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Toho Co. Ltd [1977] 87′
country: Japan

Things are not looking good for high schooler Oshare. Just a week before she is supposed to take a wonderful holiday trip with her widowed father (a film composer who, at present, is working with none other than Sergio Leone), she discovers his plans to remarry. Furious at the prospect and not at all willing to accept the death of her mother and move on, Oshare decides that, instead of going on the trip with both her father and his lover, she’ll visit her real mother’s sister instead. Even though the two do not know each other well, Oshare knows that her mother was very close to her aunt and that the two were quite alike.

Bad news breaks for her six friends as well – it seems their summer camp trip has been ruined by the fact that the woman who owns the property is expecting a child. With nothing better to do, the six decide to tag along with Oshare. Each one of them has a particular quirk – Kung Fu is athletic, Mac (short for “stomach”) is always hungry, Gari is a nerd, Melody is musically inclined, Sweet is sweet and Fanta has an imagination. Their teacher, Mr. Togo, is supposed to accompany them on their trip but, after suffering an unfortunate accident involving stairs, a bucket and a car, is forced to delay his departure but promises to follow along in his buggy.

The girls set out for Oshare’s aunt’s house on their own with a mysterious fluffy white cat – named Snowflake by Oshare – following close behind. Oshare lets the rest of the group in on her aunt’s history on the way – she was engaged to be married but, with the onset of WWII, her fiance was drafted and never came home. She promised to wait for him for as long as it took and, assumedly, is still waiting. A bus lets them out the little town where the aunt lives and, after a brief encounter with a creepy melon salesman, the seven are soon on their way to her hill-top abode.

The wheelchair bound aunt greets them at the door and invites the group into her humble home – once inside the living room chandelier instantly goes nuts, dropping several sharp bits of crystal that stab a wayward claymation lizard and, thanks to the dashing heroics of Kung Fu, narrowly miss another of the girls. The house itself seems to be in disarray – cobwebs and dust cling to pretty much everything – but the girls take this as opportunity to do some work. Mac runs off and returns from the creepy guy’s shop with a huge melon and Sweet busies herself cleaning. The group then enjoys a lovely home-made meal that the aunt, for reasons unknown, skips.

Mac runs out after dinner to fetch the melon from the well where it has been cooling but, mysteriously, never returns. The aunt, on the other hand, has shown up to enjoy desert. Fanta, a bit concerned as to where Mac has gotten off to, heads out to the well and dredges the melon out – only now it seems that the melon is, in fact, the disembodied head of Mac. The head bites Fanta on the ass and, as she runs away in terror, pukes up some stuff and falls back into the well. Fanta is in hysterics (screaming, “The head! The head!” over and over) so the rest head out to the well to see what’s amiss. There they find no sign of Mac, but the melon in the well seems to be just a melon after all.

The lot of them, sans Mac, enjoy desert along with the aunt, who grosses out Fanta by creating the illusion that she’s eating eyes instead of melon – further madness lets the audience in on the fact that the melon did, in fact, used to be Mac’s head. After desert Oshare decides she needs a bath – Kung Fu heads to the bath with her to cut the firewood and warm the water while Sweet gets back to cleaning, this time focusing on finding the sheets for the girls’ beds. Melody heads off to play the aunt’s piano, which does weird optical effects stuff as she plays it, while Fanta wanders off in search of Sweet. While Oshare is bathing, Kung Fu is forced to fend off a violent assault by pieces of firewood and Fanta witnesses Sweet being devoured by bedsheets and pillows.

Oshare disappears – possessed by the spirit of the aunt while she puts on her makeup – and the rest of the group soon discovers the true nature of the aunt’s house. It seems that, since she was never married and, thusly, never enjoyed the pleasures of a married woman, the aunt’s undead spirit is using the house to quite literally eat every unmarried woman it can find. Melody is soon devoured by a piano that politely leaves a few of her fingers behind to play and Kung Fu, Fanta, and Gari are on their own. Will Mr. Togo arrive in time to rescue them or will he be turned into a pile of bananas by the evil melon seller? I’ll never tell!

HOUSE (the on-screen title – the katakana representation of it appears nowhere in the film itself), only the second film outing for director Nobuhiko Obayashi, comes of looking like a Salvadore Dali-penned version of Disney’s SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES [1939]. An outlandish mix of Teruo Ishii-inspired effects sequences (all the flying body parts recall the ending of HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN [1969]), oddball comedy, and a standard haunted house storyline keeps HOUSE interesting but leaves the plot to be more than a little incomprehensible. Plot is the film’s only real weakness, in my opinion, and the unwavering complexity of the bizarre progression of events will be more than enough to turn a good number of viewers away.

Everything else about the production is top class – direction is stylish and well handled and the shear amount of optical effects and large scale special effect set pieces point to the idea that this was a first-class Toho production at the time. Cinematography is handled by first-timer Yoshitaka Sakamoto in a way that would make William Cameron Menzies (circa his groundbreaking work on GONE WITH THE WIND [1939]) proud. The film’s unique visual style is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen – the majority of the skies and landscapes throughout its running time are accomplished through complex matte work and recall the bygone heyday of studio-bound productions. Adding to the feel of it all is the editing, unique enough in this instance that it simply needs to be seen rather than explained.

The more horrific elements of the story are portrayed in a way that recalls the phantasmagorical style of horror in the 1960′s – the films of Teruo Ishii as well as Nicolas Roeg’s all-important cinematography for Roger Corman’s THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH [1964] jump to mind. Some scenes also make me think of more recent efforts – notable is an EVIL DEAD 2 [1987]-esque scene in which a painted portrait of a cat and a number of pieces of furniture start spewing blood like broken fire hydrants. None of the violence seems to have been intended to be honestly frightening and it all works best if taken on a purely surreal level.

This may beg the question, however – why watch a horror film that obviously isn’t intended to be frightening? The simple answer to this question may turn yet more viewers away – the simple fact of the matter is that HOUSE is not a horror film. In reality it is more of a modern fairy tale. In fact, it can be seen as a twisted take on the aforementioned Snow White. Oshare heads off with the rest of her friends – all of whom are one dimensional cardboard characters defined by a particular attribute – to seek the comfort of the witch after Snow White herself – the would-be step mother – barges into her life.

The visual style of the film supports the notion that it is intended to be a fairy tale story – Obayashi takes care to set up perfect looking locations that are far too perfect to be real. On the flip side, the film is also taking shots at fairy tale ideals. These too-perfect locations are deliberately ruined from time to time – notably, a huge fake bird flops across the set as the group stands outside the aunt’s beautiful cottage and the gorgeous “postcard” landscape around the place is mimicked by a billboard featuring the same landscape that stands at its center.

The choice of scoring for the film – generally uplifting piano-heavy numbers dominate the soundscape – helps to re-enforce the idea still further. While often seeming utterly superfluous, the constant happy themes give the early half of the film an appropriately unreal fairy-tale feel. The latter half of the film is quite another matter – the happy music continues to dominate even as events grow progressively more horrifying, forcing our brains to do a double take as the sounds tell us to be happy and the visuals tell us to be disturbed.

So what’s the meaning behind the fairy tale?

The most obvious take on the events is that they represent the coming-of-age of the central character, Oshare. After her father destroys her notion of the traditional family by introducing a replacement mother she heads off to grow up without her father – she even blackens out his face in old photographs as a way of cutting herself off. Her six friends, in this case, can be seen as facets of Oshare’s own personality as opposed to individuals themselves – even the aunt can be taken to be just another side of Oshare’s individuality. All of them come together, in the end (and in hyper-violent fashion), to turn Oshare from a somewhat vain teenager into the self-sufficient and disillusioned young woman seen opening the house for the morning in the film’s final reel.

Another less obvious take on things is that HOUSE is, in fact, a surreal deconstruction of the idea of the traditional Japanese family. The father and daughter, once close, are forced apart when a stranger is brought in to replace Oshare’s mother – destroying the girl’s faith in the traditional family. She takes inspiration, then, from her spinster aunt. The house, here, can be seen as a representation of the role of women in that traditional family – to cook, clean, and keep things presentable. It literally devours Oshare’s ambitions – her musical, creative, athletic and intelligent sides while taking from her a love of food and dashing the fairy tale dreams that every girl has at one point or another.

The end of the film, from this perspective, shows Oshare rejecting the idea of the traditional family (working father, stay-at-home mother) by becoming a self- sufficient woman in the same mold as her aunt before her. In this sense, her destruction of the would-be stepmother in a burst of flames can be seen as further evidence of her rejection of the family life she’d once found so dear.

The house here can also be viewed as the “reality” of family life in comparison to the preconceived notions of Oshare. Outside of its walls families are all happy and fairy tale ideals still run rampant – inside of it the uglier sides of family life are shown: the confrontations, confusion and sacrificing of personal ambitions for the sake of the greater good.

Performances throughout the film are strong – the most notable of them is Yoko Minamida in the role of the aunt. A veteran actress who had previously worked under the likes of Kenji Mizoguchi, Shohei Imamura and Kinji Fukasaku, Minamida, who was 44 at the time, gives real life to the bizarre character of the aunt as she dances in and out of the refrigerator and eats her pet fish. Asei Kobayashi – the composer for the film – can also be seen in the role of the creepy melon salesman. The music for the film is provided by Kobayashi and Micky Yoshino (Micky’s group GODIEGO provided the poppy track heard over the end credits) and is quite piano-heavy (as previously mentioned), a fact attributable to director Obayashi, himself, being a student of the piano.

HOUSE is a cinema experience that’s difficult to quantify – horror aficionados will find little to love here other than a handful of strange set pieces and others may be turned off by the complex narrative and seeming lack of motivation for it all. I hope I’ve helped to show that there is considerably more to this odd little film than might first meet the eye and that those of you seeing it after reading this review can go into it with a better mindset than most will. I went into it expecting a bizarre horror film and came out feeling lost – it wasn’t until I started digging into the rampant subtext of the effort that I really began to appreciate it. Beautifully made and truly unique, HOUSE is a WtfFilm by any other name and I, for one, applaud it.

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