House (1977)


Dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi
Premiered July 30, 1977

One way that makes reviewing movies hard is that you can’t always get the full picture by seeing something just once. Hopes, expectations, novelty, and memorability are all huge factors. Hence critics in 1998 were so-so on The Big Lebowski, and in 1999 gave a general thumbs-up to The Phantom Menace just for the pleasure of having any new Star Wars movie, only to spend the following decade largely reassessing both. By the same token, I first saw 1977’s House during a “bad movie night” with drinking and riffing and laughed at it like everyone else. No more.

Distraught by her father’s impending marriage to a woman she doesn’t like, teenage Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) travels to the countryside with her heavily stereotypical circle of friends (Mieko Sato, Miki Jimbo, Ai Matubara, Kumiko Oba, Eriko Tanaka, and Masayo Miyako) to visit her elder aunt, a reclusive spinster (Yoko Minamida) and her adorable but eccentric and often creepy-eyed cat Blanche. But not everything is as it seems, as Auntie is in fact either a witch or a ghost who is haunting the house and drawing power from the youthful bodies in her house. Or maybe Gorgeous is losing her mind, as the earliest scenes appear to hint.

Cue floating severed body parts, rapist mattresses, carnivorous pianos, rivers of blood, and furtive lesbianism– pretty much what you’d imagine if Hiyao Miyazaki and David Lynch collaborated to remake The Shiningthough that movie hadn’t yet come out in 1977.

With its bizarre edits, pointedly phony sets, crude backdrops, random noises, melodramatic overlighting, and animated visual effects, House continually straddles the line between high art and kitsch. The cinematography and production is at all times both unequivocally gorgeous and totally unconvincing. There’s no evidence to support this, but Anna Biller has to be a fan of this movie.

More curious still is House’s relationship to movies themselves. The main character’s father is a film composer– who’s just come home after working with Sergio Leone. Just as in Annie Hall, the main character invites her friends to watch a family memory in the form of a partially damaged silent film. At various points, the girls imagine themselves in movies, and at one point ambiguously acknowledge that they’re in one. So House ends up as this bizarre Schrödinger’s cat of a movie. Put it all together and none of it works. And yet all of it also works perfectly.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
The Second World War features prominently in the aunt’s backstory. Between Eraserhead, Three Women, and this, 1977 has given us three major motion pictures that are surreal dreamscapes. Was this a thing?

How Did It Do?
House’s budget is not publicly available– or at least not easily found– but it was probably high by Japanese standards, utilizing Toho’s biggest set and a multitude of canny visual effects. Prospective directors found screenwriter Nobuhiko Obayashi’s script– based on an idea by his young daughter– so incomprehensible that Obayashi had no choice but to direct it himself. And although it did well enough with domestic audiences, Japanese critics were largely unimpressed.

Not so with American critics, who mostly enjoyed then, and have only grown to love it more now, earning an 89% rating on RottenTomatoes and a place in the Criterion Collection.

Next Time: The Kentucky Fried Movie