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Criterion Month – The Hallucinogenic Haunting of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s ‘House’

Criterion Month – The Hallucinogenic Haunting of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s ‘House’

I can’t quite remember the words of the friend who introduced me to House used to describe the film, but I do remember being told that no adjectives or comparisons would be quite adequate to describe the experience of watching the cult Japanese film. After watching it, that description holds up: it is truly impossible to use ordinary language to capture the transcendence of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 horror-comedy House (or Hausu), a fever-dream fairy tale.

The tale begins when seven young women, all with nicknames that reveal their archetypal personalities (Gorgeous, Prof, Melody, Mac, Fantasy, Kung Fu, and Sweet) travel to spend the summer at Gorgeous’ aunt’s house. Chaos, unsurprisingly, ensues. The character names create an allegorical feel to the film, and House can be viewed as a story about telling stories. It sends up all of our expectations of what a horror story looks like and what it means, parodying and satirizing many tropes of the horror genre as schoolgirl fantasies morph into something both sinister and perversely comedic. 

Each of the girls has a nickname and acts as a certain archetype in the story. © The Criterion Collection

Fairy tales and folktales often contain morals to impart on the young, though it is unclear what lessons this film would teach—it seems to exist in an entirely different universe from any other storybook tale, especially any one that halfway responsible parents would read to their children. The aesthetic is a mix of home movie and midnight B-movie, the low-budget stylistic elements heightening the campy tone. Obayashi frequently employs collage-style editing and kaleidoscopic cinematography, adding brightly colored mattes, painted backdrops, and gloriously oddball animations. Bizarre images of eyeballs, fireballs, smiling skeletons, and oceans of blood are overlaid on top of the girls’ faces; flowers and severed body parts float side by side through the onscreen space. It is a frightful feast for the eyes, a smorgasbord of zany imagery.

Amid the hallucinatory haze of images, a number of classic fairy tale or folklore tropes emerge, like the evil stepmother or doomed romance. Gorgeous’s mother died when she was very young, and she is crushed when her father reveals he is about to remarry.  The aunt, whom Gorgeous only met once many years ago, is a mysterious presence, and the girls retell her tragic love story of losing her fiance in World War II. Meanwhile Fantasy, true to her nickname, repeatedly fantasizes about their teacher Mr. Togo riding up on a white horse and carrying her off into the sunset. Ghosts and witches are also always at the forefront of the friends’ minds, as they frequently reference legends or compare their surroundings to a horror film. Telling stories is part of what these girls do; it is how they try to understand what is happening to them. They are self-aware about their existence within a story, even if they are less sure of the genre. Is everything they see a twisted nightmare or a poisoned fantasy of summertime… and is a happy ending possible? 

 

Gorgeous’s aunt haunting the house. © The Criterion Collection

The natural impulse of the girls, and the audience, is to use storytelling conventions to try to make sense of the bizarre folktale they have found themselves within, if you can call it a folktale. To describe House according to any singular genre is impossible (and misguided), as it transcends genre and it transcends coherent explanation. Perhaps this results from the fact that Obayashi consulted with his young daughter, Chigumi, for script ideas. A childlike touch is present throughout, from the purposefully amateurish animations and cheesy sound effects to the iconic cat. Chigumi gave suggestions based on her actual fears, giving House the feeling that it is as authentic a folktale as it is a nightmare that a real young girl might have dreamed up.

Mac’s severed head. © The Criterion Collection

The horrors of House are not just those that spring from the female imagination, but from the imagining of women by male spectators. One horrific takeaway from the film is that danger can lurk absolutely anywhere for women. Where can these schoolgirls be safe if not amongst family and friends? Haunted house narratives are often nightmares of unwanted presence: the living and the dead each want the other out of their house. The aunt’s house is initially seen as a refuge for Gorgeous, a place where they all can feel welcome and free. Yet that welcoming energy gives way to dangerous desire: the film’s titular house, and the gaze of the camera, has a desperate need to rip their bodies to pieces, and the mansion quickly turns into a lair of a monstrous feminine force. It is eventually revealed that the silver-haired aunt actually died long ago, but she was so stricken by grief from the death of her fiance in the war that spirit remained alive through the house, luring and eating all unmarried girls who enter. The horror trope of sex = death is turned on its head, for it is precisely because the girls are unmarried and innocent that they have become the targets of the house’s bloodlust. 

Even if the young women are not killed simply for having sex, their sexuality is weaponized against them. House shows an inextricable tie between sexual curiosity and the violence the house enacts women. Most of the characters are consumed by manifestations of their own passions or desires. Mac is killed by her quest to satisfy her insatiable appetite. She goes to retrieve a watermelon in a well, and when she does not return, Fantasy finds her severed head. Sweet is devoured by a mattress and sheets, and when the other girls search for her, they find her apron and bra, as well as a stripped doll. Gorgeous eventually transforms into a vision in white, traditional Japanese clothing—perhaps becoming the bride in white that her aunt never got the chance to be. Melody is consumed by a piano, and as she is being consumed by the keys, Melody’s disembodied head glances at her severed legs kicking ferociously and smirks to say: “Oh, that’s naughty.” Despite their screams of terror as they are consumed, the girls do not even take their own deaths entirely seriously. They act as voyeurs to their own demises, finding laughter and strange pleasure in their own pain. They become one of us viewers: watching nonsensical events unfold, never quite sure what to make of what they are seeing.

Melody eaten by the piano. © The Criterion Collection

The house weaponizes anxieties over marriage and sexuality, and drives women to cannibalize other women. At the end of the film, the naive soon-to-be stepmother arrives at the house. When she inquires where everyone is, Gorgeous says that her friends will wake up soon because they’ll be “hungry,” and her eyes glimmer as the stepmother’s image transforms to flames. The marriage to Gorgeous’s father has not happened yet, so the house (and the group of friends that have become part of its energy) has another unmarried woman to consume. Now, at least, the hunger of the house and Gorgeous’s desire not to have a stepmother are both satiated.

What’s the message of this farcical fable, if there is a message? One interpretation is that the world is dangerous for women. Another is that we all feel a need to keep telling stories, no matter how bizarre our surroundings. As the film states to viewers, we need to keep telling stories of love, so that “even when the flesh perishes, one can live on in the hearts of others, together with the feelings one has for them. Therefore the story of love must always be retold.” House may not be a “love story,” but it is a story that many love. Viewers, myself included, often feel a need to share the craziness of House with friends, and continually pass on this film to unsuspecting viewers — just like the house seems to continually need new visitors to gobble up. But no need to be afraid. Words cannot begin to describe what awaits you in House, so you will just have to see for yourselves.

 

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