This isn’t how you normally expect horror movies to start.
In the case of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 horror film House, though, it does end up making sense. While it’s not inaccurate to describe the movie as a fever dream, the common reaction to it as completely indecipherable suggests that maybe some viewers are trying too hard. Sift through the layers of wild, low-budget effects and apparent non-sequitirs, and you find a movie about youth’s fear of disappearing into adulthood, and adulthood’s fear of being swallowed up by the progression of youth culture.
House is, on the surface, a movie about a haunted house that eats unmarried girls. That already sounds weird, but it’s hardly the focus of the film. Early on, we’re introduced to a cast of junior high school girls, each identified only by a nickname that sums up her interests and personality (“Gorgeous”, “Fantasy”, “Kung-Fu”, “Prof.”). Before the bizarre killings start, we learn that the girls live in a world that revolves around their hobbies and marriage. They daydream about a charismatic teacher, and about Gorgeous’s aunt, who has spent her life waiting for the return of a lover who died in WWII. Melody is never without an instrument, Prof. never without a book. Kung-fu will hit anything that remotely threatens her friends.
During the scene in the above video (which has sadly muted the actors to highlight the song), we get the first hint of what I think are the main themes, though. Gorgeous tells her friends the story of her aunt’s doomed love, which is shown as a sepia-tone silent film. As footage of a mushroom cloud appears, one of the girls coos “It looks like cotton candy!” For all their sympathies with her aunt’s love, they completely fail to understand the defining moment of her generation.
Once they arrive at the haunted house, it’s not long before one of the girls goes missing, and as their panic starts to set in, Gorgeous laments “We’re all going to disappear.” And they do, one by one. Gorgeous becomes fixated on her aunt’s unused wedding dress, Melody on a grand piano that eventually eats her. Sweet is crushed in the gears of a clock, leaving Kung-Fu to watch helplessly as time destroys a friendship. The girls are disappearing literally, but the metaphor is almost heavy-handed: their personal interests are dissolving the bonds between them.
With that in mind, Obayashi’s decision to film the movie as a barely-coherent dreamscape is perfect. As in other great surrealist films, plot threads (such as Mr. Togo, the beloved teacher, rushing to the girls’ rescue) are introduced and forgotten, because the point isn’t moving the plot from point A to point B, but conveying a message. The message here is the intensely romantic notion that youth is fleeting and beautiful, its end tragic and prolonged; that youthful energy disappears into adult cares, which disappear back into youthful energy. Even if you think that’s a hackneyed idea, it’s really hard not to get on board with Obayashi’s manic energy.