House is a Japanese comedy/horror film originally released in 1977. It has been an obscurity for decades, only occasionally surfacing on worn bootleg videotapes in little-traveled pockets of esoteric Japanese fandom. Despite the movie being a smash hit in its original Japanese release, the Western World has only recently become ready for it: Janus Films has been shuttling beautiful new prints of House around the art house circuit, and now Criterion Collection has released it on DVD. It's difficult for me to put into words how spectacular and wonderful this bizarre, maddening film is. Criterion calls it "[like] an episode of Scooby Doo directed by Mario Bava," and many other stunned reviewers have gotten into the comparative game: Village Voice namechecks the Kuchar Brothers and Teletubbies; the New York Times suggests "Looney Tunes cartoons, schlock Italian horror and martial arts movies." To me, it was like an episode of "PufnStuff" helmed by Dawn of the Dead-era George Romero, or Herschell Gordon Lewis' version of the Hello Kitty universe.
House begins as a more-or-less traditional, hacky teen comedy melodrama, with its seven adorable, giggly schoolgirl characters and their petty woes. When the plucky youngsters go off to visit an elderly aunt in her creepy house, the movie gets stranger, but still resembles a conventional ghost story. Soon, however, the whole mess goes spectacularly off the rails, and before your know it you've got dismembered body parts flying around, homicidal furniture, rooms filling up with blood, surprising nudity, bears selling noodles in a stall (?) and a guy turning into a pile of bananas, all accompanied by manic animation effects, garish video tricks, and insane music. This is one of the craziest movies I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of crazy movies.
One thing important to know about House is that it's not inadvertently campy or "so bad it's good." Director Nobuhiko Obayashi set out to intentionally make a "ludicrous" film, in his own words, and it is, in fact, an avant-garde, experimental movie through and through, despite its trappings of aggressively dumb wackiness . What's more, Obayashi knows his cinema history, as these two stills from early in the film, in sequences which obviously pay homage to Kurosawa and Ozu, demonstrate:
(Shot through a beveled-glass screen)
(A classic Ozu shot)
The rest of the movie, though, can almost be seen as an extended act of violence against cinematic conventions and good taste. Obayashi not only uses, but recklessly abuses every trick in the book: there are haphazard iris-ins, baffling still-shots, double-exposures, wipes, atrocious pans, you name it. "We wanted the special effects to look fake... like something a child would do," the director deadpans in the accompanying documentary, and it's obviously not "I meant to do that" excuse-making.
I'm almost angry that this magnificent Dada masterpiece (and that really is what it is) has been kept from me for so long! House is a wild ride, as audacious and iconoclastic in its own goofball way as Eraserhead, El Topo, Pink Flamingos or Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and every bit as subversive. If you enjoy difficult foreign films, Pee Wee's Playhouse, peculiar Japanese what-the-fuckedness, or if you're just a jaded gorehound, don't miss House.