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Hausu (House) (1977)
27th Dec 09
Wild Japanese goings on in a haunted house that wants to make sure it's inhabitants fit right in. Literally.
When entering the original title – Hausu – of this demented, little seen Japanese horror comedy into my phone, I was offered the term ‘gaudy’ by the predicted text setting. Coincidence that may be, but it’s as good a description of this unique, odd and thrilling slice of Japanese horror cinema as any.
I first caught Hausu at the fantastic Wild Japan season at the old National Film Theatre a couple of years back, and was immediately struck by two things. Firstly, I was delighted to experience the film’s lustrous colours and outlandish visuals on as big a canvas as possible, and secondly, I was convinced, even at the height of the Japanese genre boom, that no UK distributor would ever release the film. Fast forward a couple of years and pleasingly, ace company Eureka! have stepped up and proved me wrong, with a splendidly packaged, fantastic master of one of the craziest Japanese genre films of all time.
Even within the giddy context of 70s Japanese exploitation though, Hausu stands alone. The set-up, ostensibly, is a heady mash-up of Suspiria and Evil Dead, but – and here’s the rub – Hausu predates both films. Made, astonishingly, in 1977. Its simple story of a group of Japanese schoolgirls terrorised while staying at an old house that literally consumes its inhabitants one by one is essentially a gossamer thin conceit on which to hang a series of increasingly outlandish, eye-popping set pieces and sequences. These moments come thick and fast, shot and assembled with great care and visual invention, and continually undercut with a knowing, satirical undertone that permeates the whole enterprise.
Director Nobuhiko Obayashi, whose debut studio feature this was, came to the project on the back of a twenty year career in the Japanese advertising industry. Hired by desperate studio executives eager to re-energise the then ailing Japanese studio system and cash in on Eastern appetite for commercial US horror blockbusters such as Jaws, Obayashi was effectively given carte blanche to run creatively riot throughout the film’s slim 87 minute timeframe. It was an opportunity he seized with clear relish. Employing almost every distancing, artificial effect in the cinematic lexicon, and utilising techniques from commercials and his early days as an experimental short film maker, he decorates his Hausu with all kinds of cinematic set dressing and trickery – optical printing methods, photo montages that explode into psychedelic life, ‘Yellow Submarine’ style animations, aggressively layered imagery, sped-up footage, stop-motion floating disembodied heads and limbs, radical jump cuts and fake backdrops. In one mindbending sequence, one of the girls is gobbled up by a grand piano, fingers first, the rest of her disappearing into the body of the instrument, in a sequence which is part Fulci, part Fantasia!
Let’s be clear, this isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of sake. As well as the visual overload, the film has a truly insane score, which oscillates between gruesomely saccharine whimsical folk pop and Keith Emerson style pummelling psych-prog, (almost always in the place/time you least expect it). The style is so outré from the get-go – this is a work that is in no way on speaking terms with any kind of notion of cinematic reality – that there’s really no choice but for the viewer to submit to the manic pacing and the film’s giddy, goofy charm. Apparently while the project was being developed, the vice president of Toho studios said to Obayashi, “I don’t understand the story at all. This is the first time I have seen such a completely
meaningless script. But maybe it’s a good thing that I don’t understand. Please do not try and make it into something I can comprehend.”
He didn’t. Hausu is a rollicking, looping, loopy phantasmagoria that sustains its outrageous absurd tone throughout, though come the film’s heightened climax even the most hardened fan of crazy Japanese cinema may need a breather, it literally is both exhilarating, and somehow, exhausting.
It’s very difficult to pinpoint influences on Hausu, although fantasy film buffs will see obvious echoes of Melies, Harryhausen and Disney in the film’s mix of inventive and animated lunacy. But perhaps the most obvious visual inspiration is Mario Bava; Hausu channelling the atmosphere and visual imagination of the legendary auteur in a way that beats even the Italian pretenders at their own game! As an interesting side note, Obayashi initially planned to release the film under a pseudonym in homage to the director (using Japanese characters that could be read as “Baba Mario”), but the studio insisted he use his own name for the commercial cache.
In turn though, it’s no stretch to imagine who would gain inspiration/be turned on to the film’s wigged out experimentalism. I’m in no position to say whether Messrs Gilliam, Burton, Raimi, Jackson or Del Toro know about Hausu, but if they don’t, or aren’t acquainted yet, they really should be. Similarly, I would be astonished if Takeshi Mike hasn’t seen the film, his Happiness of the Katakuris has a similar look and feel, and despite the film’s lack of visibility in the West, it was a monster hit in Japan at the time of release.
The presentation of Hausu, as always with Eureka!, is superb. The picture and sound are as clear as you could expect of a film that is over thirty years old, with colours both appropriately vivid and wild. There are interviews on the disc, a groovy trailer and a handsomely illustrated booklet has an in-depth profile of Obayashi. So what are you waiting for? It’s Hausu Party time!