Monday, October 28, 2013

House

The Criterion Collection really promoted the hell out of the 1977 Japanese oddity called HOUSE a few years back. It was confusing. They announced as if a truly amazing lost treasure had been rescued from obscurity. Maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised; Sam Fuller's campy but potent WHITE DOG is also in their library. But it seemed that everyone was singing the praises of HOUSE. Even Turner Classic Movies ran the movie once!? Despite my considerable knowledge of ‘70s B-movie lore, including many Asian titles, I had never heard of it. It was in fact never released in the U.S. but quite a hit in its homeland. A fan base grew over the years.

Criterion’s description led to puzzlement. “.....like an episode of Scooby Doo”?? How did this film fit in the oeuvre? Was this another head scratcher, like the company's inclusion of  the Michael Bay films THE ROCK and ARMEGEDDON? Were the folks at Criterion becoming more lenient with their choices as to what to spiff up and pluck from the abyss? I can think of many other cheesy offerings that deserved a Criterion treatment besides/before HOUSE.

I was tempted to just buy the damned thing and trust them. I’d never been let down before. But, I just couldn’t. As much as I appreciate a good ol’ fashioned exploitation, this one just looked too silly. So…one afternoon I rented it from iTunes.

Were my purchase reservations confirmed? Well, had I spent the money on the disc, I wouldn’t have exactly demanded a refund, though I can’t exactly say I found a lost classic. Haven't rushed to join the cult. At least, not yet.

The plot: a teen called Gorgeous joins some classmates (who have names like Kung Fu, Fantasy, and Mac - short for stomach as the girl can't stop eating) for a summer at her aunt’s place in the country. It all happens because Gorgeous is angry at her widower father, who wants to bring along his new wife to a father/daughter summer vaca.  Auntie, long a widow who lost her husband in the war, is expectedly eccentric. She utters forbodences and has a mysterious cat named Blanche who will figure prominently in the movie (and whose fuzzy mug you see on the poster). But why does Auntie disappear into the refrigerator at one point? The questions will only get more curious.

One by one, the giggly girls are bumped off, Ten Little Indians style. But this is no traditional mystery or slasher. Not even an imitation Mario Bava or Dario Argento. Victims are eaten by pianos and light fixtures. Kung Fu has her own cool theme music. Director Nobuhiko Obayashi stages a live action cartoon with some of the most endearingly low rent special effects you’ll ever see. The imagination overflows. Plus, there are completely random freeze frames at inappropriate moments. In other words, my kinda movie (on the right day).

You’ll be tempted to hunt for meaning during HOUSE. Like wondering if all that blood is supposed to represent the girls' menstrual cycles. Or why you hear the sounds of war machines when the house is exploding. Worse yet, perhaps some political statement? Resist such ideas. In fact, you may well hear Auntie's demonic shrieks if you try to ponder too deeply, as well you should!

The Scooby Doo description is not that far off. What also struck me is how Tarantino-ish HOUSE is. I did not get any David Lynch vibes, as I had expected. Quentin has surely seen the movie, but did he have the opportunity before he made his own films?  The influences on his work are everywhere, from the fighting skills of the girls to the use of music to the endless bag of camera tricks. And certainly the editing. Like Quentin, Obayashi seems to be in love with every shot.

The tone of HOUSE is surprising. While quite goofy, and not really scary, there is a certain poignancy throughout, and the finale is actually pretty effective. Even when one character turns into a pile of bananas.

Does the Cinema Snob have another legitimate beef with Criterion? You could argue, but it illustrates that film appreciation (should) covers a broad canvas, one that goes far beyond Ingmar Bergman and Satyajit Ray. HOUSE is an absolutely ridiculous, inconsequential Grade Z flick that is way savvier than you might think. The hipsters got this one right, I think. 

And I’ve said it before, one must be able to recognize great trash. Maybe I'll watch this again for Halloween?

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