Given its slapstick comedy and horror-movie mannerisms, it’s hard enough to figure out which category “Hausu” falls into, let alone argue over whether it’s a bad film or a good one. It goes without saying that a movie this strange was intended to make people laugh, but when you’re dealing with a film that’s even sillier than it wants to be, you have to wonder if it’s being laughed at rather than with. Of course, plenty of cult classics have the same problem, and since this one happens to be a 1977 import from Japan (it’s being marketed in America as “House”), the culture clash alone is enough to keep mainstream audiences away. That guy with the robots from “Mystery Science Theater 3000” might’ve eaten it up, though.
Whether or not you think this movie is in on its own joke, you’ve got to admit that it’s pretty hard to watch without cracking up. Besides, any movie starring a malevolent cat with pupils that glow green whenever its will is enforced is sure to be good for a couple of laughs. In fact, the cat isn’t even one of the main characters – our heroine, a schoolgirl named Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), decides to take a trip to her aunt’s (Yoko Minamida) house to get away from her father (Saho Sasazawa) and his new girlfriend (Haruko Wanibuci), who she seems to be stuck with as her future stepmother. Later, Gorgeous complains about them to her friends at school, who are invited to come along with her to her aunt’s place. Except for a ninja enthusiast named Kung-Fu (Miki Jinbo), all of their personalities are interchangeable, which is never a good sign in a genre where stock characters are the first ones to go.
They might look kind of average, but their tormentors are anything but. Gorgeous’ aunt has collected some dangerous furniture over the years, like drawers that devour human flesh and a piano that chews off peoples’ fingers. She even has a well in her backyard with a severed head at the bottom, which terrorizes one of the girls on the surface by dancing about and taking a bite out of that most intimate crevasse of a person’s anatomy.
At this point, you’d think Gorgeous and her friends would be smart enough to run for their lives, but they take all of these supernatural shenanigans with a grain of salt. Some of them even escape their notice altogether, like the blood that gurgles out of the kitchen faucet, or a skeleton that waves its arms as if dancing.
Even when they finally figure out what’s going on, they don’t seem all that alarmed by the situation. When one of them makes the mistake of cranking out a tune on the piano, she stops short when she realizes something’s amiss: “My fingers are gone,” she laments indifferently.
This material would be pretty campy no matter how you look at it, but with such low-fidelity music and silly dialogue, you’ve got to wonder how “Hausu” managed to stay off the mega-cheese radar this long. Not only does it have all the makings of a cult phenomenon, but the storyline is just the tip of the iceberg – all those corny special effects and tacky backgrounds demonstrate just how excessive this genre can be, especially when you’re looking at movies from the ’70s, when violent oddities from guys like Dario Argento and Tobe Hooper were commonplace.
Alas, “Hausu” didn’t make it here in time for that strange era, and despite getting a limited theatrical run, audiences just aren’t lining up for shlock like they used to. At least it’ll get the Criterion treatment when the DVD comes along, and although the Criterion Collection has its fair share of great cinema already, it doesn’t seem complete without a film like “Hausu,” which is OK on its own terms but downright stellar as what it really is. Take that, Renoir.