In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
This week, we take a look at the iconic Japanese freak out horror, Hausu.
“Even after the flesh perishes, one can live in the hearts of others, together with the feelings one has for them”Hausu, (1977)
Yeah it’s technically House, just like Ringu isn’t actually called Ringu, it’s just called Ring, as the recent Arrow Video release got correct. It’s just easier if I refer to this film as Hausu so that you don’t think I’m potentially talking about, for example, the equally excellent horror comedy from 1985, House, which will almost definitely get its own instalment in this series one day. Bite me.
Hausu is an interesting project, making its way to the international cult circuit in 1977, the same year as Suspiria and Eraserhead, a landmark year for horror. The interesting thing is, that like those other two films, while wearing the clothes of your more conventional horror movie, not only did they shape horror to come but completely break the mould of what we thought we could do with these narrative tools. Also, while on the surface Hausu might look like just a goofy, surrealist detour of a movie, there is a much more potent emotional heart at its centre, that’s blatant and there if you wish to look for it.
Hausu is a difficult movie to talk on any level to be honest. It’s difficult to talk about on a narrative level, formal level, or thematic level, but goddamn if we aren’t gonna try.
Hausu follows the story of… some Japanese schoolgirls, (that’s what we’ll say for now), and they are going, (I think), to stay with one of their number’s father in a summer home over the school holidays. Incidentally it is canon that Sergio Leone exists in the world of this film because said father has just returned from working on a film in which there is dialogue that Leone said his music was better than Morricone, which is an interesting contextual storytelling element to say the least. We discover that this father figure has taken on a new potential wife, and in a fit of rage, the girl storms out and makes arrangements for the group to stay at her eminently creepy Aunt’s place. We are shown a short Ozu style short film about her Aunt’s family history, which the girls talk over, that shows the devastation World War 2 wrought on her family, her country, and specifically the bomb, which has a brief flash frame at the end. They get to the house, and things… happen… The curious things that I haven’t mentioned yet that start you off right at the beginning thinking that something might be, to put it tactfully, unique, about this film, are the character names, which are things like, Gorgeous, Melody, and, get this, Kung-Fu. What this highlights is that immediately, before any of the most weird things start, that we are not watching something ordinary, it flags up that this film is allegorical and archetypal. People in this film, loveable characters that they are, do not stand in for people, they are cyphers for archetypes, and they are cyphers for ideas. It also lends the whole film part of its stark fairytale tone by evoking stories like Snow White & The Seven Dwarves.
There’s another thing that alerts you to the eerie tone of it is the initial style. A lot of writers have called it reminiscent of a sit-com and I don’t think that’s right. Yes it recreates the heightened, unreal, artificial tone of shows like That 70s Show or The Big Bang Theory but here it’s because it is just going for this rush of joyous, nostalgic, immersive warmth, whereas those shows are just really artificial. This is simultaneously a reflection of the manner in which these characters are archetypal and also how the film sets itself apart. Through this performance style they seem even more detached from reality, even more like chess pieces on a board, and yet, and yet, this somehow creates a deep sense of affection both by the filmmaker and in the audience for the personhood of these characters. The fact they have these rigidly defined quirks of personality and act with this huge level of naivety and joy, it makes them more likeable somehow? You just get pulled into this extreme environment of extreme positivity. Even when shit starts to go down it’s just really, really fun.
Look, I’ve talked about all this stuff, but the real attraction of this movie for most people is the fact that it gets fucking mental. Like, yes, on the face of it, it follows what would become after it a super conventional horror structure, that I can’t imagine this didn’t influence with it’s colleague in horror of Suspiria, y’know, the young-girls-get-murdered movie, but again it’s totally different from what would come later. As in Suspiria, with the opening scare that suggests what is happening that would later become a staple of teen slashers which Suspiria is definitively not, with Suspiria it’s that opening set piece we all know and love, and with Hausu, it’s a girl going up to a well where a missing chubby girl called Mac, (yeah, thanks a bunch, just, just great there), hid a watermelon and instead Mac’s head comes out and bites her arse? It’s strange.
That being said though, the fact is, and it’s often forgotten, that the end is really poignant and really sad. The allusions to the war and the archetypal nature of the story, and the joy turned to chaotic hell and then tragedy, all come together here to tell an allegorical story of the tragedy of nuclear hollocaust. The director, Nobuhiko Obayashi, said that he wanted to create a story that celebrated his childhood friends who died when the hydrogen bombs were dropped at the end of the war, and mourn all those childhoods lost but in a fantasy setting. In a way this intent mythologises the loss into something that means more than just dead children, and I think the fact that this movie has the legacy that it has has done that. This movie lives on and in doing so, it lives on as a testament to grief and celebrating life.