Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House has received one of the most aggressive publicity campaigns in recent memory from distributor Criterion, playing on the film’s status as a cult phenomenon, with special screenings across the country and little flame-colored demon decals cropping up everywhere online. Stylistic elements of the film are being utilized in innovative ways to promote the film’s fist-ever DVD release, and Criterion is wisely choosing to put the candy-colored horror-lite flick out around Halloween, but clever marketing and fun aside, is House any good from a critical standpoint? My answer might surprise you.
Obayashi, a visual artist, experimental filmmaker, and commercial director, is without a doubt a masterful technician, and there certainly is something to be said for the pure audaciousness of the film’s wild, bright composition, but in terms of story, which was culled partly from his then 12-year-old daughter’s imagination, House veers into Scooby Doo territory at times, with a wicked, possessed aunt who picks off young women one at a time in order to stay immortal, and characters with names like “Gorgeous” (Kimiko Ikegami) and “Fantasy” (Kumiko Ohba). It would not be out of the realm of possibility for Fred, Daphne, and Velma to roll up in the Mystery Machine at any given second to lend these young ladies a helping hand. Still the director manages to keep viewers; interests piqued with moments of jaw-dropping action and fun-scary tension throughout all of the cartoonish implausibility.
This is definitely a case of a B-film masquerading as high art, and Criterion was smart to capitalize on the madcap, cultish buzz around House, but the film itself is simply entertaining, not a great missing cinematic link or a lost masterwork. Despite the decidedly late night cable flavor of the picture, House‘s influence on the work of directors like Quentin Tarantino, Sam Raimi, and Tim Burton is apparent, while the freaky film also pays subtle homage to the great masters of elegant horror like Dario Argento and Val Lewton.
It also fits well within a tradition of a genre that simultaneously feels as though it is exploiting and celebrating its female characters. The seven young women depicted in the film are all unmarried, making them all the more delicious for “Gorgeous’” Auntie (Yoko Minamida), who is possessed by a spirit who feeds on the souls of young women in order to stay alive and wait for her beloved fiancee who was lost in World War II. Is Obayashi warning young women of the danger of not being settled down, married, and filling the middle-class, heterosexual status quo? Does not being married drive women to becoming voracious monsters who must vampirically feed on the youth of others?
House does seem to be saying at various points that girls who transgress these bourgeois expectations will meet with startlingly unsavory fates. So, while the whimsical, rainbow-drenched palette of the film draws the spectator in with lightness, pert young ladies, and cotton candy gore, the message is actually quite conservative for such a trifle. What we have here is medicine going down with a spoonful of sugar.
Lest you think I am an utterly humorless feminist, it must be pointed out that House is, despite occasional missteps and incongruities, a dynamic, fun ride; like a carnival’s fun house full of distorted mirrors, or like a cheesy haunted house erected to capitalize on the spooky Halloween season. There are plenty of thrills, chills, and laughs and the stylistic elements are enough to keep any reasonable viewer’s attention, but if one was to dig a bit deeper, the flaws of the film are right there on the surface for critique, Obayashi is not trying to hide them. Depending on who the viewer is – and Criterion would like those who purchase this DVD or see the film at a midnight screening to believe that they are supreme cinephile hipsters for loving this movie and in fact even knowing about it – the readings of House could go in a number of directions.
Perhaps this brand of elusivity is in fact the film’s greatest strength, that it can play to a number of audiences, and can be mutable and amorphous depending on who is watching it. With House, one viewer might think it is complete trash, while another might consider the film to be a mysterious cornerstone of the horror genre. Perplexing, energetic, and awe-inspiring, none of these reading of the film are incorrect, but with Criterion’s aggressive marketing push, and beautiful pop art high-definition transfer, look for the film to become even more mythological amongst cineasts than it may deserve to be. There is a lot of razzle-dazzle going on in House, and surrounding the film’s release, but I encourage discriminating buyers to approach this one with either extreme caution or with a handful of LSD.
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