There are many options for a Halloween-appropriate scare this week: There’s the zombies-in-a–Big Brother–house mini-series Dead Set currently airing on IFC, more zombies on AMC’s The Walking Dead starting Sunday, Paranormal Activity 2, and, in a few dwindling theaters, Let Me In. But there’s nothing quite like today’s Criterion rerelease of the 1977 Japanese horror-comedy House. Then again, there’s nothing quite like it in any week, regardless of holiday. Even if the plot is familiar genre territory — seven female students try to escape a house haunted by a widow and her sinister cat — Nobuhiko Obayashi’s glossy and willfully random film (neither the source material for Hugh Laurie’s medical show nor William Katt’s 1986 haunted-house film!) still manages to out-weird any David Lynch effort and even bests El Topo in terms of surrealism. Need proof? Here are ten of the strangest moments from the world’s oddest horror film.
In keeping with horror-movie tradition, the male protector in this film, Mr. Togo, is taken out of the action to up the “females-in-danger” quotient. But while other films would dispatch the girls’ would-be chaperone with an ax to the back or chainsaw to the head, House gets rid of him by sending him to the hospital to remove a pesky bucket that he just can’t pry off of his butt. The doctors will also hopefully surgically remove the small child playing the drums on his ass-pail.
When is the best time to formally introduce your characters? Why, halfway through the film, of course! That’s when House gives us a good old-fashioned character roll call in the style of a seventies sitcom, with inset close-up shots of each character’s smiling face. The girls’ names give us all the character development we need: Gorgeous, Fantasy, Professor, Melody, Kung Fu, Sweet, and Mac (as in sto-MACh, because she is perpetually eating).
As Dante illustrated, a character’s death should match his or her vice. In the case of the overeating Mac, her severed head takes the place of a stolen watermelon cooling off in a well of water. When Fantasy discovers this, the laughing head of Mac tries to take a bite out of her behind. Revenge is a dish best served seedlessly.
At one point in the film, the formerly wheelchair-bound aunt inexplicably stands up, walks into the refrigerator and reappears on the balcony. The aunt’s sudden cure and teleportation skills are not the most confusing part of this scene, however. What’s truly head-scratching is how unperturbed the girls are by the sinister aunt’s sudden mobility. Even as the auntie dances with a skeleton — while her cat, Blanche, who always seems to show up when mischief is afoot, meows the film’s theme music — the girls are still not fazed.
The strongest member of this group — thus fittingly named Kung Fu — begins to suspect something is wrong with this house when the firewood she’s chopping rises in the air and attacks her. After defeating the rogue pieces of wood, she says what the audience has been thinking for 40 minutes: “This is ridiculous.” But she then concludes, “Maybe it was an illusion” before catching a towel that drops from the sky.
Possession scenes are always horror-movie highlights, but rarely is one so visually original: As Gorgeous is taken over by the spirit of her aunt, her face begins to crack and crumble like a mirror, revealing the inferno blazing within. (Is it metaphorical or just another completely random occurrence? With House, you never can tell.)
Just because one of the girls has been eaten by a combination ceiling lamp/vortex to another dimension, it doesn’t mean her legs can’t return from beyond to continue the fight. As you can see, a painting of Blanche the evil kitty (who has gone from ever-present fluffball to cartoonish demon) doesn’t like this.
In the film’s surrealistic apex, the grand piano Melody has been turning to as a source of comfort throughout the horrific proceedings begins to bite off her fingers before eating her entirely. As her body is … well … seemingly violated by the piano, her severed head backs off from the piano, eyes the scene up, and declares, “Oh my, that’s naughty!” Apparently the “S” in BDSM stands for Steinway.
In a scene that very possibly inspired the “Pancakes! Pancakes! Pancakes!” outburst in Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever, the tardy chaperone/would-be hero of the film (his rear end freed from the bucket) arrives at the remote village to rescue the girls. Instead of saving the day, however, Mr. Togo starts hysterically screaming “Banana! Banana! Bananas everywhere!” When dawn comes the next day, Mr. Togo, still sitting behind the wheel of his car, has turned into a pile of his fruit of choice.
Just when the girls think they’ve won, the house pulls one more trick: The mysterious painting of Blanche starts to flood the whole building with blood. Evil Dead II, do you have something to own up to?