We live in an age of so many pathetic wannabe cult pictures that it’s refreshing to occasionally come across the real deal: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House. Truly on its own wavelength, House is the kind of picture that’s destined to prompt indulgences of that laziest “it’s X meets Y” form of criticism. Let’s allow one so eerily apt it’s irresistible: The notes accompanying House call it “an episode of Scooby Doo as directed by Dario Argento.”
Most haunted house pictures have something to do with the conflict of society and id, with the house (or whatever else) acting as agent that releases repressed feelings and/or resentments at the cost of stability. There’s no friction in House though; it never has any kind of stability to begin with, and I can’t imagine anything has been repressed. The characters, all young teenage girls with names such as Gorgeous, Fantasy, and Kung Fu, are giddily unrepressed—jump-kicking and chattering in front of purposefully artificial mattes with musical cues that would make Pino Donaggio blush.
For a while, you struggle to keep up with the tonal shifts and the wild displays of technique. Obayashi pitches everything at 10, and the extremity can be wearying: a small expression is slowed down and transformed into delirious requiem; flashbacks are dramatized in chronologically inappropriate black and white with subtitles (a parody of silent movies and of what contemporary children see as the antiquated, irrelevant old times of their parents); disembodied heads bob and weave on clear wires while obviously plastic severed limbs taunt the girls to join the afterlife as pianos gobble them up; and a white cat with green eyes presides as either another incarnation of the demon terrorizing the girls, its minion, an imaginary projection, or all or none of the above.
House is ultimately all of a piece—a projection of a self-absorbed girl’s perceived threat of being replaced by her father’s new wife. Running to her aunt’s to escape her parents, Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), and her friends stumble across monsters that ultimately embody her fears, and act as a logical extension of her own unchecked entitlement. House, despite the claims, isn’t really a horror movie; it’s a dark cartoon of unfettered play, an attempt to directly channel budding teens’ stream of consciousness with its neediness, triumph, exhilaration, confusion (the deaths aren’t meant to be taken seriously, as the children seem to be empowered by their pretend demises). House is successful in that aim, which means it’s about equal parts brilliant, baffling, ridiculous, and unwatchable.