From the opening title card, featuring the "O" in the film's title turning into a cartoon mouth with pointy teeth, House more or less guarantees you're going to have a good time. A broad mixture of slapstick humor, late-'60s existentialist/stoner road movie and cabin-in-the-woods supernatural horror, House serves as a meeting of matter and antimatter between Eastern and Western pop culture that explodes upon contact. The only thing more bewildering than the madness of what director Nobuhiko Obayashi puts on-screen is the obvious skill with which he works. The Room this is not; here is a midnight movie that throws together the best (and worst) that pop culture had to offer in 1977, and the glorious mess that follows may inspire hoots and hollers that make it perfect for showing past curfew on a Wednesday night in an art house, but it's also genuinely and unironically enjoyable.
Obayashi made the film in a dark spot of Japanese film history, after most of the postwar giants were dead or in decline. Even the Japanese New Wave had faded from the public consciousness. Toho, that great studio that had bankrolled Kurosawa's masterpieces before casting him out, must have felt it a sign of the times that someone working for them even financed Obayashi, and even the desperate studio felt a pang of revulsion when House proved a hit. But how couldn't it have been? It's just too weird, even for the most stereotypical opinion of Japanese pop culture and its oddities, to ignore. Hell, Janus Films only acquired the rights last year and it's already proved to be one of its more popular grabs, playing to packed art houses around the country.
House opens properly on a vision of Japanese schoolgirls, that most overplayed of fetishes, and Obayashi makes sure to emphasize the creepy adoration grown men fawn on these Lolitas even more by using soft, white lighting and lilting music whenever he shoots the main schoolgirl, a young lady named Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami). Later, when everything goes somewhere just south of Hell, he continues to use softer lighting for Gorgeous.
Gorgeous and her friends are excited for summer vacation, and Gorgeous in particular cannot wait to head off to her usual vacation spot with her loving father, who just got back from scoring films in Italy ("Leone said my music was better than Morricone's," he boasts). All is well, until the father introduces Ryoko, his new bride-to-be. Before the poor man can even get into how lonely he's felt all these years without her mom, Gorgeous flies into a petulant rage and flees, canceling her plans to go off with her father and stepmother. Instead, she writes to her dead mother's sister to announce a visit, and she even brings five of her friends.
Obayashi does the audience the favor of preparing them in advance for what's about to come by setting up wild mise-en-scène and bizarre editing techniques from the start. The use of painted skies for backgrounds recalls the inexplicable CGI backdrops in The Room or, to stop forcing comparisons to midnight movies and instead place House with contemporary Japanese cinema -- the oneiric kaleidoscope of the dream sequences in Kurosawa's 1980 Kagemusha. Obayashi also uses overlapping images, different film speeds, even rewind and replay to draw out some actions with deliberate artifice. It's overwhelming and more than a little annoying, but the style is so unique that it hooks you from the start, long before the film itself matches up to the madness of the framing.
After a surreal ride through the country by train and car that resembles Yellow Submarine on acid -- sorry, more acid -- the young women find themselves at "Auntie's" house. Auntie, seemingly confined to a wheelchair, welcomes them with open arms, so glad to have company at last. Yet objects in her home move slightly but forcibly, and she has a habit of speaking in faintly ominous lines. When one of the girls (a pudgy lady by the name of "Mac," an unfortunate shortening of "stomach") goes to retrieve the watermelon the young women got for Auntie as a gift, no one hears from her again until her decapitated head floats over a terrified schoolgirl and bites her on the bum. Oh, I'm sorry, you were expecting transitions?
At this moment, House flips the switch from lightly surreal teen comedy with thinly veiled undertones of ephebophilic lust into balls-to-the-wall horror-comedy. It amazes me to think that House never got shown in the States until last year, because otherwise I would have to retroactively accuse Sam Raimi of rampant plagiarism in his own frenetic take on the Evil Dead films. Obayashi uses sped-up footage and ingenuity to pull off some of the haunted house's effects, such as windows slamming and shuttering of their own accord and a suspended lamp falling down to eat one hapless girl. And the climactic bloodbath makes the spray of red stuff from the cellar in Evil Dead II look tame in comparison. It might even outdo the flooding elevators in The Shining. Before that, he turns the Lolita aspect of the film on its ear, presenting the stereotypically arousing sight of a young woman in a pillow fight, only for the poor thing to be smothered to death by possessed pillows.
Beneath all this insanity, however, are some deeper and more affecting thoughts. It is revealed that Auntie died some years ago, but that her ghost remains because she waits for her lover to return from World War II. In an early flashback, Auntie poses at her sister's wedding day, looking anxious in photos about one day being the one in the bridal gown. When the photographer snaps off a picture, Obayashi contrasts his bulb flash with the detonation of an atomic bomb. Obayashi, born in Hiroshima and sent to live with his grandparents when his father went to the battlefront, lost all his friends on Aug. 6, 1945, and he vents some of that pain and rage here. By eating unmarried girls, Auntie not only forces others to feel her pain, she targets the young, meaning those who grew up without the baggage of World War II and Hiroshima/Nagasaki. How easily they might forget without a reminder, and what better reminder than being themselves consumed for their giddy appropriation of Western ideas?
That is not to say that House is some anti-Western screed, mind you. Its soundtrack is blatantly Western, with a combination of pop and light funk playing in all the places not occupied by the gentle piano motif that announces Gorgeous. American pop culture has as much to do with the aesthetic as the Japanese variety. Ultimately, this more complex line of thought is just another part of House's puzzle, a gloriously incoherent off-masterpiece that never lets any one idea last long enough for anything to make sense. I've gotten into the midnight movie craze recently, attending my share of bad film showings -- I've seen The Room more than any of my 10 favorite films by this point -- but what we ignore when latching onto "so-bad-it's-good" is that there are out-there, cult films that are just plain good. It makes them so much easier to watch.