I don’t know about you, but this “Time of COVID” means I have watched more movies than I ever could have hoped to watch in such a short span of time. Our social lives have become mere images of what they once were, as we gather in digital form, “together alone”, in a subtle but anxious real life horror tale. Now, I’m a lover of a good cult movie, and there are just so many out there, I finally got to sit down with quite a few on my watchlist. Cult movies often are, by definition, unique experiences, often with odd and low budget effects and sets. But, in all my previous viewings of cult movies, never has one been so simultaneously horrific and yet…whimsical. This movie is WEIRD, and fans seem to agree. Colorful and dreamy, with hand painted sets and stage lighting, bizarre sequences that seem straight out of an LSD propaganda film, and a collection of perky and sweet Japanese schoolgirls on a supernatural adventure, “Hausu” is a delight that left me watching with my mouth open in sheer awe of the over-the-top spectacle of it.
Filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi and screenwriter Chiho Katsura partnered on this film, and, not satisfied with how adults think about horror, picked the brains of Obayashi’s own daughter Chigumi for inspiration. The result is a fantasy film, with ghosts, hungry cannibal spirits, angry cats, demonic pianos and a dancing skeleton, awash in a cacophony of colors, softly filtered. The result confounded Japanese audiences and Toho, the film company that sponsored it’s creation…but it hit a spot for Japanese youth, who turned this strange offering into a hit. It remains one of the weirdest movies you will ever see, and age has done it no harm whatsoever.
The premise of the movie is actually hard to describe beyond the bare bones of it, in truth. Seven school friends trek to the home of one of their aunt’s in the rural mountains. It is a beautiful old estate, and apparently, quite haunted. Initial scenes are softly and warmly lit, feeling downright idyllic and cozy. The girls have a wonderful camaraderie. But somehow, these innocents are simply oblivious for an entirely unbelievable amount of time as everything gets crazier around them. CRAZY barely covers it, really. There is playfulness in this accelerating chaos too – a lovely dancing skeleton that I simply couldn’t get enough of, and that CAT…and Aunty herself, an elegant woman who seems to live alone in this space even while confined to a wheelchair. At least, at first, because Aunty grows suspiciously stronger and apparently younger as the movie goes on, and girls simply start to disappear in the strangest ways. The piano scene is really something to behold, and I found myself thinking that surely someone must have been on psychedelics for this movie to be made. Flying undead heads come to bite the girls in the ass (literally); rooms fill with blood. Each scene plays out and the next is even MORE over the top and vivid. It is quite like watching an anime come to life by way of Alice in Wonderland after a detour through Susperia. It’s surreal, zany and absolutely absurd at every turn, barely making any sense. This actually was intentional, as Obayashi created it as a dark child’s fantasy story after all. There is deeper meaning however, as Obayashi grew up near Hiroshima prefecture where he lost friends during the bombings. The Aunty represents loss of that time, and the haunting is related to lost love due to the bombing event and war. The innocence of the girls to the point of being naive is purposeful, as these girls never knew the sorrow and fear of war. They even compare a vision of a mushroom cloud to the appearance of “cotton candy”.
The techniques used in the film are novel and unique, to this day, and a technical challenge to boot. The intention was to make everything seen quite dreamlike, and absolutely fake, and he went for it, creating a very experimental aesthetic. The reception, as I may have mentioned, remained confused at best. Studio executives felt cheated, critics hated it. But it mattered not for the film was embraced by the youth, lovingly and enthusiastically, surprising everyone. There is to this day, almost no movie it can be compared with. It was visionary, and a sheer joy to see an artist such as Obayashi do as he pleases with a fantastical, and insanely chaotic film that breaks all the rules and wins you over for the effort. A dark fantasy, a tale for children with a warning at the core, like any good fairy tale, leads you further into the woods before you ever realized you have left the normal world behind, forever.