In 1977, inspired by the success of Jaws, Japan’s Toho film corporation decided that it too wanted a slice of that action and so cast about for something similar. House is what they got. A film about a big marauding thing which consumes people indiscriminately, it ticks that one box at least.
Commercials director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi wrote the original treatment, and hoped Toho would pick it up. Instead Toho sat on it for two years while its in-house directors all made polite excuses and backed away. Which is how Ôbayashi himself ended up directing it, in his debut feature.
Instead of a shark it’s a house that does the consuming, and instead of three gnarly guys being monstered there are seven women, each named after their defining feature – Gorgeous, Prof (she wears specs), Fantasy, Melody (plays the piano), Mac (short for Stomach – she likes to eat), Sweet and Kung Fu – who wind up at the remote house belonging to Gorgeous’s estranged aunt. Here, after some Bond villain introductions – the aunt likes to use a wheelchair and strokes a long-haired white cat – the house soon takes over, dispatching the young women in a variety of comic and cosmic ways. One bursts into flames, another is eaten by the piano and on it goes.
But no one really comes to House – which has become a cult item since initially opening to a resounding thud – for the plot, even though the young women are an easy-on-the-eye bunch (they’re mostly models). Instead it’s Ôbayashi’s freewheeling approach to film-making that’s the draw. This guy can really lay it on, and once he’s got going he never stops.
His background in commercials is obvious from the get-go, with quick set-ups, lots of edits and the use of the sort of visual effects that are normal in TV but too cheesy for film-making. Early on Ôbayashi even throws in spoof advertising scenarios – that kindly cobbler fixing a shoe while his young daughter looks on – but soon leaves these calmer waters behind once he decides to push all the visual levers to the limit.
Coloured backgrounds and impossible skies, lurid lights, wipe dissolves, wind machines, animated sequences, black and white flashbacks, distorting lenses, massive soft focus, a dolly zoom (as perfected by Hitchcock in Vertigo and memorably repurposed in Jaws – here thrown in just because), chroma key video effects, if it exists in a big book of film-making, Ôbayashi has probably wedged it in here somewhere, aiming everything towards a semi-gonzo, semi-trippy style of film-making faintly reminiscent of US TV in the late 1960s – The Monkees, HR Pufnstuf, The Banana Splits.
There’s a Freudian explanation for the house’s murderous tendencies, which the film half-heartedly trots out towards the end – the house as a manifestation of fears blah blah blah – but really this is a film-maker given a budget by an unwitting studio and being allowed to get all the pens out and go mad in his own three-dimensional colouring book.
Keeping total chaos at bay – the production design is excellent and relatively consistent, and Ôbayashi knows how to shoot clean and sharp. It’s easy to see what’s going on. It’s the logic of it all that leaves something to be desired.
People lose limbs, they eat goldfish, they get bitten on the butt by a disembodied head, or vampirised by their own reflection – Ôbayashi used his daughter’s own fears as inspiration for some of the bizarre events. A bit of nudity, again just because, and a score that’s jangly and fairgroundy and never lets up.
It’s exhausting and yet there are magical moments of real innovative technique. At one point early on Ôbayashi invents a swipe style of cutting between two of the girls as they converse – it’s like Tinder before Tinder. At another he does the exact opposite and eschews editing entirely, literally moving the action to another location (a noodle shop) by having a character from the shop first intrude on another scene, where the girls are discussing what to do.
Breathtaking, breathless, fantastic, remarkable, bonkers, a one-off.
House – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022