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'House' of Wackiness
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26 Oct 2010 EST

- by David Guzman, Staff Writer

Given its slapstick comedy and horror-movie mannerisms, it’s hard enough to figure out which category “House” 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 happens to be a 1977 import from Japan, 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 it’s pretty hard to watch without cracking up. Besides, any movie starring a malevolent cat with pupils that glow 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 girlfriend (Haruko Wanibuci), who she seems to be stuck with as her future stepmother. Gorgeous complains about them to her friends, who are invited to come along with her to her aunt’s place. Except for a ninja enthusiast named Kung-Fu (Miki Jinbo), 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 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 fingers. She even has a well with a severed head at the bottom, which terrorizes one of the girls 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 escape their notice altogether, like the blood that gurgles out of the 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 that alarmed by the situation. When one of them makes the mistake of cranking out a tune on the piano, she stops when she realizes something’s amiss: “My fingers are gone,” she laments indifferently.

This 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 “House” managed to stay off the mega-cheese radar this long. Not only does it have the makings of a cult phenomenon, but the storyline is just the tip of the iceberg – those corny effects and tacky backgrounds demonstrate 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, “House” didn’t make it here in time for that strange era, and despite getting a theatrical run earlier this year, audiences just don’t line up for shlock like they used to. At least the DVD from Criterion’s out today, and although the Criterion Collection has its share of great cinema, it doesn’t seem complete without “House,” which is OK on its own terms but downright stellar as what it really is. Take that, Renoir.

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