“Let’s Get Weird” is a new series that is written by Jon Dobyns of electronic group Twitch The Ripper. In it, he reviews and shares his thoughts on some of the lesser known horror classics. Be sure to pick up TTR’s new album Colorblind on iTunes.
It can be quite the chore looking for a film that is demented, bizarre and without a detour from the story path, just for the sake of shock value. An uncanny, natural flow is hard to maintain. How does it occur in a cluster-fuck of bold, brazen images that can cause epileptic seizures? You would also hope that somewhere out there, there is still something so bewildering that even the wildest dreamers wouldn’t be able to whip it up. So if you are yearning for something a little more to expand your visual palette, let’s take a trip across the Pacific for the ultimate kids-in-a-haunted house story.
Calling Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s 1977 landmark, House (not to be confused with the 1986 William Kat classic), a masterpiece would be an understatement. It is a visual spectacle you won’t believe until you experience it.
Criterion describes House as “an episode of Scooby-Doo directed by Mario Bava.” As a Mario Bava fan-boy myself ([I even named our rehearsal studio the Bava Room), I think that just might be as accurate a description as you can get. From the brilliant effects and vivid colors, to the extremely bizarre dream-like sequences (similar to scenes in Lisa and The Devil) and obscure time warping, Bava’s influence is all over this as much as Hitchcock’s is in his own work. This unsettling psychedelic circus makes viewers question their sanity in this actual boundary pusher.
In the film we find seven classmates (Gorgeous, Fantasy, Professor, Mac, Melody, Kung-FU and Sweet) going on a summer vacation together to visit Gorgeous’ Aunt. Upset with her father over his new girlfriend, Gorgeous writes a letter to her aunt letting her know she will be spending the summer at the aunt’s house by the sea. She will be accompanied by friends from school with whom she is dying to get reacquainted. During the trip to her aunt’s house, Gorgeous tells stories to her friends about her aunt’s past and a longing for a forever-love. Beautiful sceneries appear to be painted and washed all through the sky and mountains. Dream-like sequences occur during storytelling with an old school projection filter and stop motion effects.
Greeting the school girls in a wheelchair, the aunt holds her white witch cat, and the visual spectacle of ridiculous animation and abstract cinematography begins. As they all begin to become acquainted with Gorgeous’ relative, the classmates take a tour around their new summer home. In an almost comedic, slapstick fashion that is typical of Japanese pop culture of this era, the shenanigans begin with light-hearted fun, including dancing with skeletons.
Before too long, it is nearly dinner time and Fantasy tries to fish out a watermelon from the refrigerator well. Instead of a melon, though, she pulls out Mac’s decapitated head. The scene unfolds in front of a surreal sunset worthy of a Bob Ross painting. Mac’s head flies through the air calling out Fantasy’s name and attacking her. As her cries carry from outdoors to inside the house, Gorgeous’ aunt and friends come to investigate only to find a watermelon. But blaming Fantasy’s warped imagination was just a…well, you know. Inside the house they devour the juicy melon, as the aunt opens her mouth and shows an eyeball once or twice to Fantasy. The melon shakes and whines for Fantasy, leaving us in a bizarro “did that really just happen?” state, as the other girls think nothing of the disappearance.
As the night progresses and the aunt retires to her bedroom, the group discovers more mayhem which is caused by suspected witchcraft. As she overhears from another room a voice saying, “any cat can open a door, but only a witch cat can close a door,” Sweet notices that Blanche, the white cat, has shut the door behind her. A theme of green animated twinkles shines in the cat’s eyes as mattresses begin falling, slamming into Sweet in a back-and-forth motion as the house whisks her away from this world.
The girls begin getting picked off one by one as the piano scene takes the cake in this colorful, chaotic display of dismemberment. Melody uses her musical talents in order to calm her friends, who are panicked by these frightening occurrences. She plays a tune (or I should say the musical theme of the movie, over and over again), and she repeats the melodic line in the living room as the piano’s keys begin to light up and come to life in yet another animation sequence. The piano renders Melody fingerless as she chomps away at the keys. It then comes alive in an-over–the-top blaze of fury, eating and spitting out Melody’s body parts in a cartoonish manner. Quick spurts of yellow, red and blue animated zigzags are spat out causing the pandemonium to intensify. Through it all, Melody’s dismembered digits continue to play the refrain on their own. With legs, arms and a torso flying around, this unbelievably loud, bright, and fast piece veritably screams 70s Japanese pop culture, and continues to shine brightly to the present day.
Upstairs, away from the disorder, Gorgeous realizes her mission in coming to her aunt’s house. A vengeful soul capable of living on after death through some form of metempsychosis, her aunt is ready to inhabit a new body. With Gorgeous signed on to a new state of being, she stares in a mirror watching dream sequences of her aunt and mother, enticing her to join them on the other side. Creepy animation unfolds as pieces of her face peel off and break like fragile molds. Eerie flames burn from underneath while Gorgeous prepares to attack all of her friends. Slamming all the doors and windows shut, she traps them inside the house. The film doesn’t miss a beat after her aunt’s death, as Gorgeous learns that she must eat all who are unmarried in order to satisfy or silence her yearning for a forever love.
While the spirits of the house take revenge on the remaining girls, trippy art house graphics, clip art and flying blood-soaked appendages take over in a catastrophic event. Cat pictures spew blood, filling up the house with a messy river that should please gore-hound fanatics. Ôbayashi pulls out all the stops in a climatic, rich and flashy violent shine.
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. There is something so charming about the look of this homegrown experiment in colorful chaos that it stands on its own level of madness. Although House was released more than 30 years ago, it remains as fresh as ever.