Obayashi Nobuhiko’s hysterical haunted house movie redefines crazy
About as far from your average haunted house horror as you can possible get, House is Obayashi Nobuhiko’s irrepressibly insane 1977 studio debut. If he was looking to make an impression, it worked – and 35 years on, this effervescent fantasy still succeeds in doing just that.
Psychedelic, hilarious, ghostly and ghastly, House is dementedly happy before it turns exuberantly nasty. It’s extraordinarily excitable and hurtles along like a runaway train heading for a spectacular derailment, with multiple fatalities guaranteed.
When her summer holiday plans go awry due to the appearance of her dad’s confident new squeeze, schoolgirl Angel (Kimiko Ikegami) makes plans to head to her aunt’s countryside mansion. Accompanying her are her gang of garrulous girlfriends, the nattily named: Fantasy, Kung-Fu, Prof, Mac, Melody and Sweetie. Together they form a magnificent seven, of sorts.
Although she initially appears to be a harmless old spinster, Auntie (Yoko Minamida), is anything but (an early clue: she springs from her wheelchair and disappears into the fridge) and her house is quickly revealed as a box of dastardly tricks, from which there is no earthly escape. Little do they know it but these girls have come here to be munched.
Obayashi was a successful commercial and experimental film director who, at the time, represented quite a risk for Toho studios but, with Japanese cinema in crisis, desperation dictated. During the film’s pre-production, the vice-president of the studio, Isao Matsuoka apparently told Obayashi, "This is the first time I have seen such a meaningless script. But maybe it’s a good thing that I don’t understand. Please do not try to make it into something I can comprehend."
Obayashi has credited his young daughter Chigumi with the original concept of a house which consumes its inhabitants – she specifically came up with the hungry piano and grandfather clock sequences. Appositely, there’s a giddy, childish energy to the film and it’s a luridly colourful enterprise; that its director has a background in commercials is also screamingly evident.
House is chock-full of ideas, combining monochrome and tinted film, painted backdrops and animation. Its footage is often slowed-down, sped-up or appears to stutter. Obayashi may be a one-off in many respects but he confesses to have been, in part, inspired by giallo legend Mario Bava (he intended to release the film under a pseudonym which referenced Bava, but was dissuaded).
House was initially released as a B-picture in Japan but – because of its status as a word-of-mouth sensation, quite unlike anything on offer at the time – it eventually became a main attraction. It was particularly popular with teenagers, at that time a lost demographic for Japanese cinema.
Due to its spirited surrealism it has barely dated a day. House is playful without scrimping on the horror and, although it may not haunt your dreams, it will most certainly addle your mind.