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Hausu (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977)


     Far too trippy to be dismissed as mere kids’ stuff, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s madcap Hausu pushes the admittedly half-cocked subgenre of Japanese haunted house movies to wacky extremes not seen before or since. On the surface, Hausu has a lot in common with other films of its ilk. There’s a standard issue ghost cat, a doomed romance that led to the haunting, a creepy geisha, a fabulously dilapidated old mansion, and a few spunky teen girls in peril. Thanks to Obayashi’s inspired direction, however, it becomes something less overtly scary than flat-out bonkers.

     In its opening act, which seems sedate only in retrospect, when compared with the frenzy to come, we are introduced to a small group of school girls who are trying to decide how to spend their school holiday. Young Oshare, intimidated by the prospect of a new stepmother, retreats to the home of her estranged aunt, with her posse tagging along. Within hours of arriving, it becomes completely obvious that that house is haunted. Before long, the girls are fending off a series of spooks who intend to eat them.

     Such a simple plot seems incapable of sustaining interest, but Hausu is delivered with verve. Just this side of the avant-garde in its wide array of visual effects, the film becomes a wild ride in which each sequence one-ups the last. Obayashi uses such a shameless, wide variety of techniques that it’s impossible for the movie not to become unhinged at some point. He seizes that craziness, though, and uses it as an excuse to subject his heroines to a series of increasingly bizarre tortures. Severed limbs, psychedelic colors, animated furniture and that darn cat all conspire to up the ante from scene to scene, resulting in a plot that throws logic out the window and never looks back.

     The special effects in Hausu may be crude, but the squeals of the schoolgirls are real enough to compensate. Still, the movie is too insane and illogical to be conventionally scary. In fact, it’s too insane and illogical to be conventionally anything. What it does manage to be is memorable, doling out the kind of surreal visuals that few beyond Argento could achieve. It’s the kind of horror film in which the ghost pulling all the strings takes time out to do a dance number with a pet skeleton. It’s the sort of movie where a girl getting ground up by a grandfather clock seems to be one of the calmer moments. All the more awesome for being so totally inexplicable, Hausu may not be ultimately be classifiable as a “good” movie, but it’s certainly one that must be seen to be believed.



Jeremy Heilman