Saturday, August 7, 2010

C'mon a My House

HOUSE / Hausu
(Nobuhiko Obayashi, Japan, 1977, 35mm, 87 mins.)

Chocolate, candy, bread, love, and dreams!

Infamous Japanese whatsit House is the quintessential 1970s artifact. The animated opening recalls The Rocky Horror Picture Show before introducing fresh-faced schoolgirls Fantasy (Kumiko Ohba) and Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), who take pictures of each other while planning for summer vacation as H.R. Pufnstuf-style music plays in the background (in some translations, Gorgeous becomes Angel). It's all so...innocent. Think high-school horror classics like Carrie. Sada director Nobuhiko Obayashi even shoots in soft focus, just like Brian De Palma before him.

But you can tell you're in fantasyland when Gorgeous's widowed father (Saho Sasazawa), a film composer just returned from Italy, tells her, "Leone said my music was better than Morricone's." (Yeah, right.) Then she meets his new bride, Ryôko (Haruko Wanibuchi), who enters the scene like Joan Crawford--or the Bride of Frankenstein--in high dudgeon: eerily erect posture, flowing white gown. Used to being Daddy's favorite, Gorgeous doesn't take the news well. Obayashi extends the bizarro-world impression through freeze frames, colored gels, fake exteriors, sepia-toned flashbacks, silent-movie title cards, and additional animations.

Gorgeous decides she'd rather spend the summer with her friends, so she invites
Fantasy, Melody (Eriko Tanaka), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Sweet
(Masayo Miyako), and Mac (Mieko Satoh) to her aunt's house in the country. (Each
name describes the girl in question.) Unbeknownst to Gorgeous, Ryôko plans to
crash the party, ostensibly to win her over. By this point, the score has morphed
from acid bubblegum to electronic hum, suggesting the calm before the storm.

While the girls gather at the train station, the film slips into slapstick Monkees ter-
ritory: a shoemaker sings a song in English as Fantasy's crush object, Mr. Tôgô (Ki-
yohiko Ozaki), trips over Gorgeous's green-eyed cat, Blanche, and ends up with a
bucket stuck to his butt, but the girls make it to the manse without incident, not
counting an exchange with a wacked-out watermelon seller (Vendor: "Do you
like watermelons?" Mac: "No! I like bananas!"). Tôgô plans to join them later.

The minute they enter the cobweb-covered estate, freaky things start to happen.
Blanche, for instance, greets Auntie (Yôko Minamida) like an old friend. Rather than
fear, the weirdness fills the ladies with delight. They marvel at the rats, fix dinner,
and enjoy a leisurely meal, but then Mac disappears. Fantasy figures out what hap-
pened, but there's no proof, so no one believes her--her name is Fantasy after all.

As the vacation continues, the girls clean house and explore the grounds to tinkly
piano music that gives way to funky jazz. Auntie and Blanche, meanwhile, find some
rather novel ways to entertain themselves. Soon, mirrors are cracking, mattresses
are flying, blood is flowing, a possession takes place, and a musical instrument goes
berserk. Plucky as they are, the girls are still girls, and there's only so much they
can do, so they pin their hopes on Tôgô--and his sideburns--to set things right.

And then, just when things couldn't possibly get any weirder, my screener freaked
out, and refused to play until the end. (I blame it on Blanche.) Granted, I wasn't
about to spoil the conclusion, but I'm gonna have to wait until I can secure anoth-
er copy to see it for myself. Fans of Head, Suspiria, The Evil Dead, Pee-Wee's Play-
, and The Happiness of the Katakuris: meet your new cinematic obsession.

House continues at the Northwest Film Forum through Sun., 8/8, at 7 and 9pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Though the Criterion Collection plans to release the DVD on 10/26--extra features include an experimental short by Obayashi and a video appreciation by House of the Devil director Ti West--you real-
ly should see Obayashi's brainchild on the big screen. Images from Janus Films.