Ap­praised at twice the campi­ness

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Tempos - Robert B. Ker For The New Mex­i­can

Hausu, cult horror, The Screen, not rated, in Ja­panese with sub­ti­tles, 4 chiles

II first caught the 1977 Ja­panese film Hausu (House) on cable a few years back. It was one of those bizarre movies that aired once on IFC or TCM in the wee hours and then dis­ap­peared, lin­ger­ing in my me­mory banks like a half-for­got­ten dream. Could it have been real, this hal­lu­ci­na­tory horror flick that re­minded me of — among many other things — Agatha Christie’s Ten Lit­tle In­di­ans, The Mon­kees’ TV show, Evil Dead 2, and a com­mer­cial for tooth­paste?

Af­ter see­ing it, I went to YouTube and looked up clips just to make sure there was some proof of this movie’s ex­is­tence. I spoke with friends in larger cities, where boot­leg copies of cult Asian movies are more plen­ti­ful, to make sure they’d seen it too. For­tu­nately, there is no longer a need to em­bark on a trea­sure hunt for it, as it’s fi­nally get­ting an of­fi­cial re­lease. Cri­te­rion is is­su­ing a DVD and pos­si­bly a Blu-ray edi­tion later this year. But if you have even a pass­ing in­ter­est in cult cin­ema, then you won’t want to miss the op­por­tu­nity to see it on the big screen, with an au­di­ence.

As cult movies go, di­rec­tor Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hausu makes Roger Cor­man’s work look like Frank Capra’s. He im­me­di­ately re­moves the ceil­ing on what kind of crazi­ness we can ex­pect and im­pres­sively sus­tains a free­wheel­ing, wacky tone from the first frame to the last. But Hausu ’s se­cret weapon is that it is also su­perbly crafted and ex­e­cuted. There is no “so bad it’s good” el­e­ment here — it’s sim­ply good, with a Wes An­der­son-es­que at­ten­tion to art de­sign, Quentin Tarantino’s sense of mesh­ing cin­e­matic styles, and Sam Raimi’s quirky ap­proach to horror, all while re­main­ing dis­tinctly Ja­panese.

The story — which sup­pos­edly sprung from con­cepts thought up by Obayashi’s 11-year-old daugh­ter — cen­ters on seven school­girls who travel to the coun­try over school break. As with the Smurfs or the Spice Girls, these girls’ per­son­al­i­ties are dis­tilled into one skill or trait, which their names of­ten re­flect: Sweet (Masayo Miyako) has a vo­ra­cious ap­petite, while Kung-Fu (Miki Jinbo) is an im­pres­sive ath­lete, and so on. Gor­geous (Kimiko Ikegami) is the lead char­ac­ter. I’ll let you fig­ure out what her defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic is.

The girls travel as a group to the house of Gor­geous’ lonely aunt Obâsan (Yôko Mi­namida) and then dis­ap­pear one by one. The aunt ini­tially seems kind but turns out to be some kind of witch out of a fairy tale, own­ing a fluffy white cat that acts as her fa­mil­iar. The film is not scary and should be palat­able even for the most squea­mish of au­di­ence mem­bers, but it also con­tains a va­ri­ety of cre­ative, im­pres­sion­is­tic death se­quences, ex­e­cuted with a de­light­ful ar­ray of old-school spe­cial ef­fects.

Obayashi was born in 1938 in On­imichi. Greatly in­flu­enced by JeanLuc Go­dard and the French New Wave, he be­gan mak­ing ex­per­i­men­tal 8 mm and 16 mm shorts when he moved to Tokyo in his early 20s. He pur­sued this path in a cir­cle of artists that in­cluded Yoko Ono and went on to di­rect tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials for many years.

Both of these phases of his past shine through in Hausu, which of­ten plays like an ex­per­i­men­tal TV com­mer­cial. Mu­sic — par­tic­u­larly one pi­ano mo­tif — runs through much of the pro­ceed­ings, al­most like a jin­gle. Sev­eral scenes have vis­i­bly fake, painted back­grounds, much like an old film from Hollywood’s golden age. But then, some scenes also fea­ture the char­ac­ters stand­ing in front of posters that are painted to look like land­scapes, play­ing on our ex­pec­ta­tions of what is in­tended to be real or fake. It is not un­com­mon for char­ac­ters to break the fourth wall; Obâsan in par­tic­u­lar of­ten tilts her head, smiles, and stares into the cam­era like a spokesper­son, mak­ing us slightly im­plicit in her evil deeds.

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