House (The Criterion Collection)
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How to describe Nobuhiko Obayashi's indescribable 1977 movie HOUSE (Hausu)? As a psychedelic ghost tale? A stream-of-consciousness bedtime story? An episode of Scooby-Doo as directed by Mario Bava? Any of the above will do for this hallucinatory head trip about a schoolgirl who travels with six classmates to her ailing aunt's creaky country home and comes face-to-face with evil spirits, a demonic house cat, a bloodthirsty piano, and other ghoulish visions, all realized by Obayashi via a series of mattes, animation, and collage effects. Equal parts absurd and nightmarish, HOUSE might have been beamed to Earth from some other planet. Never before available on home video in the United States, it's one of the most exciting cult discoveries in years.
Infamous Japanese whatsit House is the ultimate 1970s artifact. The animated opening recalls The Rocky Horror Picture Show, while former ad man Nobuhiko Obayashi extends the anything-goes impression through freeze frames, painted backdrops, and old-timey flashbacks. He starts by introducing schoolgirls Fantasy (Kumiko Ohba) and Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) to groovy H.R. Pufnstuf-style music. Then Gorgeous's widowed father presents his new bride, Ryôko (Haruko Wanibuchi), who enters like Joan Crawford in a flowing white gown. Afterward, Gorgeous invites Fantasy, Melody, Kung Fu, Prof, Sweet, and Mac to her aunt's house for the summer. Little does she know that Ryôko plans to crash the party.
While they gather at the train station, the film slips into slapstick Monkees territory: a shoemaker croons as Fantasy's crush object, Mr. Tôgô (Kiyohiko Ozaki), trips over Gorgeous's green-eyed cat, Blanche. The girls make it to the country without incident, but the moment they arrive at the cobweb-covered estate, freaky things start happening: Auntie (Yôko Minamida) and Blanche, for instance, have met before. The ladies delight in the weirdness, enjoying a meal and exploring the grounds, but then Mac disappears. Auntie and Blanche, meanwhile, find novel ways to entertain themselves. Soon, mirrors are cracking, mattresses are flying, blood is flowing, and a piano goes berserk. There's only so much the girls can do, so they pin their hopes on Tôgô--and his sideburns--to set things right.
House arrives for the first time in the United States with a testimonial from House of the Devil director Ti West, who declares it "one of the most original films I've ever seen"; Emotion, an experimental short; and a featurette in which Obayashi credits his daughter, Chigumi, for several plot points. Fans of Carrie, Suspiria, The Evil Dead, and Pee-Wee's Playhouse: meet your new cinematic obsession. --Kathleen C. Fennessy
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Exhibit A: "House," a low-budget horror movie that seems like the acid-addled love child of a funhouse and a slasher movie. Its biggest failing is that it doesn't really have a plot, and for awhile there it looks like there should have been one -- but rich insanity is what is really fun here, with an evil cat, a carnivorous piano, a butt-biting head and... various other weird things.
Oshare (Kimiko Ikegami) is looking forward to a vacation trip with her dad... but is horrified to find that his creepily cheerful new fiancee will be coming too. So instead, Oshare decides to vacation at her aunt's remote country mansion, along with her friends Fanta (sweet flake), Gari (nerd), Sweet (tidy), Mac (glutton) Melody (musician) and Kung-Fu (do I need to explain this one?).
At first, everything seems pleasant and peaceful for the girls... but then some of the girls go missing. Mac's head is found in the well, Sweet is seemingly swallowed up by the bedding, and Oshare is enspelled by her mysterious old aunt. Will the girls be able to escape before the House eats them alive, or will they be sucked in one by one?
"House" is a crazy, frenetic funhouse ride -- it starts out light, sunny and psychedelic, slowly becomes hilariously gruesome, and turns into a haunting finale on river of Kool-aid blood. I mean, how many movies have a giggling girl being dismembered and eaten by a piano? Or a man becoming bananas... literally? Or single hopping legs doing kung-fu moves? Or a butt-biting disembodied head?
The movie's biggest flaw is that, well, it has no plot.Read more ›
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While not completely "obscure" -- it's quite well-known in Japan, as well as amongst underground horror and experimental film lovers around the world -- it certainly doesn't seem as, dare I say, "important" as many other Criterion releases. But being the underdog works here, since the film only costs $26 brand new (well below most "big" Criterion film's releases) so it will hopefully motivate more people to check out this work of art.
...YES, a work of art. While touted as a "horror" film, this most resembles an art film, one of the more experimental variety, and it is masterfully-shot and -directed. Utilizing all sorts of outrageous effects and downright bizarre editing, this often brings to mind directors like Shuji Terayama (Emperor Tomato Ketchup) and Toshio Matsumoto (Funeral Procession of Roses). While there are some more straightforward "horror" elements -- skeletons, an evil kitty -- most of them are downright silly, and remind me somewhat of American "classic" b-movie cheesefest Spookies than any serious work of horror. It is NEVER scary, and gets by mainly on absurdity and cheese.
So, why is this film getting 5 stars? Why is it "worthy" of a Criterion release? Well, opinions will differ, but I found this movie absolutely brilliant, one of the most entertaining I have EVER seen, with brilliant scene after brilliant scene of surreal absurdity. This film is downright INSANE, but it's charming. It's one of those films that you'll watch and say, "Okay, I HAVE TO show this to every single one of my friends now!" Infinitely rewatchable (I've probably watched my Japanese copy 20 times in the past 5 years), hilariously madcap, and endlessly inspiring. There is violence here, but it's all so silly... this is about as much a "horror" film as Riki-Oh is a "kung-fu" movie; it has all the "cool" elements of a genre film, but it's really just an excuse to cram as many insane scenes into a film as possible.
Oh, did I mention a piano eats a girl? ... The effects are what really make this film a sight to behold. They're actually surprisingly well-done, and even though I already own this film, I'm going to buy the Criterion edition just to see how they pulled off some of this stuff! Yes, as usual, the Criterion DVD is loaded with great special features, the best of which has to be the 1966 short film "Emotion" -- without a doubt one of the greatest short films ever, and definitely my favorite of the "experimental Japanese New Wave" school (along with the aforementioned Matsumoto and Terayama). Honestly, "Emotion" is even better than the main feature -- how insane is that? This is just one unbelievably value packed release, one that everyone needs!
So, yes, it is a very unlikely Criterion release, but kudos to them for taking a chance with this one. It is a film that needs to be seen -- I can't imagine anyone NOT having a good time with it. And I really hope it sells well, because there just flat-out aren't many DVD companies releasing these kinds of crazy Japanese films anymore, since Tartan folded. Maybe, just maybe, if we're lucky, we'll all be able to see a Pastoral: To Die in the Country (aka "the greatest film ever made") release from Criterion sometime in our lifetimes....? Well, I can dream. But until that day comes, I'll be watching this one about once a month. Order it today!
Gorgeous, as she's known, is irate that her father has decided to remarry, and so she invites her friends to stay in the aging and empty country house of her aunt rather than go with her father and his fiancee on vacation. We are introduced to each of her friends, all of whom have nicknames that describe their temperament and character: there is the beautiful Gorgeous, there's the apparently dreamy and gullible Fantasy, the brainy Professor, the always hungry Mac, the musical Melody, and so on. Along the way, on a magical train ride in which the animated fantasy background that shines through the windows of the train seems to resemble a film strip, she tells them how her aunt had once loved a man who promised to come for her after the war, but never returned. When they arrive, their aunt seems a bit too eager to see them, and odd remarks lead to inexplicable occurrences, and pretty soon it's over-the-top scary silly supernatural surreal mayhem. The director seems to delight in retro-styled effects and sight gags, using stop motion and many other inventive techniques to create a fantastic realm of visual jokes and horror. Combining live action and animation, the film transcends kitch and schlockiness into a realm of cinematic magic, that draws upon Japanese magical traditions of Yokai and witches and vengeful ghosts, but also evokes the era in which it was made, and appears to be making fun of a certain kind of depiction of youth in cinema. Fun stuff, and exciting to see that Criterion is releasing it (not surprising given that Janus films is supervising the current critically acclaimed theatrical rerelease).
Here's what to expect on the 1-disc Criterion set:
-a new, restored high-definition digital transfer (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)
-a video piece featuring interviews with director Nobuhiko Obayashi, story scenarist and daughter of the director Chigumi Obayashi, and screenwriter Chiho Katsura
-Emotion, a 1966 experimental film by Obayashi
-a new video appreciation by director Ti West (House of the Devil)
-the theatrical trailer
-new and improved English subtitle translation
-and an essay by film critic Chuck Stephens
"Emotion" is a 1966 experimental short film made by Obayashi. It displays a lot of the stylistic flourishes still in their infancy and that would surface again in House - these include bizarre segues, hyperactive editing and unusual musical cues.
"House Appraisal" features filmmaker Ti West offering his thoughts on the film. He sees it as being told from the point-of-view of a child. He also comments on the influence of Obayashi's work as a television commercial director. West speaks admiringly of House's originality and contrasts it with lack of creativity in many contemporary horror films.
"Constructing a House" features new interviews with Obayashi, his daughter Chigumi and screenwriter Chiho Katsura as they talk about the film's origins. Obayashi talks about his beginnings making T.V. ads and how they led to making House. Chigumi talks about how visiting her grandparents one summer gave her ideas for the film.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.
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