Archive for July 1977

Hausu

July 30, 1977

Here we have a horror film about a group of girls in isolation while incomprehensible things happen to them. The narrative, such as it is, serves mainly as a clothesline for surreal, virtuoso sequences, often psychedelically colorful. If you’re thinking Dario Argento’s Suspiria, you’re wrong: this is Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hausu. And if you dig Suspiria, boy, do you have a treat in store. Hausu isn’t nearly as spooky in tone as Argento’s masterwork, though; it’s a king-hell goof every step of the way, more akin to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II in the manner in which mischievous evil consorts with slapstick. It also reminded me of Coppola’s Dracula in its happily gluttonous grab-bag approach to its style, the intentionally quaint artificiality of its effects. Obayashi, with his background in commercials and experimental film, bends over backwards to make almost every shot bizarre, toylike, often baffling. We may not care much about the story, but the images hold us and tickle us.

That story officially has to do with a group of Japanese schoolgirls, headed by “Gorgeous” (Kimiko Ikegami), who stay at the remote house of Gorgeous’ aunt (Yoko Minamida). The girls are supposed to be going off to summer training with their teacher, but he gets sidelined by a bucket stuck to his ass (yes, you did just read that) and will meet them later on at Auntie’s house. Auntie, who greets the girls in a wheelchair, may not be as disabled as she seems. Or as human. A white cat that comes along for the ride immediately hops into Auntie’s lap and always seems to be around when the weirdness starts happening.

A hit in Japan back in 1977, Hausu has just recently introduced itself to American audiences at film festivals, and Criterion has issued it on DVD and (beautiful) Blu-ray. It could be the next cult favorite among aficionados; it would play perfectly for a sleep-deprived midnight crowd, and controlled substances would most likely increase its charm. It often seems like a particularly addled supernatural anime, complete with a girl nicknamed Kung Fu who does what you’d think she does, sometimes in her panties. In the last couple of reels, surrealism goes into overdrive; the movie doesn’t get any scarier, but it sure gets more entertaining. To make a laundry list of the oddball events is tempting, but would be unfair to the first-time viewer, who deserves to enter this territory as virginally as possible.

God, I love Japanese cinema; you’ve got Yasujiro Ozu at one extreme and Nobuhiko Obayashi at the other, both now joined together under the inclusive Criterion umbrella. Hausu represents a kind of filmmaking we don’t often see any more: daffy and brilliant in equal measure, single-minded in its devotion to every wacko trick available to an analog director. If someone wants to remake it today, they’d better be prepared to forget CGI exists and have the conviction to use glaringly fake effects that only add to the movie’s ecstatic fabric.

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

July 22, 1977

In the summer of 1977, George Lucas gave us a galaxy of weird faces in the cantina scene in Star Wars. But none of them quite matched the formidable mug of Michael Berryman as Pluto, a member of the savage cannibal family in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. Born with an illness called hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia, Berryman has parlayed his distinctive features into a long and profitable cult-movie career. You could take a photo of him without make-up, put it on a movie poster, and scare the hell out of everyone, and that’s exactly what Vanguard did in the marketing for The Hills Have Eyes. Unlike his debut Last House on the Left, Craven’s second film needed no lurid tag line (“It’s only a movie”); it just needed Berryman.

Aside from that, Hills does play a lot like Last House, with a side order of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Here, a nuclear family meets a literal nuclear family — that of a deformed child abandoned out in the desert, who grew up and begat a clan of vicious scavengers. The “normal” family is headed by a retired cop (and racist) and his enabling wife, taking a road trip to California with their three grown kids, a son-in-law, a baby, and two dogs named Beauty and the Beast. Their car wipes out, as cars so often do in such movies, and they’re left stranded amid the godforsaken rocks and snakes. Which would be enough of a predicament without the hungry family, led by Jupiter (James Whitworth), who zero in on that fat little baby.

On some level, this is a rehash of Craven’s earlier effort, with urban/rural tensions replacing generational tensions. But Craven obviously had some demons to let loose, some need to subject the family unit to disintegration and terror. His goal in these early films is to show how easily civilization can lurch into brutality, how fragile the social compact is in the crunch. While Lucas was faffing about in a galaxy far, far away, Craven was probing the difference between human and monster, and not finding much difference.

As in Last House, the pack of raving scum has someone with a conscience: Ruby (Janus Blythe), who tries to escape the clan early on. In neither family are women really taken seriously except as childbearers (Dee Wallace, a mere five years before E.T., is the perky young mother whose baby becomes the film’s MacGuffin) or servants. Craven sets up a contest between the two clans, which the “civilized” family can only hope to win by becoming as savage as their attackers. At what price comes triumph? Order may be restored, but by the terms of chaos.

For all that, I’d have to consider The Hills Have Eyes a minor chapter in the Craven portfolio: There’s a difference between reiterating a theme and repeating what worked before, and you feel the line drawn here. Last House on the Left provoked controversy, banning, and an excellent book about its making; Hills hasn’t inspired nearly as much loathing or devotion. It’s simply a well-executed revenge horror movie, and though I take no particular offense at the baby being imperilled — anything’s fair game in horror — Craven almost seems to be reaching to shell-shock the audience, to top his previous assault on good taste. More disturbing is the idea of an Air Force-ravaged desert where people are left to fend for themselves among the scorpions.

If the movie had taken the point of view of the desert family — who do what they have to do to survive and don’t take kindly to whitebread families tootling through their turf en route to California — Hills may yet have been as shocking as it wants to be. As it is, it’s a film best looked back on fondly, for its moments of intensity and suspense under Craven’s merciless hand, and for Michael Berryman’s imposing and incomparable presence.


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