Talking Movies: Hausu

Once in a while we come across a piece of art so outlandish that it defies all our categories; something which brings our neat generalizations up short. Hausu is one such work of art for me, and I suspect I am not alone. If you haven’t seen it, it may very well be the most bizarre cinematic experience of your life.

Typically billed as a horror-comedy, Hausu barely qualifies as “horror,” at least not in the way Western minds conceive it. In 1977, when the “house” was constructed, director Nobuhiko Obayashi was principally a director of bizarre, avant-garde short films and television commercials. Spielberg’s Jaws had recently met huge success in the West, so producers in Japan naturally sought to emulate its amateur, low-budget appeal to reinvigorate a film industry largely dominated by yakuza (gangster) films. Obayashi was up to the task, and what he produced is a genre-bending, fourth-wall breaching, goofy, psychedelic, fantastical ghost story, one that only loosely resembles horror as we now think of it.

In a film like this, plot is practically irrelevant. We are introduced to the protagonist, a high school girl named Gorgeous, and her six friends (Sweet, Melody, Prof, Fantasy, Mac and Kung Fu) who are anticipating a summer of fun in the sun until their camp trip is suddenly canceled. Gorgeous, bereaved by the prospect of her father marrying a much younger woman, proposes that she and her friends travel instead to the countryside to spend their summer with her aunt. When they eventually arrive at the house, the spooky dial is turned up to 10 in short order. One by one the girls meet their demise, each dispatched in a decidedly cruel and ironic way. Melody, for instance, is attacked and devoured by a piano in such a way it defies description and Sweet is pummeled by flying futon mattresses.

Despite its gratuitous blood and oddly gruesome deaths, Hausu is a very childlike film. In fact, the entire film can be seen as the perspective of a child. So it’s no surprise to learn that the director’s 10-year-old daughter is responsible for the scenario (credited as a writer). Obayashi was wise to enlist her help if his goal at the outset was parody. The entire first act feels like a Japanese television sitcom, rife with pop music (like much of the rest of the film) and cheeky humor. Once it takes off in the second act Hausu becomes a broad parody of horror films, incorporating various allusions to other movies with their tropes and clichés in tow.

The film quickly descends to melodrama, and returns often, but Hausu isn’t memorable for its believable acting or witty scripting. It has none of the things we tend to associate with “good” cinema. In fact, the melodrama contributes much to its kitschy allure in the first place. While it features some intentional, chaplinesque humor, it can also be as unintentionally funny as Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981), a film whose slapstick style, imaginative sets and absurd situations make it most easily comparable to this film. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine Raimi being unfamiliar with Hausu prior to conceiving his boomstick trilogy.

Where Hausu truly excels is in its remarkably inventive use of myriad cinematic devices and techniques. Every conceivable in-camera trick is used, from slow-motion and stop-motion to matte painting, hand-drawn animation, irising and puppetry, as well as numerous editorial devices such as flashbacks, wipes, cutaways, dissolves, multiple exposure, blue screen and a number of other techniques I’ve never seen before or since. There are lessons for film students to be found here, or at the very least Hausu is instructive in how not to use these techniques. One memorable scene has us follow the girls down a staircase to a phone to call for help and then to the front door. This takes two to three minutes. It’s an entirely handheld, blurry, time lapsed sequence, like a hazy recollection of a dream or a waking nightmare involving us directly.

There is hardly a dull moment in this film. Even outside of the carnage, every scene is dense with multiple exposures, mattes and other techniques occurring with headache-inducing frequency. And even when this trickery is toned down for fleeting moments, single frames exude so much visual information that the viewer is forced to consider what it is they’re really experiencing. For all its weirdness, Hausu is foremost an art film, one that breaks apart and reassembles the elements of so many campy, low-budget movies to its own ends.

After 33 years of relative obscurity, Hausu has been brought out into the light, largely due to a stunning new transfer from Janus films, recently packaged as a Criterion release (on Blu-ray no less). For the last year it’s been playing all over the United States in various art houses and independent theaters (the director even toured his own print in New York), and it will be making its way to our very own Bijou this month from Dec. 3 – 9. No string of adjectives could possibly capture Hausu, so if you’re an open-minded filmgoer I can only recommend you experience it for yourself.