There is a long and creative horror tradition in Japanese cinema but Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 House is like nothing seen in the genre before or since. Even the horror classification isn’t quite accurate. Call it a haunted house/high school romp/demon killer/surreal fairy tale: a stylized candy-colored bomb of a ghost story more jaw-droppingly unreal than scary, an experimental piece of pop-art genre filmmaking with a cartoonish flair to its art direction, special effects and graphic expressionism.
The bare bones of a plot sends seven high school girls from a pastel-colored world out of a romantic manga, all heightened emotional melodrama with a palette and decor to match, and into a weekend in the country. Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), fleeing the sudden upending of her home-life when her widower father brings home a new wife, takes her best friends with her to the country home owned by her seemingly benign spinster auntie (Yôko Minamida); the place turns out to be a demonic funhouse, a bit like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) cabin as reimagined by a child. The seven girls, much like the Seven Dwarfs, are described as much as named: accompanying Gorgeous are Kung-fu, Fantasy, Prof, Melody, Sweet and Mac (short for Stomach).
The first suggestion that there is something, shall we say, odd about this isolated, out of time villa and their unusual host comes when auntie remarks, “Mac, you sure look tasty, being round and all.” Sure enough Mac is the first to disappear into this hungry, hungry house, which proceeds to dismember and devour the entire cadre of teenage youth in cartoonish scenes of carnage that are more like performance art pieces than sadistic exploitation. The limbs and fingers of one girl (animated with cut-and-paste images and blue-screen effects) appear to dance in celebration at their liberation. There’s nothing mean-spirited or gruesome here, and no effort made to scare the audience. Nobuhiko just wants to dazzle your senses and blow your mind.
Plays on TCM on Friday, January 13 as part of their late night TCM Underground programming.
Also available from Criterion on DVD and Blu-ray.