Out of the twenty-six Asian movies that I have reviewed for this site so far, a few could be considered somewhat scary, but only one could be classified as an actual horror movie, and even that one has caveats. Well, it is time for me to change this by bringing you allÂ THE MOSTÂ FRIGHTENING, HORRIFYING, AND TERRIFYING EXPERIENCE THAT YOU WILL EVER HAVE!
Our movie begins with two teenage girls, Fantasy (Fanta), Gorgeous (Oshare). They are about to leave on separate summer vacations. Gorgeous is going with her father to their summer home and Fantasy is going to summer camp with five other school friends: Kung Fu (KunfÃ»;), Mac (Makku), Melody (MerodÃ®;), Prof (Gari), and Sweet (SuÃ®to). Without much warning, Gorgeous is introduced to her stepmother-to-be and promptly runs to her room sulking. Mourning both her mother and the father-daughter relationship that will be forever altered by a stepmother, Gorgeous reaches out to the only connection to her mother that she knows, her aunt. Meanwhile, the person in charge of the summer camp going to have a baby soon, so their plans are ruined. Gorgeous invites her friends and the teacher who was going to take them to camp (and whom Fantasy has a crush on) to come along with her to her auntâ€™s house. Her aunt, who had once been engaged decades ago, has been living alone since, with only a cat to keep her company. So, of course she would love to host Gorgeous and her friends. The teacher gets a mild injury the morning of the trip, but promises to come see them soon. In the meantime, it is just the seven girlsâ€¦along with a mysterious cat.
Gorgeous and her friends receive a warm welcome from her auntâ€¦not so much from the house. The chandelier seems to break immediately when they arrive, as if it is attacking them. But they soon brush aside such dire warnings, settling into their regular habits. Melody goes to the piano, Mac lugs around a watermelon that is supposedly a gift for the aunt, and Sweet sets out to thoroughly scrub the place down. One by one, the girls start disappearing, but the others do not sense anything ominous until it is too late, as the house itself seems intent on consuming them all.
East Asian Cinema is well-known for its supernatural horror movies. While I am not particularly a big fan of the genre, I must say that this movie is, by far, the scariest movie that I have ever seen in my entire Iâ€™m kidding. This movie was not scary at all. I doubt that it was scary even back then except maybe for really young children who are easily frightened. Even the director does not consider it a horror movie, but a fantasy movie. Actually, frights are not really the draw of this movie, though there are some disturbing parts. The draw of this movie is just how crazy it is. People may point to this movie to show just how weird Japanese movies are, but this was really the first of its kind. That it was a huge success amongst the young people in 1977 is probably a reason for the rise in wildly creative Japanese movies in subsequent decades, as fans of this movie grew up and entered the movie industry.
A little backstory might be in order. 1975 was the year that two movies (okay, more than two movies, but two movies that are relevant here) came out: Terror of Mechagodzilla and Jaws. Terror of Mechagodzilla was a flop, and the Toho Company would not release another Godzilla movie for another nine years. Jaws, however, was a huge success, and Toho was eager to come up with a Japanese version of that. They asked Nobuhiko Obayashi to develop the movie. This would be Obayashiâ€™s first big movie, having previously worked in commercials and experimental films. Instead of trying to come up with some equivalent to Jaws, he asked his 10-year-old daughter, Chigumi, what she found scary. Her answers concerned not some monsters from the sea that could attack everyone, but things that she encountered in her life that she sometimes imagined could attack her. I do not want to spoil what these things are (though, you will get spoiled if you look up anything else regarding this movie) other than to say the girls usually die are pretty specific to how they are. It was Chigumiâ€™s ideas that turned the movie from a Jaws rip-off to a story about a house filled with the supernatural. Her input was so important that she got credit for the story. No Toho director wanted to touch such a ridiculous movie, so Obayashi suggested that he direct it himself. Toho balked, and Obayashi spent about a year or so trying to build hype around the movie from fans of his experimental work. Eventually Toho gave in, figuring that his incomprehensible film might be more successful than their more comprehensible work. This movie was not well-received amongst adults at the time. Critics were harsh. Toho wished to bury it. Even many crew members who had a good time making it thought that it was rubbish. Kids loved it. The people at Toho saw its success and despaired for the future of Japanese film. And here we are today.
Obayashi was an experimental filmmaker before making this movie and it really shows. This is not one of those dreary or hypnotically slow art movies. This one is directed right at the youth of Japan in the 1970s, meaning a whole lot of stuff being thrown at the screen. With this being labeled a â€œfantasyâ€, Obayashi felt allowed and obligated to make this movie feel as unrealistic as possible. That meant visual techniques and sound tricks that seem utterly distracting and unnecessary, which were often not planned out beforehand. There is almost always something to keep oneâ€™s attention, whether it be the mania of the scene itself or the little details that stick out in the background. Obayashi wanted it to seem that it was something that a child could have made; at times it seems like a movie only a child could have thought of making. One can think of it as amateurish. One could also think of it as a testament to the possibility of film to push the boundaries of the imagination.
Aside from the first few seconds of the film, there is little indication that this movie is even supposed to be the least be scary for anyone. It comes across as goofy and almost like a parody ofâ€¦a teen drama? When it becomes â€œscaryâ€, most of the scares come in the form of more quick cuts, girls screaming, and pseudo-ominous music. Some of it is disturbing not for being scary, since Disney movies could be scarier than this; it is more how some of the most mundane elements of life suddenly turn life-threatening. Not to give much away, but the climax of the movie lasts about ten minutes. This movie is not even eighty-eight-minutes long and ten minutes of it is the climax.
The movie may seem crazy, silly, and incomprehensible, which is exactly what Obayashi intended. It would be a mistake, however, to call it meaningless. Surely, the goofy and off-kilter atmosphere may have drawn the young kids, but that (and it starring primarily a bunch of cute teenage girls, a few of whom briefly get naked) could not have been the only thing that made it a hit amongst them. Throughout all of the crazy hilarity, there are moments of tranquility, there are moments that are actually somewhat off-putting, and there are moments that are actually somewhat sad. In one relatively quiet moment, Kung Fu, the most boisterous of the bunch, wanders outside alone, smiles at nothing in particular, and says to herself that she loves this place. Her smile fades as it looks like she is about to cry, but then she smiles again. Why?
There is symbolism all over the place, a lot of it involving generations, youth, and the inevitability of growing up. A lot of Japanese stories involve the loss or impending loss of the past. This is often shown in the presentation of youth. While Americans may look with bewilderment at what they see as the infantile portrayal of Japanese youth (particularly girls), I get the impression that the Japanese are simply holding onto to the last vestiges of their youth before the ultimately have to give it up for actual adulthood, which many Americans never do. In regards to House, this loss works on at least two levels.
The first level is dispensed with rather quickly, but ends up becoming a pretty important part of the story. The aunt had been engaged, but her betrothed died in World War II. She refused to believe that he was actually dead, as he had promised that he would return after the war. So she waited and waited. On the way to her house, Gorgeous recounts this story to her friends and the movie portrays it with what looks like old footage from the 1940s. The characters even provide commentary on the footage like they are seeing it. They almost completely ignore the horrific aspect of the war (with one character saying that the mushroom cloud from the atomic bomb looks like cotton candy) and look at the story in romantic terms. Obayashi is actually from Hiroshima and lost many friends to the bomb. Having this subplot in the film was partly a way of showing how the effects of the war did not seem to reach the new generation, but eventually would when they were unprepared to face it.
The second level is perhaps what really resonated with the youth. By the time that the movie started production, Chigumi was 12 and about to go through changes. A lot of the kids who went to see the movie were probably going through puberty, were about to go through puberty, or knew kids going through puberty. This changes not only a personâ€™s body and mind, but also the perceptions and expectations that others have towards that person. Kids sometimes find that what interested them before no longer has any appeal. Childhood friends begin to realize that they donâ€™t have much in common with each other anymore. Others have trouble dealing with these new feelings and expectations. They donâ€™t understand why things are different and no explanation from anyone actually helps. Signs of puberty and the transition from childhood to adulthood are all over the place, particularly in one scene where a picture of aâ€¦catâ€¦starts bleeding.
One school of thought around this movie is about how a girl starts to grow apart from her friend and each of them has trouble adapting. Another school of thought says that all seven girls are different facets of one girlâ€™s personality, and each gets subsumed and consumed by the mental, physical, psychological, and societal identity of womanhood. Maybe that is why Kung Fu smiled, frowned, and smiled again. She is in a place that she had never been to before and might not ever visit again; she has felt something that she never felt before and she doesnâ€™t know if she will feel this way again. Emotions are coming at her quickly and she just deals with it the best that she can, with a smile and resolve.
When I first saw this movie, I thought that initial reveal of what was going on and why (I wonâ€™t say here) was quite stupid. With the added symbolism of puberty and the fears of losing oneâ€™s childhood to adulthood, it makes a bit more sense. There is a scene near the beginning featuring a character whom we never see afterwards. Gorgeous and Fantasy say goodbye to one of their teachers and congratulate her on her engagement, which she had not told them about. One of them hopes that she had married for love, but she informs them that it was an arranged marriage. Oh well, the girls have no time to feel sorry for her; they have Summer Vacation ahead of them. For her part, the teacher just looks upon them with a bit of a smile, probably nostalgic for her own childhood, before she became an adult and engaged to someone whom she most likely does not love. That is what adulthood has in store for these girls. That is what adulthood has in store for all of those kids who went to see this movie. And to many of them, that could very well be the scariest thing ever. They might as well binge on Kyary Pamyu Pamyu while they still can.
Roundly panned by the establishment when it first came out thirty-six years ago, House has been deemed a classic, and not just a cult classic. I recently purchased the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray, which is where I got some of the backstory. For those of you who do not have $40 to splurge today, you might be able to watch it on Hulu: http://www.hulu.com/watch/215925, though it is best if you can find a way to watch it without commercial breaks, as that can break up the flow (or lack thereof between) scenes. The full movie is up on youtube, though the subtitles are in Spanish and the translation for those is spotty in places. In any case, I suggest that you watch it. Sure, you might not be scared, and you might end up with a bit of a headache, but I am pretty sure that you will be highly entertained.
Next Time: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (China: 2000, approx. 120 minutes).
Time After Next: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (South Korea: 2005, approx. 115 minutes).