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One of the great things about horror films is the constant evolution of the genre; just when you think you've seen every possible take on a premise, somebody will come along with a new twist on an old favorite. The bare bones of the plot of House (a group of teenage girls, trapped in a creepy old mansion, being murdered one by one) may sound very familiar. However, in the hands of a first-time director with a background in both art and advertising, it becomes a chaotic and experimental piece of work that, aside from being baffling, bloody, and disturbing, is a great example of the theory of Pure Cinema.
The story starts with Angel, a Japanese schoolgirl and only child, finding that her widowed father wants to bring his glamorous new girlfriend on their summer vacation. Furious, she instead decides to take a few classmates to her Aunt's mansion in the country. However, her friends start to disappear one by one in increasingly bizarre circumstances - will the survivors discover the terrifying secret behind the house, before it's too late?
House was the debut feature from Nobuhiko Obayashi, who, prior to becoming one of Japan's leading directors of TV commercials, made experimental 8mm shorts and moved in 1960s avant-garde art circles with the likes of Yoko Ono.1 It is both these strands of his background that inform his approach to making this film. From his commercials, he took the warp-speed cutting pace and the desire not to waste a single frame; from his early underground leanings was a yearning to tear up the rulebook and blow the cobwebs from the rather staid, realistic tradition of Japanese cinema. He was also fortunate in that the famed Toho studio, which was putting up the money, had been suffering from something of a slump in business with teenagers opting to stay at home and watch television. Desperate to get them back and convinced that Obayashi, with his advertising background, could deliver them, the studio executives pretty much gave the director a free hand to do whatever he wanted, even though they readily admitted they did not understand the script.2
Not that you can really blame them for
their confusion, because, while the basic premise is straightforward
enough, it is the things that happen along the way that are so
utterly bizarre. Schoolgirls get eaten alive by pianos (and their
disembodied fingers come back to play a tune), futons go homicidal,
skeletons dance, grizzly bears sell watermelons at a roadside food
stall, characters appear and disappear at random, plot strands fizzle
out without resolution, and the screen is filled with blood,
disembodied limbs and random images:
This sort of approach puts House firmly in the lineage of the tradition of Pure Cinema, alongside the likes of Dali and Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou or more contemporary exponents such as David Lynch (particularly Eraserhead). Pure Cinema primarily utilizes tools that are unique to film, relying less or dispensing entirely with character or story arcs, as they can also be found in literature and theater. The roots of Pure Cinema can be traced back to a 1916 essay by Harvard psychologist Hugo Munsterberg. He said that far from being a lesser medium than theater, a popular view amongst critics and moral guardians of the time, film has its own language and techniques. Many of these, such as close ups or cutting back and forth in time, feel similar to how the inner mind functions, and at its purest, cinema can communicate directly with the unconscious.3
House definitely resembles one particular product of the unconscious, the nightmare. Just like a nightmare, we get a confusing mix of styles and places, disjointed dialogue and settings, people you know behaving in an odd and sinister manner, and situations taking bizarre twists or simply ending abruptly. Just like a nightmare, watching House can be overwhelming, frightening, hilarious, distressing and strange; and just like a nightmare, we stagger, blinking, into the light afterwards, trying to make sense of what we've just experienced, and piecing together fragments that stick in our minds.
Few films tap into this potential for creating a truly deranged viewing experience, preferring to stick to conventional and logical (even if only an internal logic) choices for narrative and editing. By gleefully ignoring these, House goes to the very heart of what makes cinema the unique and powerful art form that it is (potentially at least). It uses a whole bag of tricks that can either only be used in cinema or can be used more effectively in cinema than any other medium. So it's not just the high speed cutting, the juxtaposition of images, the demented narrative, the dense soundtrack, the rapid changes in tone and style, the parodies of other genres, and stylized acting; it's the fact that only in cinema can all of these come together at once.
Of course, with so much emphasis on the style and imagery, what we don't get is any real emotional engagement with any of the supporting characters, particularly Angel's friends, who are never fleshed out into three dimensional beings or even given proper names. Instead, they get nicknames appropriate to their characteristics. "Prof" wears glasses and is clever, "Mac" (short for stomach) eats a lot, "Kung Fu" does martial arts, "Melody" plays the piano, and "Fantasy" has a vivid imagination. If the director was in any way trying to be realistic, this might be a problem, but, in keeping with Pure Cinema, the world of House is a dream world; we do not get vivid, believable characters in a dream, so to do so here would be jarring, and break the spell Obayashi has worked so hard to create.
For a film that is over thirty years old House still feels incredibly contemporary. Partly this is down to setting it entirely in an artificial world, which helps avoid getting too tied down in any fashion or design styles of the 1970s. More significant is the aforementioned breakneck-speed editing style, which Obayashi helped pioneer in Japanese cinema and advertising4, and which we are now completely used to seeing in commercials and music videos (House was released in Japan four years before MTV first went on air in the US). In addition, the slapstick energy and gross inventiveness is very reminiscent of The Evil Dead, which like MTV, it predates by four years.
House works brilliantly as both Horror and Pure Cinema, illustrating why the purest cinema, with its disdain for the safety net of sense and logic, can also be the most horrifying. If the movie world you inhabit runs according to rules of some sort, then even the most fanciful situations that could never happen in real life (vampires, for example) can still be dealt with in a logical fashion (garlic, crucifixes etc). However, what could be more terrifying than being trapped in a world where all the rules evaporate, leaving you completely helpless. A world where you have no idea what will happen next and what, if anything, you can do about it, where events cut away before we have had time to comprehend them, where loved ones turn against us for no reason, and where death stares us in the face and we can not run away. THAT is real horror.