Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (1977) is memorable as a haunted house movie which defines itself through a whimsical absurdity forming a reality independent from any conventional filmmaking. It presents a cartoonish vision of our world, strange as the uncanny artificial foregrounds and otherworldly lighting; ultimately resembling a family-friendly film distorted into the surrealism of slapstick horrors. As it progresses, it becomes indistinguishable from a fever dream as in Kafka’s short story of ‘A Country Doctor’ – reality is wholly uprooted from the facsimile of any usual setup. The triumph of House, however, is supplying comedy in the form of imaginative scenarios essentially tongue-in-cheek to standard horror tropes one may expect (e.g. floating head from a well, killer piano, possessed house, evil cat, kung fu), executing these in a manner that playfully contradicts orthodox approaches of the genre itself as a proudly unique entity. If Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth was cleverly crafted dark fairytale in a realistic setting, House is a delirious one with a high concept of theatrically subverting filmmaking trends itself – it’s the director’s own vision.
The kitsch attributes of the film are easily overcome with the warmth of colourful interiors, exuberant filters, energetic cast and the silliness of the plot – a positivity wrapping the film in an undeniable charm, both in identity and also aura, which deflects any more serious critical reception. A post-modern awareness inherent in the film effectively distracts any critique – it seems cognizant of any fault proudly in a childlike thrall to thus disregard any serious contention. The entertainment appreciated ahead of every flaw is only proof of his overpoweringly stylish repository developed from aeons in unconstrained experimentalism – it is special enough to provide exception to otherwise crassly amateur methods: an idiosyncratic appeal.
House follows follows Gorgeous, who is named after her most salient trait identically to all her companions, as she plans an escape from family drama at home – a trip with six friends to her aunt’s remote manor that’s an altogether different life to the urban one distressing her mind. As they travel to the destination, the teenage assembly encounter a cartoonish pineapple vendor and this is only the beginning of their pyretic odyssey. Their innocent wonder, however, is soon corroded as their trip into the house warps any enthusiasm, strange horrors besetting any ordinary visit. The fanciful scenarios that ensue, and how characters naively confront these, are the core of the supernatural adventure inside an insidious house, no rules too weird as an untamed wilderness contradicting any expectations.
Toho film studio conceived a plan for a horror movie to follow the successful example of Jaws (1975), and Nobuhiko Obayashi was conscripted to adapt an endearing screenplay sure to captivate popular audiences. Fortunately, studio leeway enabled him to be relatively experimental, for which he was famous, in his approach, affording considerable creative liberty to transmute his hyperbolic antics into mainstream media. Consulting with his daughter, and adopting his wacky experience as a commercial creator, the director envisioned a house which eats people and weaponizes every objects inside, no matter how silly – a demonic residence. The release was an unexpected commercial success and enshrined the director himself as an auteur – a man whose vision and techniques would carry any production to a fantastically innovative result.
Playfully eccentric in sophomoric special effect – which surprisingly adapt well to the fantasy world already established – and with a chirpy score intermixed to silly character highlights, House is a movie inventing itself as a unique cultural experience, absolutely certain to be immersive in intrigue of how different it is; nothing else compares to the quirky characters, campy effects and ridiculous nature thus constituting a weird tone. Nobuhiko Obayashi would later become distinguished for quixotic poetry of emotive, subtext-laden material, and acclaimed for his distinctive set design achieving visual flair from the colour palette to the radiant decorations, but Western audiences first became aware of his existence from the campy lunacy that is House (1977) – a galvanizing cult classic distributors such as Criterion and Eureka have eagerly released. House embodies an individualistic ingenuity unlikely to ever be replicated.
House is a Japanese horror comedy that has no qualms being itself ludicrously, contouring a surreal identity to embed itself into every cinephile’s vocabulary as a notable phantasmagoria which rewards viewers with electing weird amazement. Every effect, moment and dialogue is miraculously balanced to the fanciful design to seem so deliberate as theatrical design and less amateur forays, interweaving every segment into a capricious vision of experimental adventurism where our usual standards should not apply.
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