Appraised at twice the campiness
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.