By Lacey Colby
The organizers of the Horror Film Symposium are set to unleash one of the most aesthetically unusual films ever made onto the Rider community next week. Janus Films recently brought Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 Japanese film House to the United States for the first time, and Rider will be the location of its New Jersey release next Thursday at 9:30 p.m. as part of the Horror Film Symposium.
Not quite horror but not quite anything else, House is a film so bizarre that on the surface it’s a bit like an LSD trip. The audacity and the peculiarities in the experimental style that make genre placement so difficult, though, also makes the film remarkably charming and inventive.
House follows seven schoolgirls as the leader of their group, Gorgeous, finds out that her widowed father is remarrying. Upset, she convinces the other girls to visit her aunt during summer vacation. The girls head to the secluded countryside house, with a mysterious white cat that brought the invitation to Gorgeous. On the way, Gorgeous tells her friends that her aunt, a white-haired woman in a wheelchair, has been waiting since the end of the war for her love to return as promised even though he died in World War II. After a trip on train, bus and foot, the girls make it to the house and, one by one, the girls are devoured.
Everything in the film seems like it could come out of the dream of a child. The cat’s eyes glint green every time it makes something strange happen. The severed head of a dead girl bites another girl in the rear end. One girl laughs as her fingers, followed by the rest of her, are bitten off by the grand piano. The aunt, the cat, the house and all of the things inside it become difficult to distinguish from each other as the film progresses, and the plot becomes less and less discernible in the mayhem. Even the music, particularly the recurring theme that sounds like a music box tune, is so unsuited to horror that it sets the viewers up for something much more whimsical than the warped story that they get.
The unique visual style — full of superimposition, juxtapositions and layering of animation on live-action film — is as surreal as the story and the characters’ reactions to the events. Some of the transitions look like something from a PowerPoint slideshow, and images in the film look like collages of the girls’ scattered body parts. The frivolousness of these effects is deliberate, as the film makes no claims to realism even in its visual effects. Even the subtitles somehow work with the visuals rather than detract from them, because they ground the dialogue in the images
Viewers should not be discouraged by the apparent silliness of the film. Obayashi meticulously crafted the film with a purpose; dressed in this lurid presentation is a story with many layers. It’s a romance about a woman who plans to wait for her love forever; a story about the aftermath of World War II; a coming-of-age allegory involving Gorgeous’ fear that her father will move on from the memory of her dead mother; and a fairy tale with a witch who devours young girls. In the midst of this, House becomes a horror film about the perversion of innocence that disturbs more than scares.
Janus Films had originally acquired the rights to House as part of a cult film side label which never transpired. House was screened at film festivals, where it started to garner a great deal of attention as a cult favorite. Dr. Cynthia Lucia, associate professor in the English department, hopes it might gain a small cult following on Rider’s campus, as well.
The film has also earned critical success, including a positive review in The New York Times. Of course, even this success hasn’t stopped some viewers from misunderstanding the film.
“As disconcerting as the film can seem upon an initial viewing, all of its aesthetic tricks are completely deliberate,” said Brian Belovarac, of Janus Films. “The director started off as an experimental filmmaker and knew exactly what he was doing. The surface silliness of its narrative hides a lot of dark undercurrents about generational differences, consumerism, marriage and gender roles, and other themes that were particularly relevant to post-war Japan in the 1970s.”
Looking for these themes could be useful to first-time viewers and people who plan to stay for the discussion after the film, and there is little doubt that there will be plenty to discuss. Viewers should be prepared to forget about the conventions of film that they’re used to because House will be a unique experience.
“This movie is really off the charts,” Lucia said.
House is playing in the BLC Theater on Thursday, March 4, at 9:30 p.m. and Friday, March 5, at 8:30 p.m. To learn more about the film and watch its trailer, visit www.janusfilms.com.