Sunday, February 20, 2011

Obayashi’s House

There is no need for drugs in a world with this film. Frankly, watching it under the influence sounds like a mind-shredding experience, but viewers will have another chance to find out for themselves this coming Friday and Saturday when Nobuhiko Ȏbayashi’s indescribable 1977 “horror” film House (trailer here) returns yet again to the IFC Center, where it melted the screens and blew the doors off the joint last year when it finally had a legit American theatrical release.

Based on the story and concepts of Ȏbayashi’s daughter Chigumi, it is hard to believe the young girl had this is mind exactly. Straight from the first frame, House is a trippy, stylized kaleidoscope of otherworldly imagery. Only the mild yuri-style Japanese schoolgirl fetishism has recognizable antecedents from more conventional sources. Gorgeous (as her friends call her) is rather put out by the notion that her widower father plans to remarry. Bailing on their longstanding vacation plans, she invites herself, her BFF Fantasy, and five of their mutual friends to spend their school break at her old spinster aunt’s remote mansion. Sounds lovely, right?

Dear old Auntie has changed since Gorgeous last saw her. Though she is all sweetness and light when receiving the girls, her crack about wanting to eat up Mac, Gorgeous’ gluttonous friend, has a real ominous ring. Things get bat-smack crazy fast, leaving the girls to cling to the hope that Mr. Tôgô, Fantasy’s school girl crush, will finally find his way there in his lowrider, fulfilling his promise to join them in a way Auntie’s intended never did. Unfortunately, he is kind of an idiot.

House is conclusive proof anything could be realized on film, even in the pre-CGI era. Previously known as an established commercial director, Ȏbayashi used every trick in the book, including in-camera distortions, jump cuts, animation, matte paintings, and probably witchcraft. Although some of the animated effects are not much more sophisticated than the campy 1960’s Batman series’ onomatopoeic fight scenes, many of Ȏbayashi’s visuals are decidedly eerie, like the film’s crimson skies, reminiscent of the traditional cover art for vintage western paperbacks. Indeed, House is a Grand Guignol-inspired production, set in a spooky old mansion, with plenty of bright red blood flowing freely.

Through Ȏbayashi’s bizarre mash-up of styles and shameless exploitation of horror movie tropes, House inspires a schizophrenic response. One is constantly aware of the over-the-top visual techniques, but on some level we still respond to its girls in jeopardy story. Kumiko Ȏba is appropriately sweet and sympathetic as Fantasy, while Miki Jinbo adds an element of female empowerment (and charisma) as Kung Fu, the butt-kicking member of the Fab Seven.

Though it might be tempting to describe House as Hello Kitty meets The Evil Dead, words truly fail to describe this film. There is a reason why it keeps coming back for midnight screenings. Weird in nearly every possible way, Ȏbayashi’s feature debut is one of a kind, well worth seeing on the blood spattered big screen this Friday and Saturday (2/25 & 2/26) at the IFC Center.