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.