Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #46 House (1977)
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the site and career-sustaining column where I give YOU, the ferociously sexy, intimidatingly brilliant Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron, an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch, and then write about, in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge. The price goes down to seventy-five dollars for each additional choice.
I first encountered our current selection, 1977’s House, when it was released in American theaters in 2009 as a Japanese cult oddity that was rumored to be just about the craziest fucking movie ever made, a beyond bizarre camp attraction that suggests what Beyond the Valley of the Dolls might look and feel like if it fused with Scooby-Doo and became a Japanese haunted house movie that is also, at various other points, every other genre known to man, from Benny Hill-style sped-up lowbrow slapstick to action epic to silent film.
My first impression of House was “Holy shit! That’s the craziest fucking movie I’ve ever seen.” Criterion had a similarly powerful response. They saw House and said, “That’s the most fucked up shit ever! We’ve got to put that shit out on DVD even though it’s way different and way more messed up than all our other shit.”
Criterion is a very foul mouthed company. I should know. I spent a magical afternoon touring their offices and warehouse, gleefully shoveling DVDs into my backpack and at the end the publicist said to me, “Sir, you’ll have to put back all those discs. You don’t have permission to take anything. In fact, you’re not even supposed to be here. We’ve even stopped sending you press releases because you’re not really even in the industry anymore. Give back those DVDs before I call security.” but I ran away before they could arrest me.
Boy, that story made me look way better in my mind than it does on the page. So Criterion made House a rather unusual part of the Criterion Collection despite it being a singularly insane genre movie and not highbrow art. Criterion is generally not in the “so bad it’s good” business” but they made an exception here because House isn’t just so bad it’s good it’s so singularly bad it’s one for the ages.
House is gloriously alive Day Glo pop art about a very unfortunate group of Japanese schoolgirls on vacation who all fit neatly into well-worn international archetypes. My favorite of the bunch is Mac (Mieko Sato), a lovely teenager who embodies in gloriously pure, unadulterated form a bizarre stock character that pops up again and again in film and television and mystery-based animation: the glutton whose sole defining feature is a rapacious hunger that knows no bounds, knows no decency, knows only its own infernal, insatiable yearning.
Like many characters who have appetites instead of personalities, or rather appetites for personalities, Mac is pretty damn thin. Mac is, at most, a pound or two heavier than absolutely ideal yet the film and every single one of its characters treats her like she’s Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life moments before consuming the wafter-thin mint of doom.
Every goddamn line of dialogue from or about Mac references her non-stop eating, her hunger or her supposed girth. A ghostly witch even tips her hand for the sake of quipping about how exciting it will be to eat such a rotund butterball. The humiliations extend into Mac’s afterlife: she’s the first girl killed, no doubt as punishment for her ungodly, unacceptable hunger for food, and tries to take a big old bite of one of her friend’s behind despite being dead.
Then there’s Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), so nicknamed for her proficiency with the martial arts. What’s that? You don’t think elaborate marital arts sequences belongs in a haunted house movie? Thankfully you’re not one of the makers of House, which features one of the craziest mash-ups of genres this side of The Avenging Disco Godfather.
Then there’s Prof, the smart one. You can tell because she’s got glasses and her hair is pulled up instead of hanging loose and free. Yet when this bespectacled nerd and big-league brain takes off her glasses something miraculous happens: she’s beautiful. Of course she’s also beautiful with her glasses and hair in pig-tails but she’s slightly more conventionally beautiful without her glasses.
That leaves Melody (Eriko Tanaka), the musical one, daydreamer Fantasy (Kumiko Oba) and our heroine Gorgeous, the most beautiful of the lot. Gorgeous is excited about spending a disturbingly incestuous summer vacation gazing adoringly at her dashing composer father (Saho Sasazawa).
Alas, dear old dad has an unpleasant surprise for his daughter: he introduces a beautiful woman named Ryoko Ema as a jewelry designer and also her new mother. Gorgeous does not seem to have much of an opinion on the jewelry design aspect but she is NOT happy to be told a gorgeous stranger will now replace the beloved dead mother that died eight years earlier.
Gorgeous’ friends were supposed to go to a camp run by the sister of Mr. Togo, Fantasy’s disturbingly older boyfriend and a Don Knotts-like bungler who helps set the plot in motion when he trips over a sinister fluffy white cat, falls facedown down a flight of stairs and somehow gets a bucket stuck on his butt. For extra zaniness, this sequence in a moody, atmospheric haunted house shocker is sped-up in the manner of The Benny Hill Show. Honestly, all that is missing is Boots Randolph’s “Yakkety Sax.”
Late in the film these poor girls hope against hope that Togo will save them but that idiot is primarily, if not exclusively, a danger to himself and his own butt. These bizarre and tonally incoherent slapstick shenanigans add nothing and everything to the movie. There’s absolutely no reason a movie primarily about a devastated woman’s despair and heartbreak and loneliness becoming sentient, monstrous and rapacious and literally devouring the flesh of the living should also feature bumbling physical antics out of a lesser Ernest P. Worrell movie. Yet it’s in House all the same.
At the sinister mansion of Gorgeous’ Auntie (Yōko Minamida), the girls learn that the poor older relation was engaged to a dashing World War II pilot who promised to come back to her but never did. From her very first appearance, Auntie is creepy as fuck.
Auntie spends her first few scenes in a wheelchair but when Mac goes missing, and then her disembodied floating head bites one of the other girls on the ass, Auntie is so excited that she literally gets up out of her wheelchair and never returns to it.
Seemingly paralyzed characters strutting out of their wheelchairs is an old comedy staple employed most famously and unforgettably by Paul Flaherty as SCTV owner Guy Caballero, who used a wheelchair “for respect.” It’s similarly hilarious when Auntie gets up and starts gallivanting about, her spirits raised by the prospect of a malevolent spirit taking over and methodically murdering all of the hapless, cursed girls in the house but it’s not entirely clear whether it’s supposed to be funny or not. That’s true of much of House: regardless of the intent, the movie is hilarious from start to finish. It doesn’t particularly matter whether those hearty, non-stop laughs are intentional or not.
These murders have a bit of a Freddy Krueger quality. The evil sentient house and its malevolent, lovestruck master pick off the girls in ways that reflect their overriding obsessions in life: Melody, for example, loves to entertain her friends with music and is accordingly punished by having the piano she’s playing slice off her fingers. The show must go on, however, so Melody’s disembodied fingers finish playing a song even though they have been violently separated from the rest of her body.
Kung Fu, meanwhile, poignantly dies as she lived: attempting a flying kick on a possessed light fixture.
Auntie is not quite what she sees, as evidenced by her looking directly at us through the camera in a way that is legitimately bone-chilling, even as it is followed immediately by her dancing with a jaunty skeleton.
In its third act House has the dizzying, disorienting power of a nightmare captured for posterity on film. I’ve literally never seen anything quite like House. The first time around I felt like I was watching the craziest fucking movie that I’d ever seen, that I’d seen a horror movie that looks and feels and sounds and smells absolutely nothing like a typical horror movie, that deviates as far from the norm as possible while still technically qualifying as horror.
The dialogue here has the feel and texture of cockeyed pulp poetry. Any random bit of dialogue would double as a terrific title for a Guided by Voices song, including, “A Witch from a Horror Movie”, “Wow, Kung Fu, That Was Cool!”, “All Cats Can Open Doors/Only Ghost Cats Can Close Them Again” and “The Niece of the Lady of the House."
The first time I saw House it lived up to its reputation as a movie so utterly, wonderfully preposterous that it had to be seen to be believed. I should have known what I was in for this time around but this still struck me as the craziest fucking shit I’d ever seen, and now I’ve seen this crazy shit twice. My mind remains blown.
Some movies are so wild, so out there, so fresh and exciting and impactful that they retain the ability to shock, and provoke, and surprise no matter how many times you’ve seen them. Goodfellas is a movie like that. It’s always a punch in the gut. It never gets old. The same is true of House. It’s so dense, and has so many layers of weirdness and personality that you could probably watch it a hundred times and pick up something new and wonderfully wrong each time. Just as importantly, House is entertaining enough to make the prospect of infinite repeat viewings a cause for excitement rather than dread.
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