My notes on Hausu.Essentially, this is a live-action cartoon: imagine a schoolgirl anime take on Scooby-Doo, segueing into a precursor to Evil Dead II. It is colourful, good-humoured and hectic, but also shrill, repetitive and slightly tiring – nevertheless, there is a great deal of charm along the way. In animated opening credits, which seem to give only an English title and look like an Eastern bloc cartoon or film poster, a hungry house waits for victims, but an overly complex set-up requires several reels of chat before we get to the spooky place. Oshare aka ‘Angel’ (Kimiko Ikegami), a pretty but (as it turns out) mildly malevolent schoolgirl, throws a sulk when her widowed film music composer father (Saho Sasazawa) announces that he plans on remarrying. This scene is played with syrupy strings, against a painted sunset backdrop, with everyone hyper-emoting at full blast, setting a stylised tone the film never breaks out of. It’s a look appropriate to Fassbinder melodramas, Guy Maddin’s Twilight of the Ice Nymphs or a 1950s musical (characters often seem on the point of breaking into song, and one or two of them finally do) but seldom used in horror: even Suspiria is drabber than this. Though appealing, the style works like an alienation effect: it’s impossible to care about the thin characters when horrid things happen to them, and even wild moments are more astonishing than chilling.
On the last day of school, six very happy giggly girls in traditional sailor suits — with nicknames that highlight their single character traits – gluttonous Mac (Mieko Sato), sporty Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), brainy Prof (Ai Matsubara), musical Melody (Eriko Tanaka), submissive Sweet (Masayo Miyako), dreaming Fantasy (Kumiko Ohba) — are set to go on a camping trip which is cancelled at the last minute. Oshare volunteers her soon-to-be-stepmother (Haruko Wanibuchi) as cook, and suggests they all go to a villa handed down in her family and inhabited by her crippled, white-haired auntie (Yoko Minamida), who is still in mourning for a pilot fiancé killed in the War. On the train, a copy of Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of the Horror Film is nudged into view several times, and the general air of good cheer obviously sets the group up for a fall. Once in the house, the girls meet horrible but apt fates – Melody is eaten by a piano, for instance, in a Pythonish horror sequence complete with weird optical fringes – and Auntie, a ghost who is also the house, rejuvenates more with every demise of ‘a girl of marriageable age’. There is a lot of incident but little plot: and generally likeable characters are despatched in ways which are deliberately sillier than scary, with cut-out cartoonish visual effects rather than flesh-ripping gore (you couldn’t mistake it for one of those Guts of a Virgin films). The finale finds the scarf-wearing, ever-smiling would-be stepmother showing up at the (temporarily?) satiated house with a swelling romantic song playing on the soundtrack and Oshare (or at least Auntie in her shape) hinting her dead friends will be returning as vampires to feed on her.
Director Nobuhiko Obayashi – who made the more serious ghost/horror film The Discarnates and a live-action version of The Girl Who Leaped through Time — tries anything for a laugh or a gasp of amazement: animated inserts; cutaways to an imaginary romantic movie (with a ‘The End’ title half-way through); flying severed heads, and other wrenched-off body parts; fashion parades of lingerie and nightwear (Kung Fu’s polka-dot short shorts are remarkable); playing the film back and forth to make a fluffy cat familiar do silly things; musical stings to accompany the kung fu kicks; a few tame nude scenes; non sequiturs (after batting away flying severed limbs, Kung Fu shrugs ‘probably my imagination’); mirror tricks (Oshare’s reflection smiles back with Hammer Films vampire fangs); silly peppy pop music; Oshare appearing in elaborate traditional kimono and make-up (often a sign of supernatural status in Japanese cinema – perhaps as a rebuke to her more westernised friends: she has a supernatural martian arts catfight with Kung Fu); gushers of blood from the walls; optical trick glowing green eyes and supernatural zapping (I don’t think I’ve ever seen another movie which uses matte fringes as a deliberate effect); clocks with bloody guts; severed fingers picking out a tune on the piano; giant lips and eyes; floating objects (including the ever-popular demon parasols), a mummy, etc. There’s nothing else quite like it.