Here’s an odd one this time out…. 1977’s Japanese fantasy film, “House”. I’ve been aware of it for over a decade or so, but it’s one of those quirky lil’ films that seemed stubbornly destined to never ever get subtitles or be shown anywhere near my part of the world. Thank goodness that’s now at an end!! UK DVD distributor Eureka has released this one in a new Region 2 NTSC collector’s edition as pert of their “Masters of Cinema” collection. Naturally I wasted no time in snapping up a copy…..
Our synopsis goes like this: “A teenage girl named Angel discovers that her widowed father has recently begun dating again. Worse, Angel’s father has canceled the yearly summer vacation that he and Angel take every year together in order to stay near Ryoko, his new girlfriend, whom he intends on marrying soon. Furious at this situation, Angel invites her friends to come with her to her visit her long lost aunt at her remote country home.
Arriving, they discover Angel’s aunt seems to be sick and wheelchair bound, and they all agree to help fill their time fixing up her run down estate located in the woods. However, unknown to anyone, the aunt is, in reality, a vampiric witch who feeds off the flesh of young virgin girls to sustain her youth and strength. Possessing her niece, the aunt murders the girls one by one with help from her bewitched house. In the end, the aunt takes over Angel’s body so she can continue waiting for her long lost fiancee, who went M.I.A. during World War II, to finally return to her. Will any of them survive the strange horrors and escape alive?”
Wow…. now this one certainly sounds like Neko’s sort of film. I’ve always loved the creepy weirdness of 70’s Japanese ghost stories…. so I’m hoping for something along the lines of “Mansion of the Ghost Cat” or “Kuroneko”. I’ve heard however that this one is…. well… a bit stranger than the Japanese films I’m used to. Will it live up to it’s reputation and still turn out to captivate and entertain me? Guess there’s only one way to find out….
Psssst!! That’s your cue….. it’s time to “Read On”, o’ Gentle Visitors!!
As this one starts out we meet Angel, a simple everyday Japanese schoolgirl preparing for School Break. Her friends are all excited about a camping trip they have planned together with one of their hunky teachers as chaperon but she’s just happy to be taking a vacation excursion with her dad…. an annual tradition they’ve done every year since well before her Mom died. At least that’s what she thought she’d be doing….. Little does she expect that this time out things are to be different… her widowed dad has a new girlfriend. Even more annoyingly… her Dad wants her to come along on this year’s outing so Angel can get acquainted with her before the marriage…. Not exactly what daddy’s little girl want to hear.
All upset, she decides instead to visit her estranged aunt who lives alone waaay out in the boondocks at the family mansion there. Since her friends end up losing the chance to go camping, she invites them along to keep her company. Sounds simple and relaxing, eh? That’s always the warning sign isn’t it?
By now…. this film had really got me worried. It’s certainly different alright, with a trippy 70’s funky style that makes you fairly certain director Nobuhiko Obayashi might just have been dropping a lil’ acid in his saki when he did this one. The colors are vibrant…. too vibrant to be real and scenes that shift rapidly from slapstick comedy nonsense to cartoonish fantasy dream sequences at the drop of a hat. Sets are deliberately fake at times…. with a constant reliance on painted backdrops and matte painting to give the whole movie a very strange look unlike anything I’ve seen from old Japanese films. There wasn’t anything else like this going on in Japanese films at that time….. and I’m thinking it was probably quite a surprise to audiences then.
Our heroines are all cardboard stock characters right out of a manga story too. The film gives them all nicknames to easily identify them based on each of their main character traits. We get the beautiful Angel of course, the human eating machine known as Mac (short, we are told, for “Stomach”… Seriously!! I just can’t tell you how many girls wanted that nickname when I was a young schoolgirl!!)), the serious glasses-wearing Prof and her wealth of knowledge, the musically talented Melody, naive and timid Sweetie, the dreamer of the group, Fantasy with her wild imagination, and karate expert called Kung Fu. There’s one more companion…. one who we all are immediately suspicious of, and that’s Snowy, the mysterious stray cat Angel finds one day and who seems uncannily able to follow her anywhere…. even the train that takes them away from Tokyo on the first leg of the trip to the countryside.
Once they arrive, they find Angel’s auntie is friendly enough, but frail and seemingly confined to her wheelchair and allergic to even the dimmest sunlight…. but not cats! Snowy takes to her immediately… as if they’ve know each other for years. Apparently none of the girls had ever seen “Mansion of the Ghost Cat”….. or maybe they would have know something was up…. big mistake. Oh well…. Being a bunch of nice girl-next-door types, they pitch in to try to bring some joy to the lonely woman. Strange eerie things start to happen to the girls almost immediately and despite thinking that Angel is our main heroine, she’s actually not. Turns out it’s Fantasy who is the only one start to realize almost at once that something bad is going on even if nobody believes her. The girls start dropping like flies….. first Mac gets ambushed at the old well retrieving a yummy melon from the cold water. Fantasy encounters her severed head in a funny sequence not to be believed where her head flies around before biting Fantasy firmly on the butt!!
Nobody believes her weird story (I guess our lil’ Fantasy must have had a history of some serious opium addiction or something….) and this prevents them from taking any precautions till it’s far too late to do any good. More and more girls get killed…. Sweetie is eaten by some futons and turns up inside a crazy grandfather clock. Melody gets her fingers eaten off before being devoured by Auntie’s piano….. Prof. is drowned in a room full of Cat’s blood…. Kung Fu gets herself eaten by a lamp… yes, that’s right… a lamp!! But worse….. just when you think Angel is going to figure out what her evil aunt is up to, she gets consumed by her own reflection, her body possessed by Auntie… D’ohh!!! Ok…Ok, so this means our hero here is really our hunky teacher who’s on his way to rescue our young maidens in his funky dune buggy, right? Ummmm? Nope. He’s well meaning (and the secret crush of innocent Fantasy), but destined to end up as nothing more than a pile of bananas in his abandoned buggy by the side of the road.
So? Does anybody survive this one? Well…. you all know how most Asian ghost stories go. Let’s just say I wouldn’t get fond of any of our spunky young ladies and leave it at that.
My goodness!! Where to begin…. This film is just plain crazy. If director Obayashi wanted to do something different with his first commercial big budget film for a major studio, he most certainly did that! I’ve seen plenty of old Japanese films in my time, but this one stands out as probably the most unusual one ever. It’s a horror film alright….. but it’s also simultaneously a comedy, a cartoon, a karate film, and has all the jarring art house film elements you’d ever need (or want)…. all crammed into 88 minutes. Many images…. while being completely nuts… are even surprisingly effective scares. I’ll never get the picture of Auntie with the eyeball in her mouth out of my head… ever.
Eureka has done a good job with this one too. It’s presented in an anamorphic original aspect ratio of 1.55:1, with the original Japanese stereo soundtrack intact. The newly translated subtitles are good, and there are over 90 minutes of bonus interviews available with Director Nobuhiko Obayashi, his daughter Chigumi, actress Kumiko Oba who played the character of Fantasy, and Toho promotional executive Shoho Tomiyama. Add a generous booklet of production stills and promotional material on the film, and there’s a lot to like here. If you’ve been waiting for this one to come out, you could do far worse than to add it to your collection.
So…. weird it is, but it’s still definitely worth a look. Neko gives this one 4 “Meows” out of 5. It’s a nice fantasy film… but it’s also just a wee bit too strange to be on my list of all time favorites. I guess I’m just too simple a girl to enjoy really deep and artistic stuff….. sigh. However… there’s absolutely no denying that it’s certainly a unique vision of a film… and I can certainly appreciate the effort made to realize that vision and to make it so unusual.
Trailer? Silly people…. Your Favorite Catgirl would never leave you without a wee lil’ something to get you in the mood for one of these weird lil’ films…… So here ya go!!