For this Film Frame Friday, I’ll be covering one of my favorite Criterion releases, the wonderfully wacky, what-the-hell-did-I-just-watch classic, House. Criterion themselves provided the description of the film that has stuck with me the most: “An episode of Scooby-Doo as directed by Mario Bava.” It’s easy to dismiss the film as a psychedelic novelty, a drug-fueled relic of the 1970s with no real value beyond its wild visuals, but there’s a powerful strain of melancholy running through the film, and—if anything—that melancholy manages to gain power from the film’s strange and unique style.
Ôbayashi throws every camera trick in the book at this film, and somehow it comes out strong and cohesive, rather than the mess one might expect. The film achieves a heightened sense of emotion through its constant barrage of jarring editing and effects.
Ôbayashi directed a short film nearly a decade prior to House called Emotion that draws influence from various preceding experimental filmmakers such as Man Ray, Teinosuke Kinugasa, Jean Epstein, Luis Buñuel and Maya Deren. While House takes a wildly different direction, the experimental editing techniques Ôbayashi employed in Emotion clearly informed those in House. Visually, the film ranges from hazy, nostalgic scenes to frantic action sequences. Ôbayashi uses all sorts of techniques—animation, stop motion, matte effects, blue screen effects, collage, vignettes, slow motion, multiple exposure, iris shots and countless others—to create the unique experience of House.
During calm, serene scenes, Ôbayashi makes use of soft focus and colorful skies in the background. One of the most peaceful scenes in the movie takes place near the beginning at Gorgeous’s residence, when her father introduces her to his partner Ryoko. The camera looks through a glass door onto an idyllic balcony with lots of plants and a beautiful painted sunset in the background. Ryoko enters in slow motion, her white outfit and scarf billowing in the wind (which only seems to affect her) against the sunset behind her. As the characters move to and fro, the camera slowly tracks to follow them, the angles in the glass door fragmenting the image. The scene is very reminiscent of early Technicolor films; in fact, this is the case almost anytime Ryoko is on screen. There is also an interesting effect in this scene when Gorgeous throws Ryoko’s scarf and runs off; the frame is split vertically, with the right side frozen with Gorgeous in it and the left side showing the scarf floating through the air in slow motion.
Another interesting effect is the use of a silent film aesthetic. While the girls are on the train on the way to the titular house, Gorgeous tells the other girls about her aunt’s past. This takes the form of a flashback shot like a silent film, complete with grainy black and white visuals, undercranking and intertitles, punctuated only twice by color for emphasis: once with the fiancé’s draft card, and once with the rose the aunt is holding, which drips bright red animated blood. While this scene plays out, the girls comment on it as if they are actually watching the silent film. A camera flash cuts to footage of a mushroom cloud, and one of the girls exclaims, “It’s like a cotton candy!” They also comment on the film burning up as the aunt and her fiancé kiss, which is yet another interesting effect.
Ôbayashi doesn’t try to hide the artificiality of the sets. There is even a direct wink to the audience regarding this when the girls get off the bus in Gorgeous’s aunt’s village; there is a billboard with a landscape painted on it, with the “real” backdrop behind it. In wide shots, the viewer can see it’s a billboard the girls are standing in front of, but in medium shots the billboard is more or less indistinguishable from the “actual” background. The film cares so little about presenting realistic visuals that it ultimately doesn’t even matter which is the true backdrop.
The pace of the editing picks up as the girls reach the house and the horror begins. There is a scene in which Sweet watches Prof while alternatingly closing each eye. We are then shown her perspective, with two adjacent cameras each showing a slightly different view of Prof and representing the view from each of Sweet’s eyes. There is a dolly zoom as Fantasy pulls the “watermelon” out of the well. There is also an additional Hitchcock homage later on, when Sweet is attacked by mattresses from below through a glass floor. There is a fight scene between Kung Fu and the possessed Gorgeous that is straight out of a wuxia film, with both of them soaring through the air and defying gravity. When the remaining girls find Gorgeous after her aunt has possessed her, the scene plays at a much lower framerate, illustrating the aunt’s disorientation in her new body. At other times, the film alternates shots literally every other frame when something extremely intense is happening. These sorts of techniques occur constantly throughout the movie, demanding the viewer’s attention at all times.
One of the film’s most iconic scenes is the one in which Melody is eaten by a piano. This scene makes wonderful use of blue screen effects and superimposed animation in its depiction of the piano eating Melody’s fingers, then her hand, and then the rest of her. We see arms and legs flailing out of the piano as it thrashes about, and various body parts in a pool of blood inside the piano. Finally, we see her severed fingers floating from one piano key to another before the fallboard crushes them in a spray of blood. That this happens because Melody played the lullaby-like song that has been a source of peace throughout the film makes it even more gruesome.
I want to discuss the mirror “possession” sequence in detail, as it’s probably the most memorable moment in the film. Its editing and brilliant imagery burn themselves into the viewer’s mind. Gorgeous is sitting at her aunt’s vanity putting on lipstick. In the mirror she sees her reflection smiling back. Her reflection then turns into her aunt, dressed like Gorgeous. Gorgeous turns around to see if her aunt is in the room, and when she turns back it is her own reflection again. Then her reflection smiles to reveal fangs resembling those of a Japanese demon. The reflection then fades back to her aunt. A terrified expression comes over the aunt’s face. We cut briefly to Shiro the cat, whose eyes flash green, then back to the mirror, which begins to crack. The reflection cries blood, and blood runs down the cracked mirror as well. We cut to Gorgeous staring at the mirror as pieces crack and fall off of her face, as if she herself were a mirror, revealing a raging fire beneath. Then we see her completely engulfed in fire, or rather, she has become fire. She slowly raises her hand to her lips as if continuing to put on lipstick, and the scene ends. From the moment Gorgeous’s reflection smiles at her to the end of the scene only lasts about a minute, but it’s packed with incredible images.
House was released in 1977 and even now there really isn’t anything else like it. The closest thing I can think of is Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris, and even that isn’t all that similar. The fact that House remains a thoroughly unique experience over forty years later is a testament to Ôbayashi’s singular vision and the range of techniques he used to realize it.