Divine Madness: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s “Hausu (House)” (1977)
“It’s unscientific, unexplainable, unnatural, unreasonable. It doesn’t make sense!” – Prof
I’ve seen a handful of films that make every frame count, to the point where other cinematic offerings look considerably less impressive – even lazy – by comparison.
Apocalypse Now‘s surreal and contemplative rendering of the Vietnam War. Beyond the Black Rainbow‘s depiction of a paradoxically retrograde “future.” Snowpiercer‘s stunning dystopia-on-rails infused with timeless Dickensian themes.
These films are so good, they energize the senses and stimulate the intellect. They fire on all cylinders with unbridled creativity and painstaking effort.
As odd as it may seem, Hausu fits well among those meticulous works of art.
It’s an LSD trip about a decade removed from the tie-dye, psychedelic ’60s – gleefully crazy and fearlessly experimental.
It’s a haunted-house film that pulls influence from Grimm’s Fairy Tales (“Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood” in particular).
It’s a mystery that recalls the (literal) cartoon antics of a feature-length Scooby- Doo episode (complete with a surrogate Velma character!).
It also uses an adorable white cat as a vessel for spying and evil (EVIL)!
I’ve been aware of Hausu‘s place in the Criterion Collection for some time, and have several friends (including Loud Green Bird’s own Kim McDonald) who think very highly of the film. For whatever reason, I kept resisting its pull…until the Cheshire-grin cover art finally lured me in.
As with every movie, your experience with Hausu will be less tainted if you avoid reading anything about it beforehand. But I won’t dissuade anybody from watching the trailer, as its less-than-two-minutes of psychedelic madness is a mere microcosm of its 88-minute run time.
I’m not saying everyone will like this, but for those who go in without any preconceived notions, you mind will melt – in an ice-cream-melting-on-a-piece-of-warm-apple-pie way – as things progress.
What, exactly, is Hausu about?
And, maybe a more pertinent question: does it really matter in the long run?
The first answer is: over semester break, a group of precocious schoolgirls make a pilgrimage to visit one of their aunts. They travel on foreboding roads, walk through menacing woods, and the aunt’s house looks like it might have an oven with a “child” setting. But the girls are wide-eyed and full of wonder and good humor, approaching obstacles with resilience and optimism. They also have awesome names like Kung Fu, Prof, Sweet, Mac, Melody, Fanta, and Gorgeous. They energetically recite absurd dialog that ranges from on-the-nose exposition (“you look like a witch in a horror movie!”) to head-spinning non sequiturs. There is a flashback to the life and times of Gorgeous’s grandmother, conveyed like a subconscious, two-tone newsreel all the girls “watch.” All of this ties into the possibility that the aunt may be a sorceress of some sort, with her beautiful kitty acting as her familiar.
There’s also a weird guy in the valley below the aunt’s house who sells watermelons, and has a fear of bananas. Really.
Oh, and to answer my second question: no, not really.
If you look beneath the relentless, miraculous onslaught of avant-garde-cranked -to-11 style, the plot of Hausu makes sense. Kind of. I think. The technical aspects are appealing and craftily executed, throwing every cinematic trick into a blender and hitting puree. What could have been a pretentious, amateurish film instead reverberates with confidence and vigor, approaching haunted-house tropes with a frenetic energy that (literally, at times) flies in the face of the stately and moody template Robert Wise’s The Haunting established 14 years prior.
But it works so beautifully because of its irreverent, flying-fuck approach. Scenes of a carnivorous piano, severed legs doing a chopsockey number on the evil cat, and a character trapped in the gears of a grandfather clock are indelible and brilliant. And I could write a separate review about the almost exclusively female cast, proactive in their problem-solving and unity, and accepting of each other’s differences – indeed, looking to those differences as strengths in the wacky fight for survival that ensues. It’s “girl power” devoid of all the hokey Hollywood horseshit we’ve grown accustomed to, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 9 out of 10