Criterion: HOUSE (1977) Blu-ray Review

In his Fantastic Fest 2009 intro to the film, Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson told everyone that Nobuhiko Obayashi’s HOUSE would rock their world so hard that it would bend reality enough to reverse their gender. He was absolutely correct.

The Movie

As enjoyable as the movie is, it’s difficult to describe to a friend without spoiling moments throughout.  I’ll do my best to stay spoiler-free.  The protagonist, a girl nicknamed “Gorgeous” by her friends, is upset about her father remarrying.  She packs up her six best friends, who all have very archetypical nicknames (“Kung Fu”, “Mac” as in “Big Mac”, and “Melody”) and heads off to her auntie’s old house in the country.

Gorgeous’ auntie is very frail, and has a big fluffy cat named Blanche.  What none of the girls know is that “auntie” is a witch who feeds on the flesh of young “marryable” girls, and that the cat is her evil little helper.  What follows is an amazing bizarro ride replete with just about every in-camera, non-computer-aided special effect in the playbook.  The effects in House really brings the phrase “good ol’ days” to mind.

Toho Studios gave carte blanche to commercial director Nobuhiko Obayashi on his first feature.  The movie is equal parts survival horror and surreal, absurdist black comedy.  It’s difficult for me to feel satisfied with plugging it into even that unique a box.  The studio had no idea they were going to get what came out the other end, and they expected it to die a quick death.

Much to their surprise and horror, young people flocked to it and embraced it fully.  Toho yanked it from theaters a couple of weeks in rather than fuel a change in the content paradigm in the movie industry.  They actively withheld it from public viewing for years, but the disc’s supplements tell that story better than I can here.

The Poster That Devoured the World and a Contest

The now-iconic “orange cat face” poster (also the cover art) for House was designed based on Obayashi’s production art by Nashville artist Sam Smith, who also happens to play drums for Ben Folds.  In a rare move for Janus Films and the Criterion Collection, they made a t-shirt out of it too, which has gone to multiple re-printings (just as the poster did).

[caption id=“attachment_1328” align=“aligncenter” width=“575” caption=“Nacho Vigalondo wearing his new favorite shirt at this year's Fantastic Feud”]


They even made wall decals, which are now all gone, with the exception of a small stack of them that I’ve secreted away at Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar in Austin.  I plan to make them all disappear by Halloween.  The best comment on this post may just get a surprise in the mail, now that I think of it.

Smith is also the designer of the poster for Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (1968), which Janus Films is currently touring across the country.

The Look and Sound

House is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, so don’t you dare turn on the “Smart Stretch” setting on your HDTV.  Compared to my recollection of the print we saw at Fantastic Fest a year ago, the Blu-ray looked appropriately film-like, with realistic levels of grain throughout.  The colors are vivid and the contrast is especially good.  The Mono sound mix is nice and clean, with little to no discernible hiss.

The Supplements

The extras are few in quantity, but they’re more than I could have hoped for on a three decade-old movie that I never thought I’d see subtitled in an official U.S. home video release.

Constructing a “House”
This featurette includes interviews with the director, screenwriter, and Obayashi’s daughter (also House story scenarist).  In particular, the bits on the way that Toho buried the film are fascinating.

Emotion (1966)
This is an experimental short from ten years before House was made.  I’m glad Criterion is continuing to include early short films that would ordinarily never be seen.

Video Appreciation by Ti West
The director of House of the Devil speaks briefly about how influential the film is on him, and how it did many things that haven’t been bested to date.

Final Thoughts

House has emerged as a new option for when you want a midnight movie that your friends haven’t seen.  It’s a movie that I’d want to have on my shelf rather than rent from Netflix and likely never send back (I bet it’ll be on Very Long Wait for some time to come).

Before it hit DVD today, various friends told me they’d downloaded it.  Plenty of writers avoid even touching the piracy issue, but this is one of the best examples of how it affects access to unique titles like this one.  Criterion doesn’t have their own section at Walmart, unlike the mega-studios, and downloading a movie like House and refusing them the accompanying revenue from renting or buying it only serves to prevent titles like it continuing to pop up in the Collection.  I can’t remember the last time I saw another studio put out something as unique, weird, and fantastic as House.

House hit the street today.