You’ve seen this story before, or so you think.
Seven schoolgirls encounter a malevolent force in an isolated old mansion. As this entity picks them off, one by one, the survivors struggle to unearth a mystery which stretches back decades, hoping they may find a way to live through what was supposed to be an idyllic weekend in the country. Cue the inventive death scenes, cue the gore. Any simplified plot summary of Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 film Hausu is bound to sound this commonplace, this trite. What such a bare synopsis fails to capture, though, is the sheer weirdness of this movie, the cinematic anarchy Obayashi unleashed on audiences in the guise of a spooky tale. Hausu is equal parts goofy kids’ movie and gory horror flick. Imagine The Evil Dead as written by a ten-year girl, and you may get close to the heart of this amazing little movie. That Hausu preceded Sam Raimi’s seminal work by four years makes this work even more impressive. That this movie actually sustains its bifurcated tone throughout, sensitively treading an all too lightly explored boundary between childish fantasy and bloody nightmare, is almost miraculous.
In the late seventies, Japanese director Obayashi was asked to dream up a movie which would capitalize on the success of the recently released Jaws. Eschewing the giant animal trope which was already becoming cliché, Obayashi sought a more private vision of fear. His cracked genius revealed itself in his choice of a co-creator. Rather than analyzing industry trends to get an idea of what was scary, Obayashi asked his daughter, Chigumi, what she found frightening. His grade-school daughter. The film which resulted from this strange collaboration is a bizarrely tender testament to just how seriously he must have taken her fears. Piano lessons, grim old clocks, fluffy cats, that sweet yet eerie old relative you are forced to visit: Hausu manages to capture some of those strange fears to which children seem prey. The style with which Obayashi presents these nightmares is serious, rather bloodily so (I would not recommend this movie for the viewing of nervous kids), yet is also strangely naïve, even cute.
Our heroine, Gorgeous, and her friends Prof, Sweet, Mac, Fantasy, Melody and Kung Fu (one guess as to just how descriptive these names are of the characters who bear them), go on a road trip to visit her aunt. Along the way, they pick up an oddly persistent white cat and meet a creepy watermelon salesman whom one can only imagine must be the rural Japanese equivalent of those leering hillbillies teens run across in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its cinematic descendants. Auntie, though, seems to be a sweetheart. She quickly engages the girls with stories and games, and urges them to make her home their own. Her life was spoiled by tragedy and the Japanese involvement in World War II, but her memories strike her visitors as more romantic than ominous. It is only as night falls that the girls realize there is something wrong with this bucolic setting. One of them goes missing, and another finds herself forced to do battle with a severed head. The girls come across hideous traps disguised as the most banal, even pleasant facets of domesticity. Their pluck and wit, the energy with which they confront these dangers, is a welcome surprise in a film created when the second wave of feminism had only just begun to find its footing. Kung Fu, in particular, is (surprise, surprise) a badass girl who made her debut when Joss Whedon was only 13 years old. The girls’ nightmare adventure builds to a blood-soaked climax which more than justifies comparison with the later works of Raimi.
Punctuating this creepy narrative, though, are scenes of shameless silliness. An entirely unmotivated (but amusing) pratfall heralds this aspect of the movie before the girls even set off on their trip. This slapstick moment (complete with sped-up footage and a posterior stuck in a bucket) seems to aggressively challenge the viewer. “You came prepared for the gore,” the director seems to ask, “but are you ready for this too?” The girls are drawn with broad strokes, their most memorable characteristics not only captured in their names but also etched into almost every line of dialogue. For all that, though, they are more interesting than the average teen brought to the slaughtering floor in most slasher flicks. When they arrive in the country, Obayashi reveals the surrounding landscape with the cinematic equivalent of a pun, another indication that Hausu is operating simultaneously in two registers. These visual hijinks continue even as the tone of the film darkens. An abortive rescue attempt ends in an encounter presented as though filmed through a View-Master (ask your parents), and in possibly the most bizarre transformation in horrific cinema. Another character dances with a skeleton in a scene ripped from some lost and deranged Disney movie. The death sequences themselves often combine the ludicrous and the disturbing. One such set-piece, involving a piano, is already on its way to becoming a part of cult film history.
Despite the violence and the goofiness (or perhaps precisely because of their combination), Hausu bears a strangely melancholy core. Before the film slips into its scary gear, we learn that Gorgeous lost her mother fairly recently. Her father has begun seeing an ethereal young woman, Ryoko, whose long hair and white scarf billow dreamily about her even when unaccompanied by wind. Just before her trip, Gorgeous finds she is to have a new step-mom, a revelation which crushes her cheerful spirit. Auntie’s own tale is a rather sad one, a story which spoke, one imagines, even more loudly in the seventies, when plenty of Japan’s wartime soldiers and their families were still alive and struggling with those lost years of Empire and atomic bombs. And, once more, some of the fates met by the girls are characterized by competing emotional tones. One death, which involves a clock, struck this viewer as simultaneously the most haunting and the saddest scene in the film, and for reasons which are hard to analyze.
In fact, the latter clause sums up a great deal of my own experience of this movie. Hausu’s genre-blending style, as well as its outlandish palette of emotional colors, defies most analysis. Perhaps, if this movie finds itself a place in the eyes of future movie-watchers, it will eventually seem more readable. As for now, the most obvious theme that presents itself is one familiar to most critiques of horror film: sexual maturation. Boys are entirely absent from this film, and men make only the most fleeting, ridiculous appearances, but Gorgeous and her friends are posed on the cusp of growing up. That a sad tale of young love gone awry precedes the horrors they face seems more than incidental. Many of the girls dream of future romance, but they are equally concerned with maintaining their identity. The climax of the film certainly seems to suggest the onset of menses, as do some of the ways the girls die. Even when watched with this in mind, though, Hausu does not necessarily sing that same sick old Puritanical song suggested by so many other movies in which sexual awakening and death are relentlessly equated. Growing into a sexual persona does mean death to much that is childish in us, but the film implies that this needs not mean extinction.
Regardless of subtext and potential meanings, Hausu is a relentlessly entertaining movie for anyone who can accept its peculiar blend of genres. This mixture of the absurd, the grotesque, and the pathetic (in that old sense of “pathos-laden”) will leave viewers with any number of reactions. Plenty will find it too weird to countenance, while others find it hilarious, endearing, and even fairly disturbing. As weird a film as it is, Hausu is nicely situated for a future in cinematic history: this strange flick, deadly pianos, pratfalls and all, has not been released on DVD through Troma Entertainment or a similar purveyor of fun-yet-trashy movies. It has instead found a home in the Criterion Collection, the current home of most of Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa’s pieces. While Hausu will likely not be mentioned very often in the same breath as these filmmakers, it may prove influential now that it has finally found widespread release. Takashi Miike’s wonderful Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) must be considered one of Hausu’s descendants, whether directly or not, and if you enjoyed the latter you will find plenty to entertain you in Obayashi’s film. By turns silly, horrific, cartoonish, melancholy, and, at times, sublime, Hausu is always a surreal and unpredictable experience.