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 mattes, animation, and collage effects. Equally 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.
After making its American theatrical round, The Criterion Collection presents the ultra-bizarre cult film House in its original aspect ratio of about 1.37:1 on this dual-layer Blu-ray disc and presented in 1080p/24hz.
The film has an odd, very stylish look, which limits the detail the format would normally allow. In general is has a soft look which can present a glow around some people and objects, enhancing the fantasy look the film is going for. On the other hand the film is incredibly colourful and all of the colours present are perfectly saturated and brighter colours come off quite vibrant. Blacks are surprisingly inky and I didn’t feel any details were lost in darker sequences. The film is incredibly fast, with plenty of quick cuts and fast transitions and the transfer perfectly handles all of this without any artifacts. There are also plenty of fog sequences, but again the transfer (which has a very high bitrate, which more than likely helps) doesn’t present any banding issues or any other artifacts within the fog.
Grain is evident but never all that heavy, and the source materials are also fairly clean with only a few marks. I missed the film when it was playing near me (unfortunately, it played for one week only) so I can’t compare but it does look very film-like and presents the film as about as perfectly as I can possibly imagine on home video.
The lossless Japanese PCM mono track may have some problems but in the end works perfectly fine for the film, which has a lot going on in the way of sound effects. Generally it’s a lively track, with sudden bursts in volume and the film’s music sounds sharp and clear but the track does still come off flat with poor fidelity. Still, I feel this is a limitation found in the source materials rather than an issue with the transfer itself.
Criterion only includes a few supplements unfortunately, making this edition feel more like a lower-tier release (though since this is the Blu-ray edition it still has the higher $39.95 MSRP.) But the supplements are, at least, all pretty good.
First, Criterion includes an early 39-minute short film by House’s director Nobuhiko Obayashi, called Emotion. It’s an experimental work and just like House I’m at a loss at how to describe the film, other than it involves two girls and a vampire they meet. After that I honestly don’t know what to say. Looking to be a French production (and even dedicated to Roger Vadim) with French, Japanese, and English text and dialogue, it can be seen as a sort of lead up to House, with its slightly supernatural “storyline” and it’s creative, seizure-inducing editing that plays a big part in that film.
Next up is a 45-minute documentary by Criterion on the making of the film, called Constructing a House, featuring interviews with director Nobuhiko Obayashi, screenwriter Chiho Katsura, and “story scenarist” Chigumi Obayashi (Nobuhiko’s daughter.) As expected the film has an interesting history, and, also not so surprising, it did take a while to get it going and it was met by quite a few people who wanted to see it fail. Obayashi explains the film industry in Japan during the late sixties and seventies, with the studios in financial trouble after seeing attendance dwindle down. He explains how Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, which was of course a huge hit not only in North America but other countries as well, including Japan, led studios to go out and make a film like that with Katsura and Obayashi coming up with House based a lot on ideas from Obayashi’s daughter, who was 11 at the time. Despite getting a green light from Toho the production didn’t initially take off and Obayashi spent years building up momentum for the film through other media, such as novelizations, soundtracks, and radio pieces, eventually pushing Toho to finally start production. We then get details about the shoot, the cast, and great details about the special effects, which were purposely made to look fake, as if a child had done them. Obayashi and Katsura then talk about some of the headwinds they met after completion since certain people wanted to see the film fail, but, unfortunately for these people, the film drew in the younger generation and became a huge hit. It’s a long piece and is unfortunately really just a talking-heads piece, as usual for Criterion, but the film’s production history is rather fascinating making the feature worthwhile.
Criterion next includes a 4-minute interview with director Ti West (director of House of the Devil) who really just gushes over this film, praising its child-like point-of-view and it’s creative in-camera effects. He also touches on the horror genre in general. A little fluffy I guess but West’s passion for the film becomes a little infectious.
The disc then closes with the theatrical trailer, which, despite being one of the oddest trailers I’ve ever seen, still doesn’t give a good indication as to how far out there this film really is.
The booklet included then includes a great essay by Chuck Stephens who was obviously just mesmerized by the film. He writes about the film, Obayashi, and the Japanese film industry.
It’s a slim selection of features, with them barely totaling 90-minutes, and I question the high price point, but in the end they’re still all quite good.
I thought I was ready for this film and that I knew what to expect, but surprisingly this movie went beyond what I could have possibly imagined and is easily one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen, if not the weirdest. It’s also an incredible amount of fun. Though the supplements are slim when compared to the price, Criterion’s Blu-ray is still a fun release that delivers a surprisingly strong transfer and worthwhile supplements