For many of my generation, Japanese Horror started with the release of “Ringu” back in 1998. Horror though has a much richer history in the orient and slowly some of the earlier releases are being rediscovered for new audiences to discover the works that had an influence on what was to become known as J-Horror. One such movie is “House”, made back in 1977 by Nobuhiko Obayashi.
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Angel is excited about spending summer vacation with her father, until she finds out that his new beautiful girlfriend Ryouko would be going as well. Oshare decides she will be going to her aunt’s house in the country instead. She brings with her, her friends from school – Fantasy Kung Fu, Prof, Sweet, Mac and Melody. Arriving at the house, slowly they become aware that not everything is as it appears to be with the aunt nor the house itself and are soon in a battle of survival as one by one, they fall victim to the evil that inhabits the place.
Horror cinema has, over the years, reinvented itself with filmmakers taking their influences and building on them to create something fresh. The Haunted House has been with us for years and here we get to experience something new with the idea of a house actually alive and feeding on those foolish enough to enter its walls.
Nobuhiko Obayashi started out as a director of commercials, and subverts some of the techniques that he utilised in the shoot. We see characters look out past the camera, and in the framing of some scenes, it’s almost as if we are awaiting the product placement. The combination of teen drama and horror shouldn’t work but somehow here it gels. Openly admitting to being influenced by Mario Bava, the second half of the movie is almost an open love letter to the Italian master of the macabre as it recreates the nightmarish quality that can be found in “Black Sabbath” and Kill, Baby Kill”. The sense that time is being displaced is stressed by the shifting of camera speed, and in one bravura sequence, the use of almost stop-motion photography that would later be refined by Wong Kar-Wai.
The studio setting and lighting give the film an artificialness that adds to the dream like quality of the images that are presented to us. The bleeding mirror and the piano eager to devour its player are surrealist highlights as the pace frantically picks up towards the climax. Several images are almost thrown away, requiring the watcher to pay attention to the sides of the screen. Look out for dancing skeletons and the fate of the teacher who is out looking for the girls.
The result is a movie that is actually quite disturbing and tragic. Each of the girls nicknames is based on their characteristic and it is to their credit that they manage to distinguish themselves from each other. Miki Jinbo has great fun in the part of Kung Fu. All over exaggerated wire-work and energy with Prof (Ai Matsubara) and Fantasy (Kumiko Oba) gets the most depth of the sketchy supporting cast. The early camaraderie between the girls is initially quite grating and feels out of place for a horror film, but this serves to lure you in and when the horror kicks in, the impact is that much greater.
Yoko Minamida plays Auntie with a real twinkle. The audience is let on early that there is something not quite right about her character and so gets to embrace the double meanings of her dialogue, as well as a wonderful visual moment involving an eyeball that is both comic and disturbing at the same time. The tragedy of the character is sympathetically played and plays on the disconnect between generations: One is affected by the impact of the second world war and the other by attempting to move on, but each affected by the loss of loved ones and a reluctance to let go of the past.
“House” is one of the standout horror films from the 1970’s. Taking Mario Bava’s visual palette and projecting it through his own style, Nobuhiko Obayashi creates something entirely unique among the Japanese Horror canon. The whole movie has a dreamlike, otherworldly quality that shifts into that of nightmares as it progresses with even the most mundane of household objects becoming potentially lethal adversaries. Beautiful to look at, haunting and lyrical, “House” is a movie to embrace even as you do hide behind your fingers.