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Criterion DVD Review: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Child-like Psychedelic Ghost Tale, ‘House’ Is Out There

Criterion DVD Review: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Child-like Psychedelic Ghost Tale, 'House' Is Out There

One Of The Nuttiest, Fantastical Cult Films Of The 1970s Comes To The Criterion Collection

The Movie: “House
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi

Starring: No one you actually know, but for detail’s sake; Yoko Minamida, Kimiko Ikegami, Miki Jinbo, Kumiko Oba, Ai Matsubara, Mieko Sato, Eriko Tanaka and Masayo Miyako.

What’s It All About: Oh boy, where do we start with this one? The seven-girls-coming-of-age-in-a-haunted-house genre will never ever be the same. Off-the-wall, hallucinatory and outrageously inventive, “House” has been dubbed a gonzo horror, but is more like an experimental child-like fantasy, or a comedic psychedelic ghost story about a schoolgirl — upset with her widowed father for remarrying — who takes six classmates on a trip to visit her aunt in rural Japan. Once they’ve arrived in what appears to be the placid countryside, the girls come face to face with a possessed cat and demonic entities of all kinds that seem to transmogrify inanimate objects into horrific instruments of ghoulish death. Auntie (Yoko Minamida) is actually a spirit restlessly awaiting the return of her fiancé who died in the war. Feeding off children who are naive to the precious cost of peace, she wreaks terror on the unsuspecting troupe of disparate girls and seeks a misguided revenge on these innocents.

Why You Should Know It: Why? Dear lord, because you’ve essentially seen nothing like it before or possibly since and Criterion has wisely unearthed a bat-shit crazy and creative cult classic that must be witnessed to be fully believed. Because it is wildly inventive and has made devotees out of filmmakers like Edgar Wright (“Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World“) and Ti West (“The House Of The Devil“) just to name a few. It is a must-watch film if only to be blown away by the myriad, bursting-at-the-seams film techniques utilized throughout.

Are The Extras Any Good: Yes, there’s the 40-minute “Constructing A House” mini-documentary, which we’ll detail in full momentarily. It features interviews with a now 72-year-old Obayashi, his daughter/story scenarist Chigumi Obayashi, and screenwriter Chiho Katsura. There’s “Emotion,” Obayashi’s 1966 experimental film which displays Norman McClaren-like abstraction in an unreal/non-linear story that shows off the filmmaker’s schoolgirl-tale proclivities plus some creepy-comical vampirism to boot. The new video appreciation, by director Ti West, is both funny, informative and it provides great context while also featuring an essay by critic Chuck Stephens. Of course, the transfer is great and there’s a wackball trailer in there as well (though nothing is as strange as the film itself).

What You Didn’t Know aka The Story of House: Probably everything about it unless you’re a devoted “House”-ophile already (and good on you if you are). Starting out as an experimental short filmmaker, Obayashi eventually moved into the world of directing commercials, much to the disdain of his peers who thought the form, and being asked to direct one, was “an insult and not fit for a respectable artist,” he said on the Criterion DVD extras. His directorial debut came about because “Jaws” had obviously become a huge game-changing international hit, so Obayashi was asked to write something as thrilling and entertaining.

The best that most pedestrian filmmakers around the world came up with trying to capitalize on the phenomenon of “Jaws” were bear attacks or some sort of wild-creature-attacks pictures. The filmmaker, attuned to a far different frequency, asked his daughter what she thought would be just as thrilling and scary, and her fears directly influenced the storyline and entire picture’s house of horrors.

“I always discuss important matters with children,” Obayashi explained. “Adults can only think about things they understand; so everything stays on that boring human level.” Every idea from a mirror reflection attacking the subject, to a futon monster falling on a child to the impact of her strict piano teacher’s lessons made their way into the script and were transformed into some kind of terror that only a child could relate to.

The ideas were related to screenwriter Chiho Katsura, tethered to a seven girls group scenario (not unlike “The Seven Samurai“), a familiar ghost story/haunted house tale and soon the script was in the hands of Japan’s famous Toho Studios (Katsura called it the most effortless writing assignment he ever had). Toho greenlit what it thought was a brilliant, original story immediately, and under three hours — “You’re amazing, a regular Spielberg,” studio heads said. But the caveat was that none of their in-house directors wanted to touch the bizarre and fantastical project. “Making such a ludicrous film would end their career,” they said, a recurring theme in the life of “House” — it was simply too out-there for everyone. Obayashi asked if he could direct it and could announce the project as well. Toho, while happy with it, had little intention of actually making the film and agreed to his requests, thinking nothing would come of it.

But the resourceful director launched a two-year campaign to get the film off the ground, and it finally succeeded. “It’s a luxury to have that much prep time,” Obayashi said of how he turned their reluctance into his gain. The filmmaker shot 200 commercials in that time and found all his cast during that period on those shoots.

Ten years earlier, Obayashi had created a short called “Emotion” (included on the Criterion disc, a wacky but inventive Dracula/something-or-other tale replete with his trademark nymphs). It had been shown in 60 percent of universities and engendered a lot of good will. A decade later, half these students were working in the realm of advertising, magazines, record labels and department stores, and when it appeared that Obayashi was facing difficulties as Toho still waffled on the project, the community rallied around him to help out by creating fashion shows with seven models, mangas in a popular boys’ comic book, girls’ magazines, a radio drama, a novelization and even a soundtrack album; all released two years before the film came out.

Eventually, this relentless campaign/onslaught of awareness and the anticipation in various forms of multi-media forced Toho studios’ hand. “Everyone was looking forward to seeing it,” he said of the film’s pre-release buzz. The radio drama even drew a huge audience and was widely discussed.

“In the end Toho couldn’t put it off any longer,” Chihuro said. “And that definitely came about because of Obiyashi’s sheer energy.” The film had its share of non-believers from the inside too. Friend and composer Asei Kobayashi said for over 10 years, “When you make a movie someday, let me write the music,” but like many naysayers he ridiculed what was viewed as the childish mien of the picture. “I’ll act in your film, but there’s no way I’ll score a movie like ‘House,’ ” Obayashi recalled him saying, noting he wanted his first film to be a “serious” movie like “Hangatami,” Obayashi’s first script that still remains unproduced to this day. He eventually relented, writing the main piano theme, but enlisted the ’70s Japanese pop band Godiego to write the film’s music using his themes. Godiego worked on the score for two years before the movie was released and the year before released a soundtrack album.

In 1976, “House” was finally made and then released in 1977. Crew members seemed to enjoy their unique experience, but in their goodbye notes of the production — apparently a Japanese tradition when a film was completed — most of them assumed they had made a ridiculous film, writing notes like, “please make a memorable masterpiece next time,” or “I had fun, but this movie is awful nonsense.”

Much to everyone’s surprise — and to some extent the chagrin of the studio who were embarrassed by the odd and strange picture — “House” became a huge hit… with children of course. “I didn’t care if I was ridiculed, I wanted to make a film unlike any Japanese film before it,” Obayashi said. The filmmaker was dead-set on bucking the system in every way imaginable. “If Kurosawa or Ozu were to see it, what kind of direction would offend them most,” he recalled. ” ‘That’s how I’ll do it!’ That was my thinking as I made ‘House.’ “

And Obayashi’s wildly fertile and creative mind basically through in every kitchen-sink idea and technique that was possible. “My approach was to turn technical experimentation into expression,” he explained and he was delighted with the “mistakes” that many of his hyper-imaginative technical experiments yielded and how they begat even more new concepts. And as crude as some of the video effects are, that’s exactly what the filmmaker sought to achieve. “I want to make the special effects a child would make. We wanted the special effects to look fake. It wasn’t realism I wanted people to see, but the passion, hard work and innovation involved.”

Iris ins and outs, matte paintings, stop-motion animation, freeze frames, handpainted blood on film frames, superimposition — you name it and the stylishly glossy absurdist picture probably used the technique. “It’s not only probably the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen, it’s the movie with the most technical stuff I’ve ever seen,” indie horror auteur Ti West attests in the video appreciation of the movie. “I’ve never seen a movie that’s used every in-camera trick, period. From irises at weird points, to giant zooms, animation, painted backdrops to the video effects, it has everything.”

If you have any reservations about seeing what might be viewed as an entirely silly or ludicrous film, West certainly is an ardent champion who will likely convince you otherwise. “As a filmmaker and film watcher it’s one of, if not, the most original films I’ve ever seen,” he intoned passionately. “I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff too so it’s hard to accomplish, but the few people I know who have seen the movie have said ‘that’s the craziest movie I’ve ever seen‘. Its total anarchy.”

“It’s an experimental pop-art Japanese, he went to the fullest extreme that he could,” he added, noting that the film is essentially horror seen through the eyes of a child. It’s a “crazy, emotionally experimental, almost manic perception of a horror movie. The way a kid’s mind races around back and forth and one topic to another, scared by one thing, enthralled by another that seems to be the POV of the movie.”

“It’s not like anything you’ve ever seen, and how is that not exciting? Ultimately, it’s an art film. And it’s rare to see art horror. You can’t just take it it in. You have to come up with your opinion on it because the movie is so extreme it forces you to do that. It succeeds on multiple platforms.”

“House” is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.

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