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There must have been something in the air in 1977: horror and surrealism combined to make some of the world’s most interesting schlock movies, which launched the careers of seminal directors who would define the decade to come. Alongside the more obscure House, directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Dario Argento’s Suspiria and David Cronenberg’s Rabid were released in cinemas that year. Cronenberg and Lynch had previously made short experimental films, as had Nobuhiko Obayashi. Rabid was Cronenberg’s second feature, but his first to have reasonable international distribution and therefore influence, while Suspiria is possibly Argento’s finest, expertly fusing an experimental approach to lighting, camera design and score, rarely seen in European cinema. Certainly, B-movies were big business in the late 1970s, due to audience dissatisfaction with mainstream releases, and wide demand for horror, sci-fi and fantasy meant there was room for all sorts of expressions of those genres.
The plot of House has the kind of lurid fairy tale scenario that Asian cinema does well: a petulant Japanese teenager refuses to spend her holiday with her father and his new girlfriend and tracks down a long-lost aunt who lives reclusively in the woods with only a white cat for company. The girl brings along some friends from school for the visit and they get killed one by one as the house and its environs devour them in increasingly bizarre ways.
From the point of view of a modern audience, House seems both strange and familiar. The super-saturated colour and kitsch style of the film predicts the oeuvre of Tetsuya Nakashima (Memories of Matsuko). The bizarre shifts in tone between comedy, horror and teenage romance seem so similar to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films that I’d be fascinated to know whether Raimi came across House while at film school - he made his first short Within the Woods in 1978, which would be remade as Evil Dead and Evil Dead II in the following decade.
In terms of Japanese fantasy, the film is clearly influenced by the possessed animals and demonic flying severed heads of Yôkai fiction, the restless spirits of folkloric Kwaidan tales and the notion of the well as an entrance to hell. Obayashi takes these tropes and mixes them with a fetish for 1970s pop culture: the characters’ nicknames reflect both the contemporaneous popularity of Enid Blyton-style tweenage fiction and brand names in the increasingly pervasive advertising of the time - indeed the director himself, outside of experimenta, gained a reputation for slick adverts starring Kirk Douglas and Charles Bronson.
The score is relentless, repeating a catchy but ultimately annoying musical phrase that sounds like an instrumental version of ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ (a song allegedly not about inhaling marijuana). Its repetition is obviously intended to heighten the audience’s unnerved reaction to the lurid events on screen, but actually made me glad to be watching the film at home with a volume control. However, the startling visuals - memorable scenes include one of the girls being eaten by a piano and another spontaneously combusting while looking in a mirror - make up for the score and the often saccharine dialogue. As in many horror films, the audience enjoys the guilty pleasure of watching banal teenagers get dispatched in increasingly inventive ways by the forces of evil. Adding to the visual delights, the spectacle of possessed household objects used as unlikely tools of execution is complemented by the exaggerated deployment of over-saturated Matte paintings as backgrounds to many of the scenes.
House is another great example of late 1970s horror, which, like its peers, pushed the boundaries of the depiction of terror on screen and reveals the interest in the language of experimental filmmaking in genre and mainstream cinema of the time.
Midnight Movies present a pecial screening of House on 22 January at Curzon Soho, London.
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