The Greatest Horror Movie You’ve Never Heard Of

This is probably the only movie in the Criterion Collection to feature a laughing, flying severed head biting a girl’s butt, and that’s not even close to the weirdest thing that happens. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I love horror. I love slow-burning, surreal horror like Under the Skin; I love domestic, emotionally astute horror like The Babadook; I love atmospheric, religiously inflected horror like The Witch (or as a friend of mine insists on calling it, The V-Vitch). One of the few subgenres I’m not crazy about is the slasher, where five or so one-note teenagers go somewhere (cabin in the woods, sorority house) and get killed off one by one.

So when I say that the Japanese horror movie House (1977) is both a slasher and a haunted-house movie–the two creakiest, oldest horror tropes around, not counting monsters like zombies and vampires–and also that I love it to bits, you know it’s something special.

A slightly more conventional horror-movie scare, at least until the head starts laughing and flying around.
A more conventional horror-movie scare, at least until the head starts laughing and flying around.

The premise is fairly traditional: a young woman’s fiancé is killed in WWII; she continues to wait for him, imbuing her house with her thwarted romantic energy until she and her demonic cat familiar become one with it. Towards the end of the movie, one of our characters helpfully explains “she eats all the unmarried girls who come here. That’s the only time she can wear her bridal gown,” before adding, “Now it’s your turn. Let me eat you,” and sending murderous furniture flying around the room. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

The unmarried girls in question are seven schoolgirls, an unusually high number. Luckily, each has exactly one personality trait: Mac eats; Sweet is ultrafeminine (signified by wearing a bow and enjoying chores); Melody plays piano; Kung Fu karate chops all problems (she’s my favorite); Prof is smart (she wears glasses, naturally); Gorgeous is pretty; Fantasy daydreams, lusting after their teacher, Mr. Togo.

Yes, the watermelon is important.
Yes, the watermelon is important.

The machinations to get them to the house aren’t important; nor is the vampire-Miss-Havisham villain herself, who after some creepy early scenes (at one point she opens her mouth just enough to reveal the eyeball of the hapless Mac) vanishes into the malevolence of the house. What is important: one of the most visually and sonically overwhelming movies ever made.

House was supposed to be a thrill-centric summer blockbuster, a response to Lucas and Spielberg, but when directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi, who made experimental shorts about adolescent female longing incorporating “handmade” filmmaking techniques like collage and animation, it became something much weirder.

Obayashi got his plot beats from conversations with his preteen daughter, which explains both the disjointedness and the girl-centric world. Yes, Fantasy fantasizes about Mr. Togo coming to visit (and later, to save them), but he never does, instead getting turned into a pile of bananas by a malevolent watermelon vendor (yup). There’s an undercurrent of eroticism to much of it (breathy moans enter the soundtrack for no apparent reason; Melody sniffs Sweet’s panties), but in spite of the occasional nipple it’s refreshingly male-gaze-free.

Kung Fu is awesome.
Kung Fu is awesome.

Perhaps the best way to communicate what this movie is all about is to describe its greatest death scene, which belongs to Melody. As she plays the piano, picking out the film’s music-box-like theme (no conventional horror soundtrack here–it alternates between love ballads and frenetic, funky jazz), the keyboard glows red, then turns into teeth that bite off her fingers; then the piano itself extends like a mouth and swallows her, and she’s dismembered by its strings (though again, it gets weirdly erotic for a second there; her grinning, topless torso watches her own legs in the piano’s “jaws” and says “Oh my! That’s naughty). As a final touch, her severed fingers then continue playing.

 

But that scene description doesn’t account for the full range of visual techniques. This movie is a master class in scene transitions: there are dissolves (oh, so many dissolves), barn door wipes, iris shots (often combined with dissolves). There’s slow motion, Vaseline-coated montages; fast-forwards; one sequence that’s so jerky that I assumed something was wrong with my DVD. There’s a visual J-cut (can you do that?), in which a distraught Fantasy looks to her right as an older man’s head juts into frame, slurping noodles; then we see that this is in fact what’s happening with Mr. Togo. And of course, there’s collage and animation and scribbling all over it.

Two years post Rocky Horror.
Eat your heart out, Rocky Horror.

I’ve barely touched on the sound design, but trust me that it’s as bizarre and innovative as the visuals, including an incongruously sappy pop song that plays over the movie’s final sequence–Obayashi collaborated with a pop group called Godiego and released the soundtrack album before the movie.

House is indescribable, but I’ve done my best. It deserves to be as well known as The Room–it’s far better crafted, for one thing. Watch the trailer and then make this movie part of your life.

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