Friday, March 28, 2014

House (1977): When the Kitchen Sink technique works

House (aka Hausu) (1977)
dir: Nobuhiko Obayashi

In a traditional sense, nothing about House should work. It's a horror movie for kids that is all about love, loss and vampirism. As a film, it uses every single technique that had been invented by that time, and created new ones just for its own humor. It never really holds its attention on any one topic for any length of time, yet creates a hallucinatory throughline story. Yet, House is one of the craziest, most entertaining, balls-out films that works on weird hallucinatory levels as well as ridiculously high camp.

House tells the story of Gorgeous, whose father is about to remarry years after her mother passed away. Because he botched the introduction of his daughter and new wife, his daughter rebels and decides to spend her vacation with her aunt in some far off town. Her 6 friends have also recently learned they cannot go to a training camp due to a pregnant innkeeper, and choose to go with her.

Her aunt, living all alone in the middle of the country, greets them with open arms. Except that she is a vampiric witch, and employs both the house and all of the objects within it, in order to kill any unmarried females who dare to step within its walls. Auntie feeds off their life, and exchanges bodies and spirits so that she has possession of their identity as well.

What would normally be a relatively straightforward story of girls in peril, with a tragic backstory, turns into a child-like hallucinatory horror movie that comes off like a nightmare version of Sesame Street on acid. Much like Sesame Street's shorts, Obayashi uses everything under the sun to convey a child's heightened emotionality as well as blunter sense of the world. There's split frames, frames within frames, irises, deep focus, natural settings, matte backgrounds, blue screen, silent film, black and white, stop motion, practical effects, frame coloring, drawing on the frame, animation, slow motions, speed-ups, smash cuts, musical numbers...the list of everything that is in House is practically a compendium of cinematic techniques that were available at the time. A use of a few of those techniques go a long way, but House dares to include all of them.

That's not to say that the effects were all successful. Obayashi intended for the movie to look like a child's playtime machinations, with a sense that this isn't a mature adult making mature a movie for adults but a child communicating a child's experience. This child is explaining that she has a fear of a variety of things, including futons, pianos, clocks, reflections, cats, adults, and watermelons.

In order to properly enter this world, and take it as it wants to be taken, the viewer must turn himself into a child and turn off their preconceived notions of what a film actually should be like. Watching the film as an adult expecting a straightforward horror movie filled with adult creeping terrors around the corner is quickly obliterated by the opening, where a blue line outlines a box in the frame, and the cartoonish title treatment speaks the name "House" before eating you.

This type of whimsy continues through an opening scene where our heroine, Gorgeous, meets her stepmother. The scene seems like it is in the balcony of a spacious and stylish apartment with a matte painting backdrop of a setting sun makes it more 1980s Moonlighting than actually resembling a realist movie set. Any pretense at being realistic is dropped soon after when her new stepmother floats in from the side, with an invisible wind making her hair and her scarf trail her. It's heightened drama and setting, but it's so effective at setting a dreamy atmosphere that when we get to the schoolyard scenes that follow, the realism is drastically jarring. The school scenes are filmed in a style most reminiscent of any 1970s back to school special.

Given Obayashi's background in advertising, it's no surprise that House is as impeccable as it is inconceivable. The framing of the scene from the left with a giant pair of lips haunting the girls is stunning and amateur both. It's just off center, with the lips being the center of a frame that seems to have moved off to the left. The various odd sources of lighting are too hot in certain areas (notably the girl's butt), but still dramatic and creepy in the realm of the classical noirs. Compare that to the earlier frame of the head in the well, where the matte painting background gives everything an illusion of deepest focus, and the whole frame is lit and filmed like a classical watercolor painting. Which looks completely different to the neo-realist schoolyard scenes which feature no matte paintings and seem to even use a different film stock. Etc. But, they're all impeccably used, in an amateurish manner.

House doesn't have any pretense about being anything other than a film about 7 young girls in danger. Sure, it has some cultural allusions WWII and the bomb, and how the older generation is trying to cope with a younger generation who knows absolutely nothing about that earlier war and the destruction that was wrecked upon Japan as a result. From a child's perspective, though, that means nothing and the real source of fear are in the odd objects of the house. This is an art object. It's an experience. You're meant to laugh with it, and be scared by it. It's comedic, horrific, childlike and silly. But, most of all, it's different. This is primarily for experiencing something you haven't experienced since Sesame Street, put into a horror movie. It's an astounding film.

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