BluRay/DVD Reviews

HOUSE

By • Oct 25th, 2010 •

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I’ve seen HOUSE twice now; once in January at the IFC Center in one of Janus Films’ stunning 35mm prints, and once on Criterion’s new and equally stunning Blu-Ray. There is a very, very big difference between seeing this movie alone and seeing it with an audience. Any audience is sure to be dumbstruck by just how gleefully strange and surprisingly funny this movie is. It’s one of those very rare movies where people will hang out long after it’s over just to piece together what in the hell it was they just saw.

The plot involves a young girl named Gorgeous who goes with six fellow female classmates to her aunt’s haunted house for a vacation and, as you can probably guess, they start getting picked off one by one in increasingly bizarre ways while trying to piece together what is causing all of this mayhem. Gorgeous’ aunt is some kind of undead monster who eats people in order to stay forever young. She’s pretty damned unstoppable, with an evil cat, hungry lampshades, and a killer piano at her disposal.

Seeing HOUSE at the IFC Center was a truly unique experience. Everyone seemed to be in the same boat as me. We had all heard for months about just how bizarre this movie was, and were expecting an off-the-wall horror movie. I don’t think any audience can be sufficiently prepared for the sheer insanity that they’re in for.

It’s not really a horror movie, and it plays around with so many genres that it’s nearly impossible to categorize. What starts as a very stylized, glossy-looking, quiet, slice-of-life piece about a high school student, escalates into a comedy that’s meant to look like a live-action cartoon, turns into a weirdly-shot horror movie, and ends with a brightly-lit music video-style sequence. Much of it is shot on soundstages, with highly stylized sets, and the exteriors are enhanced with surreal matte paintings.

Between all of this you have director Obayashi throwing every film and special effects technique he can muster onto the screen in successively crazier ways. There’s stop-motion animation with actors, hand-drawn animation, bluescreen work, mechanical effects, puppetry, multiple exposures, fast motion, black-and-white sequences, and even some early video effects. There’s no shortage of crazy visuals, and the movie has the color-for-its-own-sake look of a Technicolor musical. It looks every bit as vibrant as a Technicolor musical, and with all the techniques and special effects mixed in, it becomes one of the most visually diverse movies ever made.

The music too has a lot of range to it, going from calm orchestral swells, to bubbly pop, to eerie Goblin-style synthesizer score, to upbeat jazz. This is one of the very rare films where the musical score was composed before production. Obayashi would play the soundtrack on set to enhance the mood, and coax unusual performances from his actors. Characters sometimes dance to the music, and at one point a cat sings along (you read that right).

With all of these styles and genres clashing against each other, HOUSE somehow works, because it never loses it’s child-like imagination and good-natured humor. Obayashi and his screenwriter Chiho Katsura clearly meant HOUSE as a counterpoint to ‘Japanese’ films and to the gritty, realistic style of American and European films prevalent in the 70s. It’s meant to be a purely cinematic fantasy, fearless and unbound by the ‘rules’ of filmmaking. I can’t think of anything as a basis of comparison to it, and it’s easily the strangest movie I’ve ever seen that actually had money behind it.

***

Shockingly, the movie was a box office success in it’s initial release in Japan, while critics brutalized it. Obayashi states on the Blu-Ray’s supplements that Toho, the film’s distribution company, were not supportive of the film when it came out; shocked and disappointed that what they considered to be a goofy little lark from a first-time director was turning out to be a financial hit, instead of a ‘prestige’ picture taking it’s box office thunder. Although the film was greenlit in 1975 by Toho after they saw the script (which they thought would be “the next JAWS”, no joke), it was another two years before HOUSE entered production. No director in Japan wanted to touch it, thinking that they would become the laughing stock of the film industry for tackling a project this offbeat. In the interval two years, Obayashi went to unusual measures to get Toho interested in putting the film into production. There were comic books, a novelization, and a soundtrack available a full year before the movie was in theaters, and Obaysahi made sure that entertainment magazines in Japan were regularly running stories on the movie.

When HOUSE hit theaters in August of 1977, it was touted as a movie for “kids under 15”, according to screenwriter Chiho Katsura, and it turned out to be influential among young directors in Japan who saw it as kids. For whatever reason, the movie didn’t become an enduring cult movie outside of Japan until very, very recently. Janus Films only started showing the film late last year in theaters along the West coast, and it quickly built word-of-mouth, selling out many of its showings. I once again need to bring up New York’s own IFC Center theater to convey how quickly this movie has become a cult phenomenon. HOUSE was only supposed to play there for a one-week engagement, but ended up playing for over three months, frequently selling out during it’s evening and midnight showings. Janus Films actually had to strike a new 35mm print just to meet demand in other cities.

Criterion is releasing the film on Blu-Ray just in time for Halloween, and it is an essential buy. Criterion has the best track record of any studio when it comes to presenting films on video (even going back to their laserdisc days), and HOUSE continues their tradition of excellence. It doesn’t look like video, it looks like you have a pristine 35mm print that you happen to be projecting onto your TV. It’s demo disc material, and the supplements are just the icing on the cake. One of Obayashi’s experimental short films, EMOTION, is included as well, and it’s a fun watch.

Even on video, it’s essential to watch HOUSE with a group. This movie is greatly enhanced by having people in the room with you who are just as baffled and entertained by it as you are. If you want to see something different, look no further.

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