Mushroom Clouds Look like Cotton Candy

01/13/2010 4:00 AM |

House (1977)
Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi

The feat of House, a schizoid 1977 Japanese fantasy-horror film finally seeing U.S. theatrical release, is really quite extraordinary: here is a film packed to the rafters with cheesy handmade effects—hilariously embellished matte sunsets, topsy-turvy collages and animations, and so on—that manages to be both a fantastically amusing self-reflexive trifle (characters’ names, among them Gorgeous, Fantasy, and Kung Fu, telegraph their traits) and a genuinely unsettling bloodbath, flowing as well with latent post-war anxieties. “It’s like cotton candy!” is how one girl describes an image of a mushroom cloud, summing up rather well the film’s boiling cauldron of the sickly sweet and the totally alarming.

Director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s film, with a story by Chigumi Obayashi and a screenplay written by Chiho Katsura, follows Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), who, in order to avoid spending time with her film composer father and his new girlfriend, embarks on a summer vacation with six of her classmates to visit her aunt (Yoko Minamida), whose country home turns out to be more of a rundown mansion on a hill. While the evidence mounts that something’s not quite right with Gorgeous’s aunt—at one point, she furtively opens her mouth to reveal a third eye—the house itself begins to bare its teeth. Chomping pianos, bleeding clocks, and mattresses of prey are just a few of its modes of attack. Though there doesn’t appear to be any limit to the kinds of havoc wrought by the house and its permanent resident (and her housecat), there does emerge a clearly delineated motivation behind the mayhem: Gorgeous’s aunt is dead, her body only animated by her desire to marry (her husband-to-be never returned from the war), and she feeds exclusively on unwed girls.

Near the beginning of the film Gorgeous recounts her family’s background to her friends, and her mini-history unspools on-screen as a silent movie, during which the celluloid suddenly burns up; the film-within-a-film starts up again almost instantaneously, though, this time accompanied by sound. Obayashi, a one-time ad man still making films, packs this first feature with a gloss on the medium’s history and a whole lot of its intoxicating possibilities to boot. House’s clever-stupid visuals prove irresistible, as does the entire exuberantly scarifying comedy of dismemberment.

Opens January 15 at IFC Center