I saw the trailer for this film a few weeks ago on one of the movie blogs I read and discovered that it would be playing a one-week engagement at the IFC Center. It's a notoriously hard-to-see film, the only home version available being German-made with no subtitles (not that this film needs them, exactly), and the trailer impressed me so much that halfway through I found myself clapping like an idiot. So seeing this was a priority, though I worried that, like so many movies with promising trailers, the reality wouldn't measure up.
Oh, man. Was that ever not the case with the awesomely bizarre 1977 Japanese freak show Hausu.
This movie is quite simply beyond words for conveying it's surreal whack-tastic weirdness. I could tell you the plot, but plot is way, WAY down the list of this film's priorities. I could tell you some of the freaky things that happen, but even if you believed me it would still not be enough. Okay, you know That Scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory - you know the one I'm talking about, I don't even have to say the word "boat" - that's like a crack pipe stuffed with crazy student film techniques? Imagine, if you dare, 110 minutes of that, and that's something resembling what this movie is like. But still, not quite.
How about this - if "Pee Wee's Playhouse" and The Shining were to have a baby, and then Suspiria and The Grudge (or rather Ju-On, the Japanese version) had a baby, and then those two babies grew up and had a baby, it would be (again, something like) Hausu.
Aw heck, here goes nothing.
The movie starts with seven friends, most of them one-dimensional Types, all of them with helpful and descriptive names - Gorgeous (our heroine), Fantasy (the dreamer and scaredy-cat), Prof (the Velma of the group), Melody (the music lover), Sweet (the housewifey one), Mac (short for "stomach," the food-lover), and Kung Fu (three guesses what her distinction is, but she has her own freakin' THEME SONG - Awesome!). The girls have one more week of school before summer vacation, and they're having fun, talking about their plans, and for some reason blowing lots of bubbles. This part of the film, in fact the first half hour (at least), plays like a trippy 1970s music video or a commercial for cereal or shampoo or hula hoops (before this film, the director made his name directing television commercials, many of them experimental in style). I half expected a cartoon sun to dump two scoops of raisins on the proceedings.
Gorgeous goes home to find her father, who has just returned from composing a film score for famous Italian director Sergio Leone (no, really - he says at one point that Leone thinks his scores are better than Morricone's). He introduces Gorgeous to a woman named Ryoko, who seems to be perpetually standing in front of a wind machine that blows her hair and her white scarf very romantically. Ryoko is to be Gorgeous's new mother, and Gorgeous is not pleased. At all. She writes to an aunt that she hasn't seen in ten years and asks if she and her friends can come and stay with her. The aunt sends back a letter in the affirmative, along with her cat Blanche. I won't even ask how the cat beats the letter there, but it does. Logic is not something this movie cares very much about.
The girls take a train (pictured above - yes, really) to get to the aunt's house and Gorgeous fills them in on her story. This backstory is told through a silent film style vignette, which is interesting as it is, but my favorite part is that the girls are commenting on what we're seeing. As if Gorgeous said "Hey, I have this film of my aunt from the old days. Let's watch it!" There is much swooning over how men looked more manly back then, and we learn the story of the aunt swearing to wait for her fiance at the family house until he returns from the war, which he never does.
The gals deboard the train and take a bus for most of the rest of the way, and when they get off the bus, we're treated to a nice little moment of absurdity, though not the first and certainly not the last. The close shot of them at the bus stop clearly shows a matte painting of trees and mountains as the background. But when it switches to a much wider shot, we see real trees and mountains behind the painted ones. This movie is nothing if not self-aware of its own silliness.
Check where the girls are standing under the tree - totally a matte painting of the matte painting behind it!
After an encounter with a strange man selling fruit and apparently not knowing basic facts about personal space, the girls arrive at the house (excuse me, HOOOOOOOUUUUUUSEUH), meet the aunt (who is wheelchair-bound), and squee over how beautiful everything is. It doesn't take long for one of them (the scaredy-cat, Fantasy) to notice that something is not quite right, but the other girls don't believe her, despite some very strange happenings. Eventually, though, they can't quite ignore how their number seems to be dwindling.
Yes, this is an actual frame from the film. Not the weirdest thing to happen in the movie BY FAR.
It turns out that the aunt has actually been dead many years and that her spirit (and it seems her rage as well) has been absorbed into the house itself. And before long, we're into some very strange flavors of good old-fashioned horror show, with the girls being picked off one by one in completely bizarre ways. I mean, you have no idea how bizarre, not even with that picture above. One of the girls is eaten and digested by a piano...
... while another is smothered to death by pillows - I don't mean a person shoving a pillow in her face until she's dead, she's literally ... attacked by pillows and smothered by them. Another girl is attacked by a chandelier, which flies around the room with her kicking flailing legs dangling out of it. Gorgeous, meanwhile, seems to have psychically become her aunt. And their teacher, who for some reason is headed to the house to hang out with a bunch of teenage girls, it turned into a pile of bananas (SERIOUSLY!) before he can get there.
Most of the third act has to be seen to be believed, and there's no way I could explain it, even if I tried, even with the aid of screencaps. At one point, during one of many acid-trip-esque sequences, one of the girls shouts "This is ridiculous!" which is exactly what you'll probably have been thinking for at least an hour if you make it that far into this movie. Perhaps my favorite part is the introduction of the movie's theme music, which at one point the Blanche the Cat - I kid you not - meows note for note. The cat, by the way, is the most evil cat in any movie ever.
FEAR ME, IF YOU DARE!
This movie is not terribly scary, but it's so freaking strange that it's downright unsettling. It's full of practically every cliche camera technique in the book (mattes, animation, iris effects, the works), but somehow they're not like anything you've seen before. Strange though it may be, there's a kind of sick genius about it. If you can get past the "what the WHAAT?" factor, it's really quite a remarkable movie. An exercise in absurdity from start to finish.
I will leave you with the subtitled trailer below, which will give you but a taste of the hysteria. If you follow the embed to the YouTube page, there are a few notable clips from the film (such as the piano death scene) for your viewing, errr, pleasure. I feel the need to point out that none of the effects, not even the cartoon house that gets taller and grows arms, was a marketing invention purely for the trailer - IT IS ALL PART OF THE FILM.