The Criterion Collection
When Japanese film studio Toho saw the success of the American shark movie Jaws, they asked screenwriter Nobuhiko Obayashi to come up with something similar.
What he came back with was House, a film quite unlike Jaws, or any other film for that matter.
Seven Japanese schoolgirls travel to the countryside to spend their vacation in an old, decrepit house belonging to the old decrepit aunt of one of the girls. Soon after arrival, the girls start disappearing, and with each missing girl, the old aunt seems a get a little younger.
The girls all have descriptive nicknames; Gorgeous (the beautiful one), Sweet (the nice one), Kung Fu (the fighter), Melody (the musician), Mac (the one that eats a lot), etc.. For the most part, that single descriptor is about all we get to know about them; save Gorgeous, who we learn has a single father that is planning to re-marry, prompting her to contact her aunt to ask if she can visit to escape her over-eager step-mother-to-be.
House is a strange mix of the adult and the innocent. The director said that he asked his pre-teen daughter for ideas; and many of the concepts certainly have a childish edge to them. A girl will be decapitated, which is an adult’s idea of horror; but then the head will fly around and chase someone, a child’s idea of horror. This dichotomy leaves the movie in an unsettling middle ground. In some ways, its creepier than it would have been as a straight horror film; its disturbing when gory acts of violence are committed by people that don’t understand how horrific they are.
The special effects also reflect the two sides of the film. The shots composed by Obayashi are complex; made up of matte paintings, green-screens, and animation, but none of them are done very well; the paintings look fake, the animation primitive, and the green-screen isn’t properly isolated so there is a hazy glow around everything. The director stated that this was on purpose, as he wanted the film to look as it if was made by children. If that was his goal, he succeeded. The result is a bright and colorful, anime-style look which, again, serves to contrast and highlight the horror.
That’s not to say that the horror is greatly effective. House is not a scary film; it an uncomfortable one. It mixes cliches from different genres to create a product that doesn’t quite fit into any category. More importantly, it’s not just an artistic experiment; the film is, whatever it is, entertaining. It’s truly unpredictable, and the girls, though shallow, are fun to watch; especially Kung Fu, who has her own theme tune which starts playing when she’s about to use her martial arts ability.
Criterion is known for its high-end presentation, and this film is no different. The movie is presented in 4/3 fullscreen (as it was made); the video has a washed-out, faded look; but I’m pretty sure that was the intent of the director.