In the world of bizarre films, there comes a time in every such film when the viewer asks him or herself: "What the fuck am I watching?" Nobuhiko Obayashi's House (or Hausu), from 1977, may reach that moment in record time, when the film's title is preceded, accurately but still inexplicably, by the words "A Movie". Then the title, House, appearing as puffed up, living animated letters, rises up, a deep, rumbling voice utters the title, the "O" turns into a mouth with big teeth that chomps down on nothing, then opens again, and from nowhere a severed hand falls from the maw. And we're off.
House is a true cult item, and it's recent DVD release from the good people at Criterion has turned it into one that all the kids are talking about (some of that talk has included what I suppose were at one time called "wags" wishing that Criterion were instead releasing House, Steve Milner's 1986 horror comedy, featuring William Katt, George Wendt and Richard Moll. Having seen that film, I have earned the right to wish those people would be quiet). However, the most interesting thing about Obayashi's film, at least to me, is that it counts as a cult movie only in the non-Japanese world. At one point in House, a girl goes outside and is accosted by the severed, sentient, flying head of one of her friends. The head zooms around cackling, and bites her friend on the ass. The girl runs away screaming, and the head vomits. Then it turns into a watermelon that all the other characters eat. In America, this is pure, nonsensical madness. In Japan, this is archetypal -- this is Joseph Campbell, Hero With a Thousand Faces-type shit. Or, knowing as I do that in Japan House was a mainstream hit, so I'm forced to conclude.
A plot summary of House is futile, and would be boring. Outside of noting that the film involves seven schoolgirls whose plans for an outing to "training camp" are upended, so they instead travel to the house of one of the girls' aunts, house and aunt both turning out to be haunted, any summary of Obayashi's film (based on an idea by his 11-year-old daughter) would just turn into a list of its insanities. This review may well turn out to be that anyway, but if so at least I'll go about it my own way. The problem is, I do not know what to do with a film like House. I am aware of some people who've put their bafflement over what Obayashi has offered them to one side, or at least tamped down on it a little, and attempted some sort of critical exegesis. More power to them, I say, but I'm neither capable nor interested in following suit. Put it like this: House goes so crazy so quickly, that an early scene in which the two main schoolgirls, named Fantasy and Gorgeous (Kumiko Oba and Kimiko Ikegami) lovingly embrace led me to think "They're going to kiss. Or turn into kangaroos." It's the kind of movie where, once the guy falls down the stairs, and his ass lands in a pot, and he begins to scoot all over the road, weaving through traffic, on his ass, in that pot, you figure everything else might as well happen, too.
.Don't be fooled into thinking that House is nothing but an incoherent mess, however. It sort of isn't! In terms of narrative, and logic, and all that stuff, sure, but visually -- which you sort of have to sense is what really matters to Obayashi -- it really is pretty consistent. Theoretically, I suppose that's easy enough to accomplish in a film where anything goes, but you can't watch House and not understand that Obayashi is a director who knows what he wants. Whether or not you want the same thing is an entirely different matter, and as captivatingly absurd as the film can be at times, I found it at least as often to be the kind of movie that I wanted to tell to go fuck itself. Though far less appalling, House is not unlike Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, in that it is stylistically relentless, even assaultive, and there are times while watching House, as while watching Natural Born Killers for the first (and only) time, when I became simply bored with Obayashi's fairy tale/comic book/haunted house shenanigans. The big difference is, in House those moments of boredom alternate with other moments of shocked amusement (or whatever -- there are lots of shadings to the reactions you're likely to experience here), whereas in Natural Born Killers that moment of boredom began in minute one out of 119, and never stopped.
I don't know if House will end up being any kind of Rorschach test for its Western viewers, if one's reactions to its images of man-eating pianos and blood-vomiting cats will come to be seen as revealing of one's inner life. I hope not, and anyway, so far I don't see anyone trying to turn it into that -- it's all delighted confusion, from what I can see. My own delight is more than a little bit tempered, but even so it's nice to watch a film about Japanese schoolgirls being eaten by a house and realize that the girl named Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo) is the resident badass among the secondary characters, and that if the schoolgirls from House were to be interpreted in terms of American action/horror movies, she would be Jesse Ventura from Predator. She was my favorite, Kung Fu was, and I was really sorry when whatever the fuck happened to her happened to her.