This article is part of a series. Throughout the month of October PCI members will be sharing some of their favorite horror films.
Words are incapable of describing the fever dream that is Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 Japanese horror movie, Hausu. It’s really a film that you have to see to believe. You could describe the plot fairly easily: seven young girls visit the house of one girl’s aunt for a vacation, only to find that the house is haunted. But the plot really doesn’t matter, what matters are the visuals. Obayashi seems like a kid in a candy store, determined to use all of the contemporary capabilities of film at his disposal to their utmost potential in making his debut feature. If there was a special effect available in 1977, this film has it: he draws animation on the film to show the spirit of a cat coming out of a painting; stop-motion animation and blue screens create a floating head that goes around biting people and disembodied fingers that play the piano; further the sounds and visuals sped up, slowed down and distorted create a feeling of unease.
The movie feels like nothing short of a terrifying nightmare you try to describe to a friend, only to realize that it’s not as scary as it is absurd. It’s almost impossible to call this a horror film; it’s surreal to the point of having no horror in it. At the same time, it’s impossible to nail down the film into one genre. The slapstick comedy and experimentation with the medium evoke the silent comedies of the earliest days of cinema. The blue sky and sunset backgrounds used throughout the movie are ridiculously colorful and vibrant, but they aren’t too much of a leap from something you might see in an old Hollywood film like Gone with the Wind - at one point Obayashi namechecks Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. It also embraces the horror genre and its tropes. For example, the girls meet the always present character who warns about going up to the house (although the classic gas station setting is replaced by a watermelon stand). The girls are as stereotypical as any main characters in horror you will find, down to the fact that their one dimensional personalities match their names – Gorgeous, Sweet, Prof, Kung Fu, Melody, Mac, and Fantasy. But beyond reference to it’s progenitors, it’s hard not to think what’s to come of horror films after this. The over-the-top deaths and mixing of comedy and horror certainly foreshadow the rise of films in the 1980s like the Evil Dead trilogy or Peter Jackson’s 1992 Dead Alive or for that matter any of the recent movies that have kept the horror-comedy genre alive. Hausu is a film that spans genres and eras, with equal parts respect and irreverence toward all other movies.
The first time I saw Hausu, it had been hyped up to a level I thought it surely could not reach. For the first five minutes, I had no idea what to make of it, scared that people only talked about loving it ironically. But I slowly realized that every frame of the movie had been created with precision and care, that this is exactly the film Obayashi set out to make. It surpassed all levels of expectation. I challenge you to watch this movie with a group and not spend at least half an hour just recounting every scene, every ridiculous or incomprehensible moment, every death, and every stylistic flourish. It is truly one of the most unique movie experiences available.