Imagine a cinematic exquisite corpse, a handmade invention that combines ‘Mr. Magoo Meets Frankenstein,’ a parody of a parody of a Japanese game show which involves martial arts, elements copped from Hope and Crosby road movies (complete with kick-ass dune buggy), Japanese folklore, the most hyper-realistic rotoscoped matte paintings of blue skies, sunsets and rainbows (EVER!), giggly schoolgirls in sailor suits, watermelons and bananas, romance, a dead mother and a white Persian cat (named Blanche) that may or may not be able to deliver mail, not to mention, kill. For the sake of not ruining this head trip, it’s enough to mention only a few of the many horrors of House like the possessed lighting fixture, a dancing skeleton and a very puckish piano. Then, there’s the blood (oh God, Mother!) so much blood. So yeah, the attempt to describe what makes House House equates to a fool’s errand; and yet, for all of its what-the-fuck-ness, its House-ness, the plot plays like Horror for dummies.
During a school vacation, a motherless teenage girl who’s not at home with her father’s new girlfriend, invites six of her friends to go with her on a road trip to visit her long-time-no-see maternal ‘auntie’ at her home in the countryside. So pure it floats, right? Now, because this is House, the name of the plucky protagonist is Gorgeous (Oshare: ‘fashionable’), her six friends are Kung Fu, Fantasy, Prof, Mac, Melody and Sweet, respectively. These are the girls and these are their names. That’s the point. Hint or intent at abstraction or overthinking is coincidental. Except for Prof and Mac (short for stomach) who wouldn’t want to be Gorgeous or Sweet? As for being called Kung Fu? Cool, so cool.
Therein resides the integrity of the structure. The soul of House epitomizes a rare (bloody?) example of the self-aware avant-garde aesthetics of Cinéma pur -- visual composition, motion, the relation between sound and image and rhythmic editing -- sans the art house severity (think more Hitchcock, less Buñuel, but still some, especially the surrealism) and with all the sincerity of the most sincere pumpkin patch.
The madman at the controls of this saturnalian doomsday device of pop culture kitsch and horror clichés is one time experimental filmmaker and advertising wunderkind, Nobuhiko Obayashi. In his essay, “The Handmaidens,” Chuck Stephens writes: “What Toho Studios was hoping for … was a homegrown Jaws: a locally produced summer movie roller coaster sufficiently thrill-chocked … fast and loud, with tons of fun packed between screams.” Think about that: give us something Japanese with the crowd-pleasing sensibilities (and box office returns to boot) of Spielberg. The intentions of the Toho suits read like Act One for an only-in-Hollywood-only-in-the-70’s-auteurist-fiasco, but Japanese.
What keeps House from being a movie by committee (or a Nipponese Alan Smithee film) is, first and foremost, Obayashi’s cognizance to entertain, to be a showman. After the Toho logo fades to black a blue point of light like the flickering of film through a projector appears in the bottom left to form a box at the center of the screen and then the words “A” and “Movie” appear on separate title cards. Only a rotund Englishman lining himself up with a caricature of his own profile before he wishes the audience a “good evening” would be more self-aware, more fun.
As the premiere exemplar of a film that must be seen to be believed, to open too many of the locked doors of this funhouse would be both a cheat and a crime most foul and unfair. There are many points where the ridiculous surpasses the sublime along the way to the fireworks factory that is the Aunt’s creepy country estate. Come to think of it, House is one big fireworks factory. Obayashi developed the story after asking his pre-teen daughter for suggestions and it shows. Either through camera movement, the on-screen action or the dialogue, every scene moves with the rambunctious energy of a sugared-up six-year-old or a kitten. Even the most lactose-intolerant may start to feel cramps and nausea after so much cheese, or worse, inherent vices like cynicism and impatience may hit enough of a pique that stopping the ride seems like the only sane (and smart) action in this bat shit crazy movie.
Yes, this is, perhaps, the weirdest of weird cinema. And no, it makes no sense, except, of course, it does. Like all art, film aspires to be a transformative experience, anything goes and the only limit is the imagination (or the budget). Look no further than when the story’s knight-in-shining armor, Mr. Togo, gets his ass stuck in bucket and a small boy in a backwards Mao cap and red overalls starts to play the bucket like a drum, because of course. If this scene were written by Cervantes about another knight errant it would be considered the height of seventeenth century world literature, but here it becomes yet another silly non sequitur. Meanwhile, the soundtrack, blithely unaware of the dramas playing out onscreen, shimmies with the most bubble-gum sounding J-pop song in the history of blithely unaware J-pop songs. Ditto later on when Togo unexpectedly (?) turns into a bunch of bananas while the score swoons with a romantic ballad. Yes, you read that right. Bananas. What does this B-story in a B-movie -- House was second on the bill to less banana-centric (one assumes) teenage-romance, Pure Hearts in Mud -- have to do with the horrors of main narrative? Everything and nothing. All the over-the-top-ness, the blind alleys House gambols along and its sheer absurdity make it of a piece, an exercise in the mindfulness of play and a true cult movie.
When House’s Id gets too manic it’s its ego, Kung Fu, who puts the madness into perspective. As matte painting clouds turn shades of dreamy tangerine, gold and turquoise, Kung Fu, in search of the missing Mac, delivers House’s most meta line without the slightest irony. She says: “This is ridiculous. Maybe it was an illusion.” Ah for the love of film. Of course, Kung Fu says this after she has fended off a surprise attack of flaming chunks of stove wood with the ancient art of karate. Before Obayashi gets on to the next bit of irrationality the blanket Kung Fu was holding before the fight began drops back into her arms. And scene.
Neither cartoonish gestures nor earnest intensions put asses in seats, let alone butts in buckets. Like the most modish Melville or refined Renoir, Obayashi cares deeply for the craft of film itself and composes every frame like a maestro. Auntie, who before was resigned to a wheelchair, now, handkerchief in hand, expectedly (?) saunters into the kitchen where Prof and Fantasy wash and put away dishes, predictably a waltz strikes up and she tells the girls she feels like she did when she was a child and went to a restaurant in town. Cut to a close up of Auntie next to a refrigerator as she wipes her lips with the handkerchief, pulls a lascivious smile in the direction of the girls and gives a handkerchief flourish befitting a grand dame after an exhausting performance. Obayashi then cuts to an overhead shot with the actors framed in the upper right hand corner. The door to the refrigerator opens and Fantasy watches Auntie steps inside the refrigerator and the door whooshes closed behind her. Fantasy drops a dish (who wouldn’t) and when it smashes on the floor Prof runs in to find out what’s happened. Fantasy explains the unexplainable. As Prof opens the refrigerator to show Fantasy there’s nothing inside (there isn’t), Auntie moves from off-screen into the foreground, turns to the camera and smiles. This kicks off a montage of Auntie as she dances barefoot in the rafters, cavorts with a life-size anatomical model of a skeleton, hums along to the soundtrack (as the cat meows along in melody and dances, via jump cuts, across the piano keys) and tucks into a human hand before giving one last wistful smile.
In House no in-camera editing trick, movement or movie-making technique is left untried. Speed the frames up, slow them down, reverse them, force perspective, spin the camera, use animation always, pedestal, dolly, truck and use as much stage blood as the censors will allow and do it, all of it, at will and never, never go light on the sound effects. It’s like Obayashi took George Lucas’s stage directions to the actors in Star Wars, to heart: “Faster. More Intense.”
House stands as a monument to imagination and DIY invention, a thumb in the eye to today’s slick, vapid binary fascism of entertainment. For the love of God, see House and believe. Speaking of which, for those fun goalies out there, perhaps Jesus’s advice to Thomas is enough: “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
---Keith Silva writes for Comics Bulletin. He didn’t want to spoil the bit about the bananas, but, c’mon, if the ten seconds we get to see Togo’s unfortunate fate doesn’t sum up this eighty-eight minutes of whack-a-doo-ery, what would? Probably the other eighty-seven-minutes-and-fifty-seconds, seriously. Follow @keithpmsilva on Twitter.