How to describe Nobuhiko Obayashi’s indescribable 1977 movie House (Hausu)? As a psychedelic ghost tale? A stream-of-consciousness bedtime story? An episode of Scooby-Doo as directed by Mario Bava? Any of the above will do for this hallucinatory head trip about a schoolgirl who travels with six classmates to her ailing aunt’s creaky country home and comes face-to-face with evil spirits, a demonic house cat, a bloodthirsty piano, and other ghoulish visions, all realized by Obayashi via a series of mattes, animation, and collage effects. Equal parts absurd and nightmarish, House might have been beamed to Earth from some other planet. Never before available on home video in the United States, it’s one of the most exciting cult discoveries in years.
There never has been, nor will there ever be, a movie quite like Nobuhiko Obayashi's brilliantly deranged horror-fantasy 'House.' And besides, no one would be crazy enough to try match this film.
'House' the tale of seven young Japanese girls with names like Fantasy and Kung Fu and Mac (for "Stomach," because she loves to eat). Seven, like Kurosawa's samurai. They're led by a girl named Gorgeous who, upset that her father is dating a new woman after the death of her mother, decides to plan a getaway (something akin to an American spring break) to visit her dear old aunt in the country. The aunt, the legend goes, has been waiting for her fiancé to return from World War II (kind of like the dog in that Richard Gere movie).
The seven girls go to the aunt's house in the country and, basically, get gobbled up by various supernatural means. This may sound like a typical genre picture, but that's only because I'm being vague for a specific purpose and that purpose is – I don't want to give anything away! Also, the story in 'House' is nothing compared to the way that it's told.
Again, I'm going to be dancing on eggshells, because part of the fun of watching 'House' is letting the sensory overload wash over you, to see the ways in which Obayashi, a talented short film and commercial director, combines animation with puppets with rudimentary blue-screen work (this was the late 70s after all) and comes up with something wholly unique and captivating and charming and totally, totally wild.
There's a reason this movie, which had a robust art house revival earlier this year, is talked about in such hushed tones in the genre community – it really is one of the craziest things that you'll ever see. But it never goes so out of bounds that it becomes unapproachable; the strangeness is never an impediment. It's an absolute, whacked-out masterpiece, and one that you'll want to watch again just as soon as you finish it.
The charming, fantasy elements of the story come from the fact that the screenplay was conceived largely by the nightmares of Obayashi's seven-year-old daughter. The Japanese have a different relationship with the spirit world than we do, and it shows in 'House.' Things just happen because they can, because the fantastic is only a couple of cracked cobblestones away from our own world, which is even more acceptable when the World War II context of the story is taken into account. In an early sequence, the girls, on their way to the country house, look out the window and see the atomic bombs exploding and one of them giggles and says: "It looks like cotton candy!" It's a painful, funny, brilliant moment. One of many.
All that said (and I really do think 'House' is a masterwork), the movie isn't for everyone. If you can't handle high camp or stylistic extremes, then you might want to sit this one out even though, if you do, you're missing something really special. The horror elements are outrageous but rarely grisly; this is sensory overload with a distinct purpose and artistic bent. It's the rare movie where you can say "it's unlike anything you've ever seen" and actually mean it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'House' arrives on high definition thanks to the Criterion Collection (spine # 539), so the box is slightly chunkier than normal Blu-ray cases. The disc automatically plays but halts at the atmospheric menu screen and the 50GB disc is Region A locked. Also – how 'bout that cover? Love it!
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (aspect ratio 1.33:1) is a sight to behold – gloriously capturing the bubblegum pop-meets-Grand Guignol sensation of the film, to the nth degree (which, when dealing with anything related to 'House,' is the only degree that will do!).
According to the accompanying booklet: "The new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35 mm low-contrast print struck from the original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS system and Pixel Farm's PFClean system, while Digital Vision DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction." In other words: a whole lot of work went into rescuing this film from the depths of crummy negligence.
And I must say – this transfer totally pops! The colors in this movie are absolutely amazing - from the bright whites of a ghostly bridal gown; to another section where shards of a girls face fall away like a papier-mâché mask, revealing hellish flames; to the otherworldly hues of the country sky; and the dazzling brightness of the mischievously nightmarish cat. Everything looks totally incredible.
It's kind of a fool's errand to assess anything on "lifelike" qualities, but that said, skin tones look great, outdoor sequences that weren't shot on the elaborate soundstage look realistic and show a great amount of detail and texture, blacks are dark and bottomless, and there's a fine layer of grain that lends the perfect atmosphere of a late night drive-in experience. Those complaining of instances of "softness" are directed to the stylistic proclivities of the film, and the dreamlike quality. These sequences are intentional.
There's really nothing else you could want from this transfer. It looks phenomenal and, what's more, totally captures the tone and irreverence of the movie. Sometimes the finer lines showcase the obvious phoniness of the visual effects, but far from detracting, that makes the movie even more charming, heightening its handmade quality and endearing it further.
Additionally, the Japanese monaural soundtrack sounds surprisingly solid. I mean, this isn't going to put 'Iron Man 2' to shame or anything, but it's a wonderful audio mix just the same.
In the two years it took Obayashi to get 'House' green lit, he blanketed the Japanese culture in things relating to 'House,' including releasing the soundtrack a full year before the movie even came out. (I learned this on the marvelous making-of documentary – more on that in a minute.) And so the soundtrack by Micky Yoshino and Asei Kobayashi, with songs by Japanese pop phenomenon Godiego, was already hugely popular.
And it's that music – and those songs – that sound the best on this new audio mix. Again, according to the booklet: "The monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from an optical track print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated audio workstation."
And, yes, things sound very good. Audio comes across mostly crisp and clear, sound effects pop appropriately, and the entire mix gives off the great atmosphere that 'House' is known for. It's not exactly razor-sharp (it suffers from that audio "softness" that defines many films from the 1970s), but it gets the job done admirably, and the music sounds incredible. What more could you want?
The film is subtitled in English, and this is the lone subtitle option. (Japanese is the only audio option.)
All of the special features on the 'House' Blu-ray are also present on the DVD release Criterion is unleashing at the same time. The accompanying booklet, which was a little too slim for my taste, features a great essay by Chuck Stephens, and some killer photos.
As far as I'm concerned, 'House' on Blu-ray is one of the high definition events of the year. This dreamy, psychedelic horror flick, about schoolgirls getting eaten by a haunted house, has to be seen to be believed. (Any kind of description is an utter disservice.) Thankfully, superb audio and video, and a nice, if not exactly overwhelming, selection of extras, completes the "event" aspect of this release. It's a Must Own as far as I'm concerned, and I'll fight anyone who says differently. 'House' beckons you! You'd better answer!