House was directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi and released in 1977. It was originally released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Criterion as spine #539 on October 26, 2010. It is the only film directed by Obayashi in the collection.
A schoolgirl named Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) takes her friends Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), Sweet (Masayo Miyako), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Mac (Mieko Sato), and Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo) to the country house owned by her aunt (Yoko Minamida). Once there, they encounter and battle vengeful ghosts, floating heads, dancing skeletons, carnivorous pianos, cat paintings that vomit blood, and many other horrifying entities.
House opens with three words on three title cards, the last one containing the film’s name: “A MOVIE HOUSE.” It’s cheeky no matter how you read it. It seems like a satirically formal way of introducing the type of media we’re about to consume (“A Movie: House”). I didn’t get the pun until the movie was almost over. Right up front they state that we’re not just seeing a movie, we’re seeing a movie-house, aka a theater. It fulfills that promise and then some, constructing a playground of cinematic elements whose only connection is that they are elements of cinema. I’ve never seen a movie that is itself so clearly in love with movies, and not in the purely referential way of a Tarantino film. Watching House, you wonder why any other movies need exist at all since this one pretty much covers the entire medium. Think of a filmmaking technique, any formal method of moviemaking. House probably uses it. The same can be said of its practical effects. It was released the same year as Star Wars, but I’ll take its effects over those any day. There’s rear-projection, rough compositing, wires, puppets, everything. House is endlessly inventive.
And there isn’t even a token gesture towards coherency, which (for me at least) makes the film all the more lovable. It’s “a movie-house,” so it doesn’t care about whether or not people pick it apart once they leave the theater. All that matters is the experience of watching it. There are films before and since House that are incoherent, but they make the mistake of trying to make sense, or at least appearing to try. House is a film for the kind of people who whine about narratives that “don’t make sense” or films that “don’t even have plots.” House is cinema that doesn’t cater to those people, and that alone makes it worthy of adoration. This film has characters with names like Gorgeous and Prof and Kung Fu, whose personalities all correspond to those names. For its entire runtime, the movie is daring you to take it seriously. Sweet is attacked by vicious mattresses. Kung Fu uses her fighting skills to fight ghosts, and she wins. At one point, a man turns into a pile of bananas. This movie is not “so bad it’s good,” because that would imply that it’s “bad” to begin with. It’s possibly the best satire of horror films in history. It begins with hilariously one-dimensional characters and proceeds to drown itself in absurdity. House is a Dadaist Cabin in the Woods, a ghost story told by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, a nightmare Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi might have, and above all A Movie. I will preach the gospel of House until my dying day, until every human being on the planet has seen it and the human race is united in our love for it. House is one of the greatest achievements in cinema history. Will you just go watch it already?
House looks, if you’ll pardon the pun, gorgeous on Criterion’s Blu-Ray. Contrary to Eraserhead, another abstract horror film which was released the same year and which benefits from poorer resolution, House needs vibrant colors and sharp visuals to be fully appreciated. Criterion’s restoration absolutely delivers on that front. The sound is good as well, though less remarkable. This is the definitive version of House, not that there are an abundance of alternate releases.
This release is a little light on special features, unfortunately. The accompanying booklet, which includes an enlightening and informative essay by critic Chuck Stephens on the film’s history, is its best feature. On the disc itself, we’ve got an interview compilation called Constructing a “House”, which is interesting, as well as a 40-minute experimental film from Obayashi called Emotion, which is a novel inclusion but I’d rather just watch House. There’s also a “video appreciation” from filmmaker Ti West, which is probably more appealing if you’re a fan of his work, which I am not. Really, the best feature on this release is House itself, although that great packaging (which has become iconic in its own right) is a great addition to any collection.
House is a film without equal, a cinematic achievement beyond compare. There’s nothing “random” about it, and snidely saying things like, “The filmmakers must have been on drugs” dismisses the effort and thought that went into its creation. House uses every single cinematic technique and special effect that it possibly can, digging deeper and deeper into its medium as if searching for its purest element. You’d better believe it succeeds.
Criterion Grade: B
Film Grade: A+