Film Review: Hausu (House) (1977)

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SYNOPSIS:

Seven girls on their summer trip pay a visit to a possessed house which plans to eat them in extremely bizzare and surreal ways.

REVIEW:

“A wonderful landscape! It’s as if we were in another world!”

The story of Hausu was a radio hit following relentless promotion by writer/director Obayashi which persuaded Toho studio to adapt it into a feature film. It is often cited as a precursor to Evil Dead 2, but given that it was released in 1977 and the fact that it was almost never made makes this eclectic horror romp rather impressive and more than just a little influential to horror cinema in general. Really though, the comparison to Evil Dead is slightly inaccurate. The surreal comedy-horror bit is often trumped by absurdist melodrama with an incomprehensible plot encompassing demonic possession, ESP, telekinesis, and cannibalism. Obayashi was a director of TV commercials before this full-length feature and in many ways it shows. There is a glossy glow to everything and an obsessive attention to detail that allows even his greatest missteps to seem somehow intentional and (usually) technically sound.

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The film was shot without a storyboard and used a plethora of low-budget optical effect techniques such as hyper-solarised backdrops, inexplicable fades, awkward freeze frames, incidental music scores (which often overlap each other), in addition to quaint narrative asides such as character interactions which defy normal human behavior (though portrayed in the film as being normal).

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We hear (or read, if one has switched on subtitles) such lines as, “Old cats can open doors but only ghost cats can close them again” spoken in dry deadpan tones throughout the film and after a while one begins to wonder how many illegal substances were consumed during its conception. The film itself is a strange enigma: virtuosic at times then purposefully awful only to be followed by expertly-executed flair. This isn’t to say that the film is flawless: it is very uneven and plot points are often either unresolved, ignored, or completely abandoned. There is purpose though, even if that purpose is to make the audience doubt their sanity.

The plot goes something like this: The protagonist is Oshare. Oshare’s father is a widow. He composes soundtracks for Sergio Leone (yes, that Leone). Father and daughter were planning a trip during her summer break until he decides to bring along a new lover. Oshare is repulsed and refuses to go. In turn, she decides to visit her aunt whom she hasn’t seen for a long time. She brings six friends along to her aunt’s secluded cabin (Hausu is ultimately a haunted house film in case you were wondering). Her aunt is a wheelchair-bound vampiric phantom with a penchant for “marriageable young women” – and it only gets stranger from there.

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There’s also some subplot involving a professor, a bucket, bananas, and a poltergeist but I’ll leave that to you, dear reader, to decipher. To add to the absurdity, characters are named after singular traits which define them throughout the film such as Melody who plays the piano, Fanta the daydreamer, and Mac the glutton. We also have KunFuu who, in one scene, battles a battalion of lumber (yes, lumber). Following this, she shrugs and sighs, musing, “It must have been my imagination.” She continues on as if nothing ever happened and the scene is never referenced again. The film is chockfull of scenes like this and it will either captivate or infuriate the viewer to no end. Like a cat which materializes one day on Oshare’s window sill, spews blood in another scene, and plays the piano in reverse. Adorable.

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To read this, one might think that this were a horrible film and in a way it is, however, Obayashi is very self-aware and uses the lackluster/subpar cast and limited budget to his advantage. He does not attempt to obscure the shortcomings of his resources and this is a respectable twist on making the most of what one’s stuck with. There’s a central musical theme that reoccurs through the film which is fantastic, but some directorial choices are ineffective (it is only Obayashi’s debut after all). The art design is meticulous as is the sound, but the acting is horrid most of the time.

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The narrative begins and ends strong, bookending a myriad of flow problems. It’s a film that is as frustrating as it is enlightening; perhaps a misguided masterpiece, perhaps excessively self-indulgent, but more creative and comprised of more vision than most of the horror films made in the past thirty years.

Rating: B+

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