REVIEW: What do you get when you cross Scooby-Doo, House on Haunted Hill and–wait, that’s no good. What do you get when you cross Evil Dead, Suspiria and–that’s no good either. What about changing Pee Wee’s Playhouse into a horror? You know what, none of these analogies work. The film (if you can even call it that) that I am about to review is indescribable. And I mean that in the pitch perfect sense of the word. There’s nothing else like it or anything that even comes close to the cult appeal of it. I remember hearing about it for the first time when I was bragging that no horror movie would scare me and I was looking for some that would. Many have failed (like supposed snuff films like Niku Daruma or The Guinea Pig films) but I came across the trailer for Hausu. It really puzzled me out. I had so many questions I had to answer after I watched it. Was that really a horror movie? Why was this highly regarded? Then I started to read about the film without going into spoiler territory, and some of the information was even more puzzling. One mind-boggling example that I read was that Hausu was made due to the popularity of Jaws. This is the movie Japanese filmmakers came up with to counteract Jaws? How can this be? It was the compelling production stories, the trailer and the melange of genres and tones that disturbed, thrilled and seduced me into buying the film. Now was it worth it? That’s questionable to many, but I’m willing to bet bananas to watermelons that once you’ve seen it, you can definitely say there’s nothing else like it.
drug trip story starts off with Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), who is planning to spend her summer vacation with her father (Saho Sasazawa), who is a famous composer (amusingly praised as better than Ennio Morricone). But unfortunately, he makes the announcement that he has found a new wife, Ryoko Ema (Haruko Wanibuchi) and she’ll be joining in on their summer vacation. Feeling resentment towards her father, she mourns about her deceased mother which eventually leads her to think about her auntie (Yoko Minamida), who has a tragic backstory about losing her husband during World War II. Wanting to see her, she plans her summer vacation to go at her aunt’s house in the countryside. Through an air of serendipity, her six friends’ plans for summer vacation have fallen apart, so they all join Gorgeous on her vacation, hoping for a wonderful time. Little do they know, Auntie is more than she shows and funnily enough, seems to be more sprightly every time a girl goes missing. That leaves Gorgeous, Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Sweet and Mac (Mieko Sato) in a horrific time that could end in a drug trip deadly consequences.
There are some points of fascination that I just have to make. According to an interview, the director took inspiration from his daughter’s nightmares and what scared her and incorporated it into the film. Watching it in retrospect, it makes perfect sense in terms of tone and style. This is what a nightmare looks like in the eyes of a child. Their power of imagination can make the most mundane astoundingly fun or eerily scary. There’s a scene involving someone about to be eaten by futons. It reminded me of my childhood, when I would be scared if my bed had swallowed me and no one would be able to find my body. It’s one of the many moments in the film that feels paradoxically human and surreal. Another scene in the film involves one getting her fingers eaten by a piano that she was playing. That scene and the former also explores how the character’s strengths (hinted by their names) become their burdens to the point of their downfall. In the same interview, the director stated that he was a child during the Second World War, and it affected him and it shows in Hausu. These are children who lived after the war, so when Gorgeous recounts the backstory of her Auntie, they are oblivious to the massive ramifications that the war had on Japan, and it pays off with some deliciously dark humour as well as some compelling visual metaphors that amp up the scares as well as the surrealism.
There are also other elements of the film that made it far ahead of its time. For example, there’s a “cast” commentary over Gorgeous’ telling of Auntie’s backstory that earns laughs, particularly in terms of dark humour (i.e. a character sees an atomic bomb explosion shown pink and compares it to cotton candy). There are scenes in the film that are so random and unfathomable (like a scene with a cat on a piano), that they can be compared to Youtube Poop; something that was definitely not known back in 1977. Even the character’s names can be seen as a amusing meta-commentary on female character representations in horror films. There are so many scary moments that can be seen as inspirations to modern horror films. For example, long locks of hair creeping up to someone which is an influence to Ju-On and The Grudge films to excessive spraying blood from walls which could be an influence to The Evil Dead films and even the stop-motion techniques could be an apparent influence to the Tetsuo films. There is so much visual chutzpah in its style that it will be looked upon in film schools for decades. All of the effects are on-camera, no excessive CGI, just practical effects and a vivid imagination from Nobuhiko Obayashi and his daughter.
The amateur cast along for the ride are all game to Obayashi’s vision and they are up for it, every step of the way. From the making-of video, some of the actress even went nude, and all of it wasn’t even for prurient purposes; meaning that some of them had to be painted blue so their bodies can not be seen in blue screen, to make it seem like they are beheaded or missing a limb. That’s a lot of commitment from them, and it is very appreciable. All the actresses live up to their namesakes, but my personal favourite is Kung Fu. Not only is she convincing in her action chops, she show a lot of charisma that makes us like her almost immediately, and I think Obayashi knows that too. Hell, he even gave the character her own theme song, which appears whenever she is about to throw a kick or a punch, and it’s great.
Speaking of the music, Godiego (who is most known for the Monkey TV show theme song) provide the soundtrack. Apparently, the music for the film was made before the film was even in production, so for the songs to even come together and coalesce is nothing short of a miracle. The joyous music comes across as exactly so, but over time, the repetition and joy becomes genuinely haunting at times. The film-making style comes across the same way. It all seems like fun and games at first, with the stop-motion, under-cranking, matte paintings but over time, it really comes off as disturbing. There’s a scene where Gorgeous is about to leave the house and she leaves the other girls behind and while she walks out, the frame rate of the scene is minimized to the point that it looks stilted, off-kilter that adds to the eerie atmosphere. Everything in the film, from the sets to the music to the special effects to the directorial style should create a train-wreck, but miraculously, it all comes together and even the story is told in a linear fashion. Even the ending can be seen as pure bittersweet since it shows both sweetness, fantasy and horror, all with a Godiego soundtrack.
I could go on and on forever about Hausu, but if the review were any longer, my brain would probably explode. And that goes the same for the film, which thankfully is only 88 minutes. Hausu is one kaleidoscopic experience that must be seen to be believed and if you can, purchase the Blu-Ray from Criterion Collection. It’s totally worth it. I absolutely loved this film.
Perfectly resembles a true nightmare
Old-school film techniques and imagination add to an incredibly surreal experience
Fantastically inspirational and meta, filled with bizarre humour ( “Looks like a cotton candy!” )
So many mind-boggling, psychedelic experiences that it may trigger a seizure (and that’s including moments BEFORE they go in the haunted house!)
May be way too weird for audiences
SCORE: 9/10 (No matter how positive or negative your view is on the film, you can definitely say that there’s nothing else like it.)
Cast: Kimiko Ikegami, Eriko Tanaka, Kumiko Oda, Ai Matsubara, Masayo Miyako, Mieko Sato, Miki Jinbo, Yoko Minamida, Saho Sasazawa, Haruko Wanibuchi
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Screenwriters: Chigumi Obayashi, Chiho Katsura