Dreams in the Witch House (1977)

HOUSE, (aka HAUSU), Kimiko Ikegami, 1977

It took the West a few decades to finally catch up with the phantasmagorical output of Japanese filmmaker Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, whose feverish sugar rush cinema would make Baz Luhrmann cry uncle. Actually, you could argue that we still haven’t quite come to grips with him since only one of his films is widely available now, but it’s a doozy: House (Hausu) (1977), a child’s nightmare on celluloid that represents Ôbayashi’s formal feature film debut. Before this film he had been cutting his teeth on many experimental film and TV commercials, the latter often featuring imported American stars like Catherine Deneuve, Charles Bronson, Sophia Loren, Kirk Douglas, and David Niven. If you want a taste of what that entailed, go to YouTube and do a search for “Charles Bronson” and “Mandom” to see what Ôbayashi was up to. You’re welcome.

That brings us to House, a breakneck Toho production that sounds like a traditional horror film but plays out as anything but. It’s now part of the mythos surrounding the film that it began as a conversation between the filmmaker and his ten-year-old daughter, Chigumi, who came up with the film’s hallucinatory death traps that feel like a child’s macabre drawings sprung to life – including a schoolgirl assaulted by her own mirrored reflection, a monstrous futon, and a flesh-chomping piano, a sight still capable of leaving audiences gobsmacked. The experimental origins are well in evidence from the start as we’re bombarded with sugary pop music, artificial rear projections, stop motion animation, and incongruous surreal images like a schoolteacher transmogrifying into a bunch of bananas or the film’s visual signature, an evil white ghost cat (which transforms in and out of a painting), spraying artificial blood all over the set. What barely serves as a plot here is a creepy house where seven cheerful schoolgirls visit their aunt. All of the girls run afoul in one form or another of the old lady who turns out to be a supernatural predator apparently living on a completely different plane of existence. Japanese cinema was at a famously low ebb at the time with most of its great filmmakers either coping with shifting audience tastes or turning to pink films, not to mention to bombarding of Hollywood product on local theaters. Just bear in mind this film came out during a deluge of films like Star Wars, The Spy Who Loved Me, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Saturday Night Fever, to name but a few; the world’s hopped-up disco culture would just become more and more extravagant until the end of the decade, which would seem to make audiences hungry for a pure sensory rush like this one. Oddly enough, this film was even inspired by what is usually cited as the first bona fide summer blockbuster, Jaws (1975), whose “novice” director had turned out to be a smart bet for Universal. Toho felt like it was a model worth repeating, enlisting a proven helmer of short, bite-sized entertainments to come up with something new and audacious for the masses.

HOUSE, (aka HAUSU), seated center: Yoko Minamida; standing from left: Kumiko Ohba, Masayo Miyako, Er

Ôbayashi’s grotesque cinematic carnival is especially interesting since it establishes what would become a common trope in his films, the depiction of a young girl’s view of the world, often through the lens of fantasy or horror. Many of his films feel like a schoolgirl’s scribblings in a notebook, with free associative plots hurling female protagonists through a cosmically strange series of events that rarely coheres in any logical sense. Just check out such later films as the hellzapoppin’ high school psychic-alien stew The Aimed School (aka School in the Crosshairs) (1981) or his biggest hit at the Japanese box office, The Little Girl Who Leapt through Time (1983), an adaptation of a popular young adult novel that set the pace for the many novel and manga adaptations to come in his career.

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Of course, the often overwhelming experience of this film wouldn’t be complete without that wild soundtrack by Japanese rock group Godiego. Zipping maniacally between tinkling piano music to electro-rock freak outs, it’s the perfect accompaniment to a film comprised of individual violent vignettes rather than a straightforward plot; it’s no wonder this one has often drawn comparisons to Dario Argento’s horror masterpiece, Suspiria (1977), which opened  a few months earlier and also featured young girls persecuted by a predatory older woman and trapped in a dreamlike death house freed from the constraints of movie logic. Both films make prominent use of music that was highly iconoclastic at the time for horror cinema, drawing on rock and pop influences to enhance their otherworldly settings rather than detract from them.

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That said, the visual and narrative execution of this film is entirely different from Argento’s Technicolor freak out (well, aside from the recurring motif of flower wallpaper!), and if anything it bears a closer kinship to Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979), another hallucinatory horror film told from a child’s point of view about the pitfalls and perils of being at the mercy of adults. You’ve got to admit that any film featuring severed fingers turning into insects, hooded dwarves scuttling through cemeteries, and giant tuning forks opening a portal to another planet would make a fine companion film to this one.

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Perhaps because it was so ahead of its time and difficult to decipher for non-Japanese audiences at the time, House rarely played outside its native country (and never officially with English subtitles) until its much-needed North American discovery in 2010, when it received a substantial theatrical release in several major cities and garnered the special edition treatment from Criterion. Its savvy marketing campaign helped make the orange monster cat face a pop culture staple for a while, with T-shirts and stickers popping up unexpectedly all over New York and Los Angeles, to name but two examples. Since then it’s become a regular midnight cinema staple and a favorite of cinephiles with a taste for something different, while Ôbayashi has finally made a name for himself among English-speaking audiences including a spectacular career retrospective in Los Angeles a few years ago with the man himself in attendance for a string of Q&As. If you haven’t encountered his strange cinematic universe yet, this is a perfect place to start – but be warned; once you’ve had a taste, you’ll want to keep coming back for more.

Nathaniel Thompson

5 Responses Dreams in the Witch House (1977)
Posted By swac44 : December 14, 2016 12:27 am

So glad I got to see this for the first time with an audience when Criterion screened it at one of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals. It’s good to know you’re not alone as far as House goes.

Just sad I didn’t get one of those orange cat tees….

Posted By Doug : December 14, 2016 7:03 am

Without giving a thing away, one of my favorite ‘surrealties’ is the bus stop. I have the Criterion of House, and it is wonderful.

Posted By Renee Leask : December 14, 2016 5:33 pm

I saw this movie all by myself when it aired on TCM. I’ve tried to describe it to my friends and have failed completely. I must recommend it for just that reason!

Posted By EricJ : December 15, 2016 1:20 pm

I don’t know why it’s so “difficult” to explain House (aside from the plot)–
Now that The Simpsons have turned “Japanese commercial” into a national cult-kitsch punchline–even to those who never actually saw a Japanese TV commercial in their life–all you have to do is say “Horror movie directed by a successful Japanese TV-commercial director”, and that SHOULD sum up the artistic style neatly for most people.

Posted By Doug : December 15, 2016 6:32 pm

I’m pleased to see that one of my other favorite movies will be on TCM in a little over an hour: “The Shop Around The Corner” with Margaret Sullavan and some guy named Jimmy. Excellent all around great film.

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