Perusing the fiscally dangerous Barnes and Noble sale on all releases by Criterion (50% off everything until 7/31), my eye was suckered in by the bright orange cover art of Nobuhiko Obayashi's Hausu (or simply House if you hate words that end in U). The evil cat caricature (catricature?) threatens my curiosity with menacing eyes and a wicked set of chompers. I'd witnessed this madness before, in 35mm no less. And so, with knowledge of the insanity contained within, I purchased this Blu-Ray and prepared for the plunge.
What the heck is this film with crazy cat cover even about though? Writ simply, 1977's Hausu is Hello Kitty mixed with Evil Dead 2. It's schizophrenic insanity beamed through the slick, stylistic prism of Nobuhiko Obayashi's brilliant mind and projected out the other side. What we get out of the bargain is an amazing vision that's heavy on imagery and sound, but light on character development. That's ok though, as Hausu is something to be experienced, not passively viewed the way we digest most motion pictures.
Believe it or not, this film was originally commissioned by Toho to capitalize on the success of Jaws. Yeah. The story itself was purposefully incomprehensible, deriving many elements from ideas suggested by Obayashi's young daughter, Chigumi,based on her childhood fears. The scene where Melody's fingers are eaten by the piano as she's playing it came directly from Chigumi's fear of getting her own fingers stuck between the keys. It's with this imaginative road map that Hausu keeps viewers constantly off guard. Real world rules of logic simply do not apply, which leads to a creepy feeling of unease. What is safe, when bedding can strip and kill a girl? Most horror films work us with opposing forces; we're frightened and then allowed to retreat into a feeling of relative "safe", only to be scared again. When the rules of a child's world view are applied, there isn't a true safe respite for adults to recover in. It was a brilliantly bold choice which paid Obayashi back ten fold.
The tale being told centers around a girl, Gorgeous (just wait, the character names are spectacular). Gorgeous is planning to go vacationing with her film industry father during her summer break from school. Before they can leave, her father introduces his airy new fiancé, Ryoko (strangely, wind seems to blow her hair and scarves constantly, like a Creed video). This introduction brings memories of her mother to the surface and a now distraught Gorgeous writes a letter to her aunt, asking to visit her in the country side. With her she brings six friends, stalwart companions with names more descriptive than official. Melody (the pianist), Sweet (the naive one), Prof (the brainy one with glasses), Mac (the fat girl who never stops eating), Fantasy (has an active imagination), and Kung-Fu (guess what she does) undergo a psychedelic train trip, repleat with technicolor sky-scapes and their own traveling theme song. Also along for the ride is Blanche, a fluffy, long haired cat that Gorgeous found when receiving her aunt's letter. Blanche has awesome telekinetic powers (activated with a green flash of her eyes) which are used for hilarious devilry.
Everything seems to be going swimmingly as the girls arrive. Auntie is wheel chair bound, so the girls giddily set about preparing dinner and cleaning the house. But something is rotten in the state of Denmark, as Fantasy notices odd occurrences and Mac fails to return from retrieving a water mellon. One by one, the gang is killed off or possessed, leading to the climactic blood flood scene. The kills are freaky and imaginative, but not even dismemberment can diminish the bad-assery of Kung-Fu (she spends half the film kicking ass in her underwear, since her skirt was ripped off while battling demonically possessed firewood).
The special effects do not appear real, and this was a conscious choice. Obayashi instead strives for an aesthetic of the unreal, like something as seen through the imagination of a child. In this he succeeds brilliantly, with a look that is completely original and interesting. Utilizing effects techniques he learned while working on commercials, nothing was too experimental or unorthodox to attempt. The resulting film will stick with you; infecting like a cinematic pathogen, you will pass this along to friends. In this manner, the film spreads like a zombie plague (damn, I really want to watch it again right now).
Very much as with The Blob, Hausu was meant to be the B side of a double feature. Top billing went to a teen romance flick; Pure Hearts in Mud. As you can surmise, Hausu was a huge success. Amazingly, it was the youth crowd in attendance who truly embraced it, turning it into the infamous cult hit recognized today. Surprisingly it didn't hit American shores until 2009, when Janus Films acquired the distribution rights and initiated a limited theatrical release. These first shows completely sold out, leading to theatrical showings across the country, and the excellent Blu-Ray (and DVD) release by Criterion. And, having brought this whole shebang full circle: I highly recommend that you take advantage of the Barnes and Noble Criterion sale, ending in three days (7/31), to snag this unique sensory experience.
Pop the popcorn, chill the libations, gather your cult crew, and unlock the madness.
Saturday Shock-O-Rama Streaming Suggestions
Want to watch something schlocky right now? Try on a few of these suggestions, available right now from the listed service (most of which are FREE!).
Netflix - Red Planet Mars - Sci-Fi (1952)
Crackle - Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky - Martial Arts (1991)
YouTube - Legend of the Wolf Woman- Horror (1976)
And if you simply can't get enough horror happenings here on Mania, might I humbly suggest checking out Tuesday Terrors? It's got all the shocking news to keep you current (and possibly help you survive until the credits roll).
Chuck Francisco is a columnist for Mania writing Saturday Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a horror co-host of two monthly film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA (home of 1958's 'The Blob'): First Friday Fright Nights and Colonial Cult Cinema.You can delve further into his love of all things weird and campy on his blog, The Midnight Cheese or hear him occasionally guesting on eminent podcast You've Got Geek.
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