One of the most unusual “mainstream” horror films you’ll ever see, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 film HOUSE is one of those inventively crazy movies that will stick in your head for a long while after those end credits roll.
Paradoxically, it’s tricky to talk about the film in detail and not give a lot away. But on the other hand, you could go in knowing the entire story and what happens to every character in the film before you see it and still have your mind completely blown by the bizarre visual effects and how the tone switches from comic to horror (and back and forth at that) at the drop of a hat.
Or drop of the head, in this case…
The plot is pretty straightforward stuff, but it’s in how the film was shot where you’ll get the impact. After her father decides to remarry, a teenage girl (Kimiko Ikegami) decides to get away from her dad and new stepmother by spending her summer vacation with an aunt (Yōko Minamida). Her six high school friends take her side and decide to head up with her, but all of them are in for quite the surprise when the aunt’s house turns into a living hell (and then some). From the opening title card, you know you’re in for a wild ride, but the film is constantly surprising thanks to the unique manner in which it was shot.
Part of the film plays out as if it’s from the imagination of the girls, who are all solely called by their nicknames, Gorgeous, Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Mac (Mieko Sato), and Sweet (Masayo Miyako). As you can probably expect, those nicknames refer to each girl’s particular or peculiar talent, although I’d bet McDonalds would have probably gotten litigious had this been made today, as Mac happens to be the girl who loves to eat a wee bit too much. Amusingly enough, she’s not heavy at all by any standards (save perhaps 1977 Japan, I guess), she’s just the one gal who loves her food a whole lot. Prof is smart, Kung Fu is always ready for a fight, Melody is the musician of the bunch and so forth and so on.
In the first half or so, it’s all storybook looks, some comic moments and the occasional musical number (!) and you’re lulled into the strangeness of the film which does an excellent job of holding your attention. When the horror elements make themselves known, the film takes on a more relentless tone, getting weirder and not explaining a thing while still retaining a sense of humor even as the body count rises.
Although there’s literally a river of blood at one point in the film, none of the special effects is really disturbing. In fact, the effects are so intentionally low tech (yet quite inventive) that even the assorted body parts that pop up in a few scenes aren’t going to scare you under a blanket or behind a pillow. If you pay attention, you’ll note that although the film looks very low budget, a great deal of work went into it and those “cheap” effects were the result of some experimentation on the part of the director that whether they worked or didn’t work, were left in and make the end result special.
There’s a reason for all that mayhem the girls are put through, but I’ll let you see this one and not spoil it other than to say it makes sense in terms of the plot and not much else. But then again, this is a film where a girl is eaten by a piano and seems to enjoy it (eek!), another is attacked by a pile of futons, a guy seems to change into a pile of bananas and the cute cat you’ve been “D’awwww!”-ing over earlier becomes the most evil thing you’ll ever see as far as cute animals gone bad goes. Oddly enough, this was made as a response to the success of JAWS, but you won’t even see anything resembling a shark until something pops in during the last part of the film that doesn’t look anything like a shark. As noted above, despite the gallons of blood and some brief nudity here, none of it is really what I’d call “exploitation” material. That “blood” is the consistency of water and the nudity is generally tasteful and/or part of some of the film’s wild special effects work.
Toss in a soundtrack that’s a mix of really interesting tunes and tones and equally as weird as the film it’s in and yes indeed, this is one movie that won’t soon be forgotten. Some people think it’s “bad” because it’s definitely one of the strangest concepts come to cinematic life and very intentionally cheesy to a fault. On the other hand, the bizarreness of HOUSE from beginning to end makes it a film that doesn’t betray itself by trying to be something else other than what it’s showing you for that brief 88 minutes it has you under its spell…