Canon Entry - House (1977)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
When I first saw Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House many years ago, like most people, I was truly baffled. Half the time, I had no idea what the hell I was watching, it was such a hallucinogenic, bizarre and disorienting experience filled with truly weird visuals that it would be a disservice to try to explain them in words, but here goes. An old woman has an extra eye in her mouth. A piano that bites off limbs as a girl can’t help playing it. A head that another girl pulls up from a well, thinking it was a watermelon, which can fly and bites her on the ass as she tries to run away. And this doesn’t really scratch the surface of the deep well of weirdness this movie is.
What’s even more strange is that Obayashi, in his own words, didn’t think this was a particularly strange film. Toho studios had seen the success of Jaws in 1974 and wanted to replicate its success and asked Obayashi, a commercial director, to come up with a spec script. He did not want to make a straight rip-off of Jaws and instead, asked his daughter what she found terrifying. She came up with ideas like a reflection in a mirror attacking her as she combed her hair or mattresses crushing her to death. Both of these and many ideas inspired by his daughter would make it into the movie and would turn into the basic conceit of a house eating a group of girls in bizarrely Gothic fashion.
Even when the script was written, House defied most industry logic. The script itself was published at least a year before any filming took place, and a whole soundtrack existed for this script, featuring the band Godiego who also make an appearance in the movie. It was a radio drama and there was even merchandise for an unmade film. There was also a groundswell of support from young cinephiles who had seen Obayashi’s earlier short film Emotion, most likely on a college campus. When Toho studios finally let Obayashi, a non-Toho director, direct his own script (an unconventional practice for the studio at the time), he cast actors mainly from the many commercials that he had filmed in the meantime, most of whom had no acting experience whatsoever.
Obayashi turned his many apparent deficiencies and limits of his production into strengths. He believed that commercials were not necessarily inferior forms of art, but that they were creative short films. In fact, most Westerners may be familiar with Japanese commercials from YouTube and how strange, creative and, perhaps, off-putting they seem. If you see House as part of this lineage of commercials, then his whole aesthetic starts to make much more sense - how episodic it is, the use of myriad musical hooks, the bright color palette and even the mannered acting.
One might be tempted to think that the whole film is a postmodern exercise on the horror genre and that it is cynically calculated to achieve a certain aesthetic that cinephiles will lap up in ironic glee. I think that the movie is sincere and comes from a deeper place than one might suspect. Obayashi, colorful jester he might seem, grew up during the war and many of his childhood friends died in the Hiroshima bombing. This trauma is reflected in the aunt’s backstory about how she lost her betrothed as the girls hear the story, one of them even commenting on how the mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb looks like cotton candy. One could see this as the revenge of an older generation on a newer one that never experienced the trauma of WWII and is merely enjoying the benefits of the older generation’s hard work.
House achieves the delicate balance of having a childlike point of view with horror. For many children, the boundary between horror and wonder is much more ambiguous than it is for adults, which may explain why most people do not find this movie scary. I don’t think it was meant to be. If anything, it seems to be much more concerned with exploring the limits of hypothetical situations such as what a killer piano would look like. In fact, if explained in the proper context especially the scenes involving nudity and such, House is kind of ideal for kids. Obayashi’s daughter even remembered how desperately her friends in elementary school wanted to see the movie because they thought it genuinely looked like a movie geared to them.
Some of the film’s most wonderful moments reflect this childlike point of view. One of my favorite scenes has to be when one of the girls is looking at “Prof” with one eye closed and then switches eyes while keeping her focus on her. The camera subtly switches the placement of the girl in the frame in an accurate reflection of what our eyes do. I remember doing exactly the same eye switching with random objects when I was a kid. Clearly Obayashi did as well.
Obayashi and many of his actors and crew remember the filming of House as fun and joyous. Even the crew members who were very doubtful of the quality of the production would later tell him that they had enjoyed themselves but that they didn’t think they had made a good movie. I’m not entirely convinced that it is a “good” movie either, but it is one that brings me great joy. Obayashi made sure that the filming was fun especially for the young, inexperienced actresses. He would skip hand in hand with them to set, play music for them over their line readings, anything to make them more relaxed and act naturally, or at least joyfully. And if this movie has to receive the dubious distinction as pure camp, I believe it is joyous camp.