhat repulsed by it as well?
Chris: How so?
Abby: I think the relationship between the viewer and the body in House is interesting. I found that the there was something grotesque in the way Melody’s body was shown in that scene that wasn’t exactly scary, but it took the cartoonishness of the scene to a different place
For me that scene was uttlerly hynotizing because I was laughing and recoiling, which is one of the best reactions a film can elicit, in my opinion.
Chris: You really thought that scene was the most objectionable? Not the girl falling into a lake of cat blood and suddenly being naked?
Abby: I didn’t say it was the most objectionable, I wouldn’t say I objected to any of the scenes. But I thought that the piano scene illustrated something at the heart of the film which were audiance expectations, the sort of horror around the body, and the melding of camp and the troubling.
Chris: Camp is a tricky word in talking about this movie I think. It implies an ironic appropriation of something that used to be earnest, but sort of, well, sucked (not a direct Sontag quote believe it or not). And I don’t think that’s going on in the bulk of House. Sure, in the beginning. The school stuff. The step-mom with that billowing scarf. But like you said, everything that goes on in the house itself is sort of without precedent. There’s no unironic referent for it to position itself as camp towards.
And— I don’t want to sound too contrary— I think horror of the body, particularly this horror and ambivalence towards the female body, is something that can be brought up in relation to a lot of horror films, most horror films even, but I think comparatively House was actually pretty solid in that regard. Can you think of many horror movies where a female character can have as much agency and get as much shit done as Kung-Fu does in this one? Maybe Ripley from Aliens?
Abby: I mean, do you think kitsch might be a better word? I think the problem is that the film is mocking without being annoyingly ironic. It’s silly and stylized which kind of point in the direction of camp.
Chris: What’s it mocking though?
Abby: I guess mocking isn’t the right word. I feel like that’s a problem I’m having with House, there just are the right words that can really describe the nuances of House. It’s funny to decribe such an over the top film as nuanced, but it’s really both.