House is a rare piece of cinema, too few have seen. It’s a fucking thrilling Japanese art-house horror film. It has a strange and violent surrealism on par with what you could call, a bad trip. Beyond that, it’s an incredible odyssey of explorative special effects that influenced generations of filmmakers from Steven Spielberg to Ari Aster to Edgar Wright. Nobuhiko Obayashi, left no stone unturned in the art department. Rotoscoping. Rotating sets. Animation. Puppets. Analog frame splicing. Sound effects galore. Legendary locations. Lens and lighting tricks and of course — loads of gushing squirting blood punctuated by levitating severed limbs. Pure magic. Here’s the trailer cut from Criterion:
Of course Obayashi went all out, because he basically had creative carte blanche with the studio. Which makes total sense when you think about the timing of its release in theaters. Chuck Stephens at Criterion writes:
What Toho Studios was hoping for when it hired Obayashi was a homegrown Jaws: a locally produced summer movie roller coaster sufficiently thrill-chocked to at least partially deflect the ongoing onslaught of Tokyo-box-office-topping New Hollywood hits from Messrs. Spielberg and Lucas—something fast and loud, with tons of fun packed between screams. In the Japanese cinema of the mid-1970s, “fast,” “fun,” and “homegrown hit” were in short supply. Adults-only pinku eiga (pink cinema) had taken over, and even master genre filmmakers like Kinji Fukasaku found themselves struggling to sustain the successes of the yakuza and other action flicks that had proved so lucrative earlier that decade. The radical glories of the country’s 1960s New Wave had managed to last well into the early 1970s (thanks mainly to the independent funding and screening initiative known as the Art Theater Guild, where Nagisa Oshima would produce such form-shattering works as Diary of a Shinjuku Thief and The Man Who Left His Will on Film), but by 1976, the most trailblazing new Japanese film was the one no one in Japan was allowed to see: Oshima’s sexual-passion-as-radical-politics treatise In the Realm of the Senses, whose shameless thickets of pubic hair ran head-on into the nation’s final visual taboo and which remains to this day banned in its country of origin. (Meanwhile, former Nikkatsu action director Yasuharu Hasebe’s ultrasadistic rape fantasia Assault! Jack the Ripper!—which strictly adhered to that quaint follicular technicality—went on to become a major pinku eiga box-office success that year.)
The greatest thing about this is, 5 years later Spielberg produced Poltergeist, which is basically an American bastardization of House. Don’t get me wrong, I love Poltergeist, but there was clearly a studio rivalry going on. While Poltergeist borrows very little in terms of story or surrealism, it borrows enough. House stands apart on its own from the other adjacent haunted-genre films that came after it. Jonathon Barkan at Bloody Disgusting writes:
House is a film that needs a shelf of its own. In no way can it be perfectly described in all its visual glory. Words are truly inadequate to do it justice. The film is atypical – not like The Old Dark House or The Haunting, but not as abstract or pretentious as earlier Cronenberg/Lynch films. Despite including all the usual Bava-isms, and regardless of his knack for staining the surreal on film, it’s still amazing that he could have dreamt up such imagery.
Obayashi really is one-of-a-kind. He has quite the resumé to prove it too. Mr. Obayashi is currently ill with cancer, but he is still very much so active. In fact, last I could find, he was shooting a film about “how the atomic bomb came to be dropped [on Hiroshima].” Really looking forward to that film release.
Until then, I’m going to re-watch House while packing up my own apartment, as I’m moving in three weeks. Wish me luck 😅