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  • Benjamin May

House (1977) Review

The Summer holidays have arrived, and a young schoolgirl known as Gorgeous can't wait to spend time with her film composer father in their palatial villa. It's always been just the two of them, as her mother died when she was young. However, upon returning from a trip to Italy, her father states his intentions to remarry; and Gorgeous immediately changes her vacation plans. Leaving her father and taking six friends along, Gorgeous travels to her reclusive aunt's decrepit mansion in the countryside. At first, everything seems fine, until signs start showing that the house is haunted and that Gorgeous's aunt may not be the kindly old lady she initially seemed to be.

Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi, 'House' is a comedy-horror of the surrealist variety shot with a distinct, original visual style. The images in the film are bizarre and comedic, not to mention rather dark- particularly in the latter half. Making effective use of odd angles and irregular composition, Yoshitaka Sakamoto's cinematography- as well as the overall look of the film- is occasionally reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's early work with 'Monty Python,' or perhaps a comic-book.

The use of color is also very effective, as well as the juxtaposition of the banal with the grotesque. Sakamoto's work under Obayashi's assured direction results in some unforgettable, incredibly strange sequences and shots. The soundtrack- composed by Asei Kobayashi and the band Godiego- is eerily light and breezy, which is made all the more off-putting when put together with the dark images the film contains.

Unpredictable and macabre, Chiho Katsura's screenplay is a trip into the absurd. From the characters' names to the narrative structure, nothing about this film is ordinary or very serious. You're never really sure what'll happen next, nor where the next joke will come from; watching 'House' can be a deeply rewarding, funny experience (if you appreciate the dark and the strange, that is). Abstract, oddly humorous and thoroughly original; the story is anything but what you'd find in your routine haunted house film.

The set design is fantastically rich, with the main location of the aunt's mansion being especially complex and highly detailed. Combined with the striking cinematography and Nobuo Ogawa's frenetic editing, the film quickly establishes an uneasy atmosphere that makes the oddness and intricacy of the sets even more evident. Add to this the oftentimes kaleidoscopic color design and efficacious use of special effects and you've got a particularly off-beat, distinctive and memorable movie.

It's surprising to learn that many of the cast weren't professional actors at the time, as every performance in the film is strong. Miki Jinbo and Kumiko Oba are particularly good, as two of Gorgeous's pals who accompany her on the holiday, named Kung Fu and Fantasy respectively (as one knows martial arts and the other has an active imagination). They are unselfconscious performers who give their roles their all, both impressing with their tenacity and acting depth. Jinbo also gets to show off her fighting skills throughout the film, leaving an indelible impression on the viewer.

The late Yoko Minamida also stands out as the sinister aunt, obviously reveling in the chance to play such a weird, creepy character. Kimiko Ikegami's star turn as Gorgeous must also be mentioned, as she brings an unsettling, subtle intensity to the role that is very interesting to watch. She's sympathetic, as well as being- especially later in the film- rather frightening: a very fine piece of acting overall.

Well-acted, strange as can be and arcanely dark, 'House' is a unique experience at the cinema that is both unforgettable and unfathomable. Full of abstractions, this horror is made with an artistic sensibility as well as a pitch-black sense of humor (that occasionally borders on parody). If you want to watch something different- something outside of the ordinary realm of filmmaking- you can't go wrong with 'House.' It's bloody, unpredictable and a whole lot of fun.


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