This month’s theme is haunted houses, but I bet even the spookiest house couldn’t compete with the house director Nobuhiko Obayashi throws audiences into in House (aka Hausau). I’m at a slight disadvantage with House, knowing little about Japanese cinema short of noticing obvious WWII/atomic bomb imagery. Let’s just say, much like US cinema in the 1970s, this has to be a representation of what everyone was doing in Japan in the last ’70s, a whole lot of drugs! More of an experience than a film proper, House tantalizes with its off-kilter imagery, but the kitschy atmosphere, subpar acting and even more rudimentary special effects make this a midnight movie for the converted. I didn’t get it? You’re damn right!
Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) brings six of her friends to stay at her estranged aunt’s house for a few days. But when the girls start disappearing, one by one, they realize the house is more than they bargained for.
Finding a fixed moment of exploration is futile with House. The film, as far as I can ascertain, takes elements from pop culture and Hollywood filmmaking and WWII and nuclear bomb symbolism, mushing them together in a horror film that either doesn’t take itself seriously at all or doesn’t know what it wants to do. The whole thing plays like a cinematic goulash of ideas, images, and insanity that’s either highly polished or totally chaotic.
Obayashi’s frame compositions are great, and there are some great camera tricks involving panels within panels; the set design of the house and the way the actual filmmaking is used also seems great. The seven girls are all meant, at least I think it’s intentional, to be one-note archetypes from the “funny fat girl” to the beauty, the brains, and the sporty one. The evil aunt and young innocent corrupted coupled with the six companions led me to believe the script wants to play on fairy tales, specifically Snow White (in this case the appropriately named Gorgeous) and the Seven Dwarfs. For you ’90s centric kids, think of them as a Japanese version of the Spice Girls. Even outside characters come with all the subtlety of an ax to the face, particularly Gorgeous’s new stepmother Ryoko dressed in a white outfit with flowing scarf I can only assume was purchased at Touched By an Angel Express.
None of the girls were professional actresses and to someone reading subtitles you won’t notice that too much. Honestly, the gesticulating and over-the-top expressions seem par for the course, and I assumed we were meant to see these moments as parody. I mean, these girls are named Gorgeous and Fantasy and dress like Sailor Moon. Bad acting is the least of my criticisms. Their giddiness magnifies the kitschiness permeating the film, creating a sitcom-level atmosphere of happiness and jubilance that’s almost irritating.
If you can get over the cringe-inducing setup, the film picks up upon arrival to the house, mainly because the girls actually have something to do other than giggle. The train ride to the house does begin the idea of the girl’s seeing their lives as a movie, starting with Gorgeous giving the story of her aunt’s life as they watch it play out in some otherworldly movie screen. The story of the aunt’s lover and his death in the war overtly connects things back to WWII and the dropping of the atomic bomb. The death of countless men left unmarried women the world over, so the eventual reveal of the aunt’s (and the titled house) endgame plays on the fears of a new world with countless young girls uninterested in marriage, as well as typical feminine competition for the men remaining in the country.
In a rather backhanded way, the few men here are played up as uncaring to the girls’ feelings or otherwise inept. One of the girl’s believes a local teacher will save them, and there’s a B-plotline that shows him bumbling around town. By the end, when the girl makes the painful realization he isn’t coming, it not only ties back to the aunt’s loneliness and solitude but also cautions young girls in not taking action to save themselves. Sometimes, ladies, you just can’t rely on a white knight to save you. These moments are great to see in what’s otherwise incomprehensible, but it doesn’t fix the rest of the film.
There are some unsettling individual images of terror, particularly a person’s disembodied head, but the primitive special effects negate any horror to be mined. Even the most neophyte special effects maven will be able to figure out the Disneyland level special effects allowing for individual body parts to appear or disappear. Added to this is how cartoonish everything feels, these moments aren’t necessarily played up to scare or unsettle, and the whole effect leaves you questioning what the point of it is.
Maybe I need more experience with Japanese cinema to derive anything out of House. Or maybe I needed to be on some serious psychotropics. In the end, this is a quick breeze with some interesting themes and compositions, but the nonsensical plot, barrage of effects and frames, and sitcom level treatment, keeps the film from going anywhere of substance or interest.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.