The Cine-Files: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 horror film ‘House’

Courtesy of Karen Mogami ’24

Some may think that Halloween is officially over; the pumpkins have disappeared and the costumes have returned to the backs of our closets. However, “spooky season” lives on in the hearts of the brave. For the inaugural post in my movie series, I’ve decided to recommend a favorite horror-comedy of mine: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 film “House.”

How does one explain the sheer visceral and wild nature of  “House” without spoiling the plot? I will do my best. A teenager named Gorgeous decides to invite her six friends (all of whom have names that describe their personalities; for example, Prof studies profusely and Melody likes to play the piano) to her aunt’s house in the countryside for the summer. The house proceeds to devour them one by one in bizarre and supernatural ways. Bright blood and Blanche the Cat’s twinkling eyes epitomize the colorful, flashy aesthetic of the film. Reds, blues and greens dominate each frame.

 In many ways, “House” is a horror movie for kids—it’s not that scary for the casual viewer. In fact, the different ways the girls die draw from the juvenile fears of Obayashi’s seven-year-old daughter. “I always discuss important matters with children,” Obayashi said in the 2010 retrospective documentary “Constructing a House.” “Adults can only think about things they understand, so everything stays on that boring human level.” While many modern adult horror movies rely on cheap jump scares and one-note monsters, “House” finds its horror in a childlike absurdism, with lots of chaos and peculiar imagery. Things that are normally benign, such as pianos and fluffy white cats, become sinister mutants in the house. The film’s energetic rock soundtrack, penned by Godiego, maintains tension and vitality throughout. The “House Main Theme” primarily lingers in the background, like a haunting memory. 

Obayashi was born and raised in Hiroshima, Japan, and lost several of his childhood friends in the World War II bombing of the city. In a silent black-and-white portion, the movie reveals that Gorgeous’ aunt’s fiancé tragically died in World War II. However, the seven girls treat the matter facetiously. When footage of the Hiroshima bombing plays during the scene, they comment on the fact that the explosion looks like cotton candy. It is easy to sympathize with Gorgeous’ aunt and her resentment of the girls, especially after they continuously ridicule one of their own, Fantasy, for her appropriate hysteria over the house’s creepiness. Like, c’mon Prof, you’re supposed to be the smart one!

When “House” first premiered, the popularity of Japanese cinema was in decline due to the advent of television. Obayashi himself relied on directing television commercials for a living, which is how he found the main actresses in the film, all models with little prior acting experience. However, “House” and its production marked a turning point for his career. The film’s previously-stigmatized English title that seemed to pander to Western audiences, experimentation, lack of structure or any kind of storyboard, crude special effects and strange editing techniques not only exude creativity and originality, but also an intimate and homemade quality (think “The Mighty Boosh” or “Eraserhead”). And if that doesn’t convince you to watch the film, a frantic man shouts “bananas” several times before turning into a pile of bananas. Enough said.

 

Rating: 8/10

Perfect for: First dates, movie night with your new friends to gauge which ones are boring (“bro, WTF is this”) and which ones are sexy (“wow I’m in love with Kung Fu”), watching on public transportation so people don’t sit next to you

Where to watch: Amazon Prime ($3), HBO Max, the Criterion Collection

 

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