How insane is the Japanese comedy/fantasy/horror hybrid House? Consider the following scene, which is fairly typical of the movie’s tone. When a schoolgirl named Melody goes to fetch water from a well, she accidentally draws up a decapitated human head that’s hidden in the well. Then the head, which is somehow alive, smiles at Melody, dances in midair, bites Melody’s ass, exclaims “Oh my, that’s tasty,” and vomits a geyser of blood. Need more convincing? How about the throwaway scene featuring a bear working behind the counter at a restaurant, complete with a bandana around its head, or the epic sequence in which a piano eats a young woman, her limbs shooting out of every hole in the instrument while animated lighting strikes and sparkle patterns appear onscreen?
Even by the standards of an era in which filmmakers went to gonzo extremes on a regular basis, House is easily one of the craziest movies of the ’70s. It’s so strange, in fact, that trying to determine whether House is any good serves no purpose. The movie exists within a deranged parallel universe all its own, so normal critical standards do not apply. Coproduced and directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi, who based the story on ideas provided by his preteen daughter Chigumi Obayashi, House was apparently a major commercial success in its native country. Nonetheless, the movie was rarely seen in the U.S. until 2009, when it found a welcome reception among fans of bizarre cinema. Inexplicably, it even rated a DVD release by the arthouse afficianadoes at the Criterion Collection, but whether House actually qualifies as art is a highly subjective matter. While it’s unquestionably arresting and individualistic, it’s also primitive and silly and even a bit vulgar.
In any event, House begins with two Japanese schoolgirl friends, Fantasy (Kumiko Oba) and Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), celebrating the last day of classes before summer vacation. Right from the start, the style of House is deliberately odd. Herky-jerky editing and stylized optical effects distort time, overtly false backdrops distort place, and the transformation of nearly all dialogue into sing-song chirping distorts tone. Amid the loopy flourishes, the movie introduces a meager element of psychodrama when Gorgeous returns home to her father, a professional film composer, and is confronted by her new stepmother. It seems Gorgeous’ mother died several years ago, so she’s dealing with abandonment issues. After this ominous but relatively inconsequential scene, Gorgeous joins Fantasy and several other schoolgirls—all bearing such silly names as Kung Fu, Prof, and Sweet—for a train ride to the countryside home of Gorgeous’ aunt (Yoko Minamida). Alas, Auntie’s demonic house proceeds to consume the girls, one by one, in outrageous ways—it’s the usual descent from fairy-tale happiness to nightmarish violence, only with a truly unique approach to pacing, tonality, and visuals.
Obayashi throws a little bit of everything at the audience throughout the 88 jam-packed minutes that comprise House. Among other things, the movie includes animated sequences, gore, martial arts, musical numbers, and nudity. And homicidal seaweed. And a tender, English-language soft-rock ballad that plays over the closing credits—which scroll across a cartoon tongue leading to a cartoon version of Auntie’s house. Abandon all hope of sanity, ye who enter here.