Friday, March 27, 2009

BUFF - Hausu (House)

[Oh, and while I'm at it we should go ahead and make this the The Weekly Alternative to The Haunting In Connecticut.]

Dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi

Viewed: From the Balcony

On the final night of the Boston Underground Film Film Festival, Padraic and I were able to catch up with two of the films that really stood out from this year's line-up. The first was an obscure oddity from Japan circa 1977 called Hausu (or House). And no it is certainly not the inspiration for the awesome 1986 William Katt movie. Honestly I'm at a loss for any comparisons that could give someone even an inkling of what Hausu is like. And not only visually, but tonally as well. The movie jumps from melodrama to slapstick, from seemingly heartfelt moments and scares to goofy sight gags in the blink of an eye. Words cannot do this film justice. Simply put, go see it at your first opportunity -- ideally with a game audience like we had at the BUFF. Word is there will be a midnight showing at the Coolidge Corner Theatre (note that 3 of the best movies I've seen recently - Time Crimes, Let the Right One In and Chocolate are scheduled for a midnight showing in the next couple months) sometime soon. I may see you there as this one is definitely worth repeat viewings.

Ostensibly the film is a haunted house story. A group of Japanese schoolgirls (complete with Sailor Moon outfits) are super excited for summer break and decide to visit Auntie's creepy old mansion on the hill out in the middle of nowhere. Soon after they arrive girls start disappearing and blood starts flowing. Straight forward enough, right? Writer/director/producer/special effects director Nobuhiko Obayashi seems to have less interest in simply telling a haunted house story than in testing the limits of what cinematic elements you can squeeze into a haunted house story. There's animation, collage, color, black & white, hand drawn special effects, bizarre music cues and sound effects and scenes where the film speed is experimented with. But rather than all this becoming exhausting (like much of the experimentation in Mock Up On Mu), it's fascinating and wildly entertaining. While much of the time you're shaking your head in disbelief you're also excited about the unlimited possibilities of what could come next.

For all the imagination and fun the film provides, it does come at the cost of coherence. In this case, it's a small price to pay but you are left asking many questions. The story behind the haunted house involves Auntie, who may or may not be a ghost, and her white cat Blanche, who may or may not be the evil mastermind behind the killings. Seriously. There's a backstory to Auntie that gets told in an amazingly creative sepia toned flashback that takes place when one of the girls is showing an old photo of Auntie to her friends. The photo comes alive and plays like a silent movie, with all of the girls providing commentary on the film. It involves Auntie's husband going off to war and dying in combat but Auntie never giving up hope that he'd return. I believe this has something to do with why her eating a couple of her niece's friends, but I can't be too sure -- and don't ask me to explain the ending either.

But again, a handful of loose threads does not take away from the sights and sounds of seeing a girl get eaten by a piano.

Or does it deter from the insane but untimely demise of Kung Fu. Oh wait, did I forget to mention that all of the girls go by descriptive names -- the one that's good at Kung Fu is called Kung Fu, the girl with musical talent is called Melody, the girl likes to clean is called, um, Sweet, etc. Yeah, that's one of the mildly odd things going on here.

Obviously there's some level of kitsch involved since this is a film from 1977 and the special effects we know today were still a theory, but as your watching the Watermelon guy get turned into a cartoon skeleton, it's obvious that you're laughing along with the movie rather than at it. Even at its goofiest though, there's going to be a shot or a sequence around the corner that will impress even the most hardened film fan. It's amazing to see images and themes pop up in Hausu that are still being recycled over 30 years later. The long wet black hair creeping out of the water and onto the shoulder of Gorgeous (yes, that's her name) is a prime example of imagery that still pops up in nearly every J-horror film of recent memory.

This is one that I urge anyone looking to throw on a movie to impress some friends, and even that one who thinks they've seen every gonzo movie out there, to track down. Hausu is guaranteed to astound all.

1 comment:

Padraic said...

I'm glad to see you mentioned that this is not kitsch, but rather a very well-made film.

Compared to, say, the real world, it is an incoherent and pointless mess, but it has a wonderful internal syntax. Nothing at all makes sense in the film except in relation to other things that happen in the film.

For example, why a man should turn into a pile of bananas simply because someone says the word "bananas" is inexplicable in any context...except the context in which the former man can reduce the latter to a sparkling skeleton.

The fact that the movie is so insular means that it can't be unpacked (I presume) in the way Lynchian or Cronenbergian madness can be - and thus it's pretty empty on ideas* - but if any film can exist on images alone, it's this one.

*Who knows, maybe some kind of post-WWII thing, but damned if I'm going to be the one to figure it out.