They brought us Hello Kitty and The Grudge; surely if the Japanese wanted to make a horror movie for the squealing slumber-party crowd, they could. House proves they already have. Cherished at home with the same teen heat as something like Labyrinth here, this girly 1977 misadventure (underseen stateside) casts a spell on disbelieving adult eyes—like a stream-of-consciousness nightmare sprung from a troubled head resting on a hot-pink pillow. (Not for nothing is the script rumored to be inspired by ideas from director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s seven-year-old daughter.) The plot is familiar and Grimm: “Gorgeous” (Ikegami) and her six giggly school friends travel to the countryside to visit her estranged aunt’s abode. What could possibly await them, apart from a pissed-off pussycat, a finger-chomping piano and a decapitated head floating in a well?
Already, that sounds way more scary than it is; the lure of House isn’t any cultish extremity, but rather, its unusually sporting commitment to wide-eyed kookiness. Special effects are intentionally childlike and unreal: giant cackling faces emerging from doorways, an eyeball looking out of a mouth (eee!), chintzy animation and tinkling piano. (Prepare to have one seesawing musical motif burned into your brain.) Plunging the movie into adolescent melodrama, the backdrops suddenly turn crimson and angry; a few ogling shots of toplessness suggest a Lewis Carroll attachment to kiddie naïveté that’s best left unexplored. Obayashi was an avant-garde experimentalist and adman before embarking on this, his first feature, at age 30. It feels like the work of a much younger person.