Sunday, August 19, 2012

Hausu (1977)

... aka: HOUSE ハウス
... aka: House

Directed by:
Nobuhiko Ôbayashi

This very well could be the holy grail of bizarre Japanese cinema and that is both a very good thing and a very bad thing all at once. Former TV commercial director Nobuhiko Ohbayashi's vivid imagination seem to know no bounds and there is always something very strange and very colorful going on here. The bad news is that he shows absolutely no restraint toying around with just about every single experimental technique available, which quite frankly loses its novelty value well before the finale. 

On break from school, teenager Oshare (Kimiko Ikegami) is looking forward to going on vacation with her rich father (Saho Sasazawa), who's been away in Italy working on the soundtrack to a new Sergio Leone western. Mom passed away eight years ago and Dad finally reveals he's been seeing someone else - a fashion designer named Ryoko Ema (Haruko Wanibuchi) - that he plans on marrying. Not too happy about any of this, the jealous and somewhat spoiled Oshare decides to bail out on the plans with her father and go on vacation to see her Auntie (Yôko Minamida); her mother's sister, who she hasn't seen in about ten years. She invites along six of her school friends, whose plans had also fallen through, to come along and sends her auntie a letter asking for permission. A white ghost cat named Snowflake mysterious appears and so does a return letter from Auntie saying "Come to me!"

On the train ride over, Oshare tells everyone a little about her Aunt, who lost her fiance during the war, still resides in the large mansion owned by her grandmother as a spinster and used to work as a piano teacher. The girl's are all briefly introduced and each have a little quirk to separate them from one another. Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo) is an athletic, karate-practicing tomboy, Mac (Meiko Sato) - short for "Stomach" - is the chubby girl with a voracious appetite, Melody (Eriko Tanaka) is into music and playing piano, Sweet (Masayo Miyako) is the nice one, Gari (Ai Matsubara) is the brainy one and Fanta (Kumiko Ohba) is the wimpy worrier of the group who has a crush on their male teacher. Oshare (which I usually seen listed as meaning "Gorgeous") is the pretty, classy, popular one of the bunch. 

The bus drops the girls off early and they must walk the rest of the way. Along the trail, they stop by a fruit stand, where the retarded owner points them in the right direction. They arrive, meet Auntie - who's now white-haired and confined to a wheelchair - and almost instantly strange things start to happen. Snowflake, who really belongs to the aunt, seems to telepathically make a camera fly out of one of the girl's hands. Pieces of a chandelier fall and almost kill someone but end up being deflect by Kung Fu's lightning fast reflexes and kill a gecko (?) instead.

Auntie acts really weird and hints at being either a cannibal or a ghost / vampire. The girls start mysteriously dying and both the aunt - who's soon out of her wheelchair, dancing around and disappearing inside of the refrigerator - and the house seem to be feeding off the lifeforce of the dead girls to rejuvenate themselves. 

Mac loses her head, which comes back to life, flies through the air and bites Fanta in the ass. No one believes her about the incident. Kung Fu is attacked by animated logs outside, but fights them off and says it must have been her imagination (?) Sweet is attacked by sheets and mattresses, seems to be transformed into a doll and then ends up inside a bleeding clock. Since the phone won't work, Oshare - who's possessed by this point after seeing a reflection of her vampire auntie in a mirror - claims she's going to get the police. As soon as she exits, the house seals itself up and the four remaining (sometimes) terrified girls face all kinds of supernatural weirdness which includes furniture levitating, a giant head, eyeball and lips, someone being dismembered and eaten by a piano (their disembodied fingers continue to play), someone being sucked into a ceiling lamp and an entire room flooding with cat's blood.

The male teacher Fanta has a crush on is supposed to show up eventually, but he gets stuck in traffic, goes to eat some noodles, ends up killing the fruit stand worker when he tells him he likes bananas more than melons (?) and then goes crazy and starts beating himself over the head while screaming "Nabana!" over and over again (??) The aunt is explained away as longing to be married so she eats unwed girls who come there. After a string of loud, wild and often times nonsensical set-pieces, the film quickly tries to settle down for a somber and meaningful ending - well, after the soon-to-be stepmother shows up and catches fire - which is more head-scratching than affecting.

What joys this film musters up are almost entirely in its visual presentation and special effects, which are pretty amazingly pulled off for a film from this era. There's plenty of use of animation, such as a dead goldfish turning into an animated one and swimming off, as well as images which look snipped from some comic book bouncing around all over the screen. Split screen, overlapping scenes, early green screen work, colorfully exaggerated matte backdrops, slow-motion, sped-up film, freeze frames, repeated shots, rewound shots and various camera placements from behind glass or plastic (sometimes underneath where the action is taking place) are all frequently used. 

One flashback scene is done in grainy black-and-white and another is styled like a sepia-tone silent film complete with title cards and jumps in the picture and sound. About every color in the rainbow is utilized to make this as bright and cheery as humanly possible. It's really like a piece of tacky pop art captured on film. I could also see echoes of some later films here. I wonder if Sam Raimi and Dario Argento saw this before they made, respectively, The Evil Dead (1981) and PHENOMENA (1984)?

All that said, I still didn't love this movie. It's neither scary nor particularly funny, it's just fast, noisy, zany, vivid, heavily stylized and sometimes uber creative. As much as I appreciate the latter quality, the seeming randomness of some of the events and the giggly, whiny, squealing characters brushed in the broadest of strokes frequently grated on my nerves. Definitely worth at least one watch, though. You very well may like it a lot (the snooty folks [kidding!] at The Criterion Collection deemed it worthy of a release), but a certain hollowness kept me from being able to fully embrace it.

Warning: Do NOT watch this film on a hallucinogenic substance if you value your sanity.

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