New to DVD: Soft sensibility meets manic technique in this dazzling teen horror romp.
Premiered the same year as Grand Guignol classic Suspiria, you’d be forgiven for thinking Nobuhiko Obayashi’s phantasmagorical House (1977) lifted much its mayhem from the Dario Argento masterpiece, what with its supernatural storyline, intoxicating colour palette, and the pounding, Goblin-esque portions of its score. The resemblance, though striking, isn’t exactly derivative or coincidental; Obayashi’s film instead drawing inspiration from the lurid aesthetic of Mario Bava, in the same way Argento’s cinema knowingly descends from the Italian horror maestro. As Paul Roquet notes in his essay accompanying this new English-subtitled DVD, Obayashi went nearly as far as to adopt a pseudonym in the vein of Bava’s name (he eventually was credited as himself), and even affords one of his characters a background in the Italian film industry. It is Obayashi’s visual style, however, that not only wilfully acknowledges the Giallo Godfather, but spectacularly transcends both this cinematic influence and the familiarity of the material.
And what style. Formerly an experimentalist in 8 and 16mm films, then later employed as a commercials director, Obayashi’s feature debut prefigures the now prevailing trend of promoting advertising and music video hotshots to the role of moviemaker. Today, the results of this shrewd, if insidious logic are plain see in Hollywood cinema—its producers well aware of the synergy between their profit motives and the accelerated, MTV aesthetic honed by commercial artists on the small screen—yet Obayashi’s elevation to film director had no such basis for success at the time. The go-ahead for House, in fact, was entirely speculative: Obayashi’s script was incomprehensible, his feature filmmaking experience was next-to-none, while Toho Studios, struck hard by an industry slump, were desperate to capture the imagination of a distracted public with a blockbuster modelled on the sensational Jaws. A surprise hit (with not a killer shark in sight), the release of House, as Roquet goes on the explain, coincided with “a critical juncture in Japanese cinema, when the industry was redefining itself in relation to a more mediated world of advertising and the increasingly ubiquitous television set.” In doing so, it also paved the way for Obayashi’s peers to make the transition from advertising to film—a paradigm shift well in keeping with the capitalist-driven decade just around the corner.
Incredibly, Obayashi’s film seems even more ahead of the curve as a marketing feat, one that was able to transform a genre typically perceived as being illicit, undesirable, or exploitational, into something Japanese teenage girls queued obsessively around the block to see—its rather sudden, unexpected popularity as a horror movie coming before Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street scored big at the box office. House’s bullseye was hardly a fluke though, going out of its way to target adolescent females with a clique of characters not unlike a collectable set of dolls. Centred on the princess-like Angel (Mimiko Ikegami), the film telegraphs its intentions by swiftly rounding up her six best (and appropriately nicknamed) friends for a summer vacation: Kung-Fu (Miki Jinbo), an athletic martial artist; Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), known for her overactive imagination; Prof (Ai Matsubara), a four-eyed brain-box; Mac (Mieko Sato), chubby and enthusiastic about food; Melody (Eriko Tanaka), a studious musician; and Sweetie (Masaya Mitako), the goody two shoes of the group. In adherence to genre lore, each girlfriend is picked off one by one as the plot surrounding their mysterious host (Yoko Minamida) thickens.
From this overtly formulated set-up, in which each character is branded to represent a slice of the demographic pie, Obayashi launches into a brisk and unbridled send-up of TV advertising tropes; so much so, that the film’s prelude to sinister events, with its affectionate and very deliberate use of matte backdrops, vignetting, soft-focus, and cheerful melodic scoring, stands out as an extended commercial shoot, imbued with a cheesy naivety still at the core of Japanese advertisements today. According to Roquet, as we follow Angel and friends en route to the countryside, Obayashi is satirising marketing campaigns based on rural Japan as a “tourist destination, full of potential for self-discovery”. And yet for Westerners at least, this unashamedly musical, pop-infused opening—not to mention the psychedelic imagery flirted with later on—is more likely to evoke an episode of The Monkees, particularly given rock group Godiego, in another calculated promotional ploy, were hired to write the soundtrack which features (as do the band, in a cameo) jovially throughout these establishing scenes.
House isn’t altogether the bubblegum horror it claims to be—its saccharine sentimentalism more often than not engulfs the potentially menacing aspects the story, while the keenness it exhibits in photographing (and occasionally, disrobing) its gleefully innocent teen cast suggests something else entirely (not far removed from the perverted gaze of David Hamilton, perhaps). Experimental melodrama, alternatively, is a superior definition for the film and the way it undercuts its overpowering sweetness—not owed to traditional bloodletting, mind you, but the ferocious technique of its director. Surpassing the Bava-esque colour scheming and crooked interior gothic that, on the surface, already serves as a visual feast, Obayashi’s prodigious editing of sound and image, as well as his eye-popping use of animation and superimposition, truly cements House as one-of-a-kind. And so it is through the girls’ demise, as well as the increasing hostility of their lodgings—a house possessed and intent on devouring its inhabitants whole—that he works the film into a delirious sweat, furiously warping the continuity (from jump cuts, to cross-fades, to stop-motion, to freeze frames, all spliced at a machine gun pace), while simultaneously overlapping numerous, discordant audio layers to disorient and perturb the viewer.
This frenzied formalism only escalates as the killings mount, and is, with respect to the inventiveness in which each victim is dispatched (Melody’s dismemberment by a grand piano is especially memorable), the most ‘violent’ aspect of House. (Notwithstanding the severed limbs, chop-socky acrobatics, possessed inanimate objects, and satanic cat.) Such schizophrenic editing might easily be dismissed as a hatchet job, if it weren’t for the impressive dexterity Obayashi displays in cutting the action—no better demonstrated than in an extraordinary 10-minute sequence late in the movie, where the three surviving occupants battle frantically to escape the clutches (and gushes) of the antagonistic house. In this intensely exhilarating climax, heightened by another of the film’s deranged juxtapositions—ecstasy and death—style triumphs over substance in the most breathtaking manner possible. A phenomenal debut, Obayashi’s subsequent works have received little exposure outside of Japan. One hopes this Masters of Cinema release precipitates the availability of an oeuvre ripe for discovery.