DVD Review: House -- Criterion Collection

Certain films languish in obscurity for decades, waiting for the right time to be brought back into the cultural consciousness. In 1977 new director Nobuhiko Obayashi released into the world a film the likes of which had never been seen before: House.

House is the product of every good dream gone bad, every half-remembered childhood fear, all wrapped in the glow of sentimentality and wrenching nostalgia. Relentlessly unexpected, the film curves gently along with a basic plot: seven schoolgirls -- Gorgeous, Fantasy, Mac, Kung-Fu, Melody, Sweet, and Prof -- off for a visit to one matronly aunt, meet with mishap and harm. The girl's names are just one of the many simple joys to be found here. From the smash cuts to the change of locale, the in-joke Japanese cultural nods, and the supremely un-scary horrific moments, House is impossible to describe, but I'll do my best.

One curious fact is that the film was meant to be an answer to the American film Jaws. The Toho film studio wanted something that would scare and enthrall audiences, and they ended up with House, a film that might be so diametrically opposed to Jaws as to exist within a different universe. Where Jaws is linear and focused, insistent and precise, House is meandering and difficult, leaping from inconsistency to nonsense in a single bound. But it's fantastic. There's a childlike campiness to the film, something that the adult mind rejects almost immediately. The jumps in logic, the inability to focus, and the ridiculous horror scenarios (a ravenous piano, a grandfather clock that eats people, the need to fear your own reflection) along with the fairly unflinching response to most of the creepy situations read as completely childish. To say much more would destroy the wonder of the film, and if I were you, I'd watch it and then make my friends watch it without knowing anything about it.

The cover is so simple and good I just want to stare at it all day, doodle it into the margins of books I'm reading, or answer my phone just so I can see it in the background. All bright orange, with a ghostly cat face menacing outwards and the spooky letters House drifting up from the lower portion makes this one of the most memorable covers and yet another facet of the strangeness. The booklet that houses the essay is lovely, simple and well-designed. The essay itself is amazing. Chuck Stephens has filled it with heavily researched and well-presented facts; it adds to the enjoyment of the film, not by tearing it apart but rather by lauding it with a sense of childlike joy and fascination. There's something earnest and sincere about the film, and the essay wonderfully echoes this jubilation.

The finest piece on the disc is certainly "Constructing a House," which is a 2010 in-depth inspection of all that went into the production of House. We learn about the extensive contributions made by Obayashi's daughter, Chigumi Obayashi, the difficulties of getting the film produced, and various memories of the actual production and reception of the film. Japanese cultural in-jokes are brought up by the screenwriter Chiho Katsura, which make the film even more fun to see as you pick out the various crew members making their acting appearances, or notice moments of clarity within the fray. If the film confuses or delights (or both!) then this piece makes Obayashi's intentions clear, as well as deconstructs the actual making of the film into smaller, more understandable moments.

We are additionally treated to a short Obayashi film, Emotion, made a full 10 years before House, but it's no less strange. Here we see the beginnings of Obayashi's work with collage and stop-motion people animation, as well as various film techniques and storytelling ideas. The film reinforces that House was not a one-off for the director but part of a carefully constructed vision, a methodology of filmmaking.

Another oddity on the disc is the video appreciation by House of the Devil director Ti West. West doesn't really speak to the influence that House had on his own work, instead rambling at a mile-a-minute pace about the film in general. West's own work is deeply seeped in the horror genre by way of the '80s, and House made its appearance in 1977, right on the cusp of his favorite horror decade. A cohesive recollection of the importance of House for the rest of horror and fantasy might have served the film better, and though West seems to be trying to communicate these very ideas, they are confused and hard to follow.

The subtitles have been improved for this release; they are much closer to the original intention of the filmmaker. The original trailer for the film is included. Usually trailers reveal far too much, but this is one of the finest trailers in the history of cinema, in that it reveals everything and is so undecipherable, nothing at all has been given away!

In what simply must be an intentional decision, the wizards at Criterion have put together the House release just in time for Halloween, and I can't think of a better film to have playing on silent in the background of a house party. This is a fantastic release, though definitely not for everyone. However, if the trailer intrigues you in any way, grab some candy and a few of your more ridiculous friends and settle in for what will be one of the weirdest and wildest films you've ever seen.

House is available now from the Criterion Collection.