Do you dare to enter the weird, confusing, and hilarious world of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House? This 1977 surrealist horror film performed well at the box office when it debuted in Japan, but only saw American localization and release in 2009. Some would consider it a cult classic, but many have never even heard of it, which is a total shame. It’s a great movie to watch with friends this October to get into the spooky spirit.
Before we continue, I have to come clean — I’m a real weenie when it comes to scary movies. I slept with the light on after watching Zombeavers, and even Titanic kept me up for several nights in a row. So why am I recommending House, a film full of special-effects gore and certain death?
To begin with, I think it’s more than just a freaky movie. It has enough outrageous moments to distract from the threats of doom and dismemberment running throughout. I can verify that I had zero nightmares after watching it, which is more than I could say for a review of The Strangers that I saw on Youtube. Additionally, lurking below House’s aggressive weirdness is a subtle layer of social commentary.
The movie opens with two Japanese high school girls enjoying their last day of school before summer break. They run into a female teacher, who rather resignedly tells them that she’s about to get married, and urges them to enjoy their youthful days. Then the girls meet up with their friends, who all have wonderfully bizarre names: Fantasy, Gorgeous, Sweet, Melody, Prof, Mac, and Kung Fu. They’re planning a trip together over the vacation, which is to be led by a male teacher Fantasy has a huge crush on.
Then, teenage disaster strikes! Gorgeous’ widower father reveals that he intends to remarry, and the summer trip is canceled. Gorgeous desperately writes to her mother’s reclusive sister in an attempt to escape from her home life and salvage the girls’ trip. The aunt agrees immediately, and the girls get on the train to the countryside. But their teacher gets delayed, and as soon as the girls are on their own, things really start to get weird.
As the danger and the surrealism intensify, the girls act according to their one-dimensional names. Mac is led astray by her gluttony. Melody is enchanted by a grand piano. And Fantasy believes, through it all, that her teacher crush will come to save them.
But the dangers of the aunt’s home are relentless, and so is the bizarreness of each scene of House. Some are shot almost like advertisements, with soft lighting and hazy filters around the young actresses’ faces. Some are full of low-budget special effects and crooked angles. Somehow, all of this adds up into an entertaining, if bewildering, film. Just don’t let the tone mislead you, because there’s something real at the core.
Obayashi is said to have drawn inspiration for some of the scary moments from his preteen daughter’s fears. But it’s worth considering what else he might have picked up from her, and the pressures both of them might have felt about her future. Are the characters ruled by their obsessions just for the sake of weirdness, or does it say something about the narrow options presented to girls and women?
Whatever conclusions you draw from the movie, it’s sure to leave an impression. You can see it as an experiment in absurdity, a campy horror film, or a still absurd and campy form of social commentary. And it won’t be the thrills and chills keeping you up at night — it’ll be wondering why this funny, creepy, and surprising film isn’t more well known.
Rent or buy House from Amazon (Japanese with English subtitles)