Hausu is the strangest dream you’ve ever had brought to life on film. It is a haunted house movie where the characters are aware they are in a movie. They comment on their own actions, their role in the story, and the nature of film itself.
The 1977 Japanese horror/comedy/fantasy was green-lit by Toho studios only when they were struggling to make money with more traditional films. Director Nobuhiku Obayashi was allowed to direct the screenplay after two years of trying to get the contract. The turning point was the studio realizing an over the top sensational film–translated as “incomprehensible” in most articles–was worth the risk.
This “incomprehensible” label gave Obayashi the freedom he needed to capture the essence of this bizarre haunted house story. Seven friends agree to spend the summer at a beautiful old house in the country. Though Gorgeous hasn’t seen her aunt, the owner of the house, in over ten years, she’s sure that her aunt will still be as generous as she was the last time they met. The seven girls quickly discover that the house is capable of terrible things.
The beauty of Hausu is the absurdity of the visuals. Obayashi combines animation, different film stock, layered editing, and theatrical set design to define a fantasy landscape. The special effects are very low budget, but the early emphasis on experimentation and artificiality makes them profoundly effective. In a world where a man can fall down the steps in stop motion and walk away, everything is possible.
So much of Hausu just should not work. Most of the stars had no prior acting experience. They did not know how to act on film, let alone in an intentionally bizarre and artificial horror film. Their performances are broad and static at the same time. The characters do not grow or change as the story goes on. The only character that changes is the house itself, and its arc is one of increasing desperation.
The sheer audacity of the visual landscape shouldn’t hold together at all. The composite shots work so long as no one is moving. Any action onscreen immediately gives away the gag. The scares are all telegraphed with flashing green lights yet they still have the power to scare or elicit a laugh.
Hausu revels in the absurdity of telling a ghost story. The concept of a haunted house is one we cannot explain in a logical way. Why should haunted house films conform to any traditional notion of logic? Is a house eating visitors really that far away from the insanity of a house coming to life to scare visitors?
A story like that doesn’t need to be told in a traditional way because there’s nothing traditionally cinematic about a film focused on the setting itself as the main character. How else does a house come alive? The exaggerated styles and experimental techniques bring Hausu to life.
Have you seen Hausu? What did you think? Sound off below.