Girl Meets Context: This October is going to be dedicated to classic haunted house movies. We wrap things up by revisiting Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s rediscovered cult classic. Never shown in the United States until 2010, House was rapturously received by American audiences as it toured the country for the first time. Based on a story by Ôbayashi‘s young daughter, House is a surrealistic, expressive visual treat. The movie goes for tone over plot, following a group of schoolgirls as they visit the secluded mansion owned by the aunt of Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), which happens to be haunted by strange forces. Psychedelic and technicolored, House must be seen to believed. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the movie. If you haven’t seen House, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Sean: I had forgotten that this whole movie is basically a big tantrum about how Gorgeous doesn’t like Ryoko, her new stepmother. Completely forgot it. Everything that happens circles back to the absence of the dead mother (sort of like Cinderella and lots of other classic fairy tales that revolve around maternal absence). That trauma is what propels Gorgeous forward into the uncanny plot.
Kristine: Yeah, I’d forgotten that too. “Daddy has disappointed us.”
Sean: Which, upon rewatch, seems pretty important to what the film is trying to express.
Kristine: I adore when Gorgeous flees the balcony after meeting step-mommy, and violently flings off that tragic gauzy scarf Ryoko just gave her. In slow motion, natch.
Kristine: Gorgeous = Electra complex to the nines.
Sean: Her father was a creep. But I couldn’t believe that his backstory is that he’s a movie composer who was off in Italy working for Sergio Leone! And he’s like, “My shit is even better than Morricone.” Those references to Italian B-movies felt really random and hilarious.
Kristine: Agreed, though I thought it was significant that her father is this international traveller. Gorgeous is totally bourgeois, and reminded me – unhappily – of Jenny the Dishrag from Phenomena. But even how Gorgeous is like, ‘Anyway I’m going to my summer house,’ while her girlfriends are scheduled to go to summer camp. She’s rich, they’re middle class.
Sean: Gorgeous is spoiled, for sure. Remember her first words to her father are, “Where’s my souvenir?”
Kristine: It is delicious that the souvenir she winds up getting is a stepmother.
Sean: Ha! Right?
Kristine: What about how her father’s list of reasons why Ryoko will be a good stepmother is that (a) she’s pretty, (b) she makes jewelry and (c) she’s a good cook?
Sean: Yeah, the movie seems aware that marriage is just a big sexist trap for women, even thought it contradicts itself by romanticizing the Auntie/Dead fiancé relationship. But the movie is like “eyeroll” at hetero coupling, so there are some subversive elements.
Kristine: For sure!
Sean: Remember when the girls quiz Mrs. Teacher about her impending marriage (this foreshadows the fact that Gorgeous now has a new stepmother) and they’re like “I’m sure he loves you more than anything” and they insist it’s going to be amazing, but Mrs. Teacher says it’s an arranged marriage.
Kristine: I was going to say that!
Sean: Jinx! She’s like, ‘Um. girls don’t even think it. Just stink it.’
Kristine: Yeah, all the examples of hetero coupling are either utterly fucked or utterly tragic. Mrs. Teacher is our first coded lesbian character, also. All wistful…
Sean: I had remembered, for some reason, that the movie ended with Gorgeous’s stepmother saving her from the house…. How wrong I was.
Kristine: Hee hee.
Sean: Gorgeous totally Hiroshima/Nagasakis her stepmother at the end! I had forgotten what a bleak, evil ending this movie has. I was like, ‘This movie is an explosion of serious girl id.’
Kristine: It is. I don’t think I picked up on all of it when we saw it in the theatre (which was the funnest time ever, btw). I was too overwhelmed by the utterly charming insanity of it all.
Sean: Agreed. This movie is such a visual overload/onslaught of madcap insanity that most (if not all) of the subtext goes completely unnoticed. It requires multiple viewings to even begin to decode. But when you rewatch it, you realize the whole thing is swirling with anxieties about girlhood crushes, pregnancy/having babies, lesbianism, menstruation, etc.
Kristine: Um, totally agreed. Like that crazy blood-letting/baby-screaming scene near the end!
Sean: There are like, tons of babies and disembodied baby crying. Even Snowflake the cat’s (horrible and unnerving) meows sounded like babycries to me after a while. In fact, the girls’ summer camp is cancelled because the woman who runs it has gotten pregnant, which frees them up to all go become virginal sacrifices at the haunted house.
Kristine: Auntie is totally a vengeful Miss Havisham figure, yes? Remember when Gorgeous explains that Auntie is “longing to marry, and thus lives on after her death. And when unmarried girls come here, she eats them up. Only then can she carry her bridal gown.” The whole idea of the deranged bride, obsessed with her wedding day to the point where she becomes a monster, seems like a pretty great critique of the archetype of the blushing bride.
Sean: Yes! Jinx! I wrote “evil Japanese Miss Havisham” in my notes. And Gorgeous, remember, puts on the bridal gown once she’s been “taken over” by the house. So brides = monsters in this universe (which brings us back to Ryoko the stepmother/patriarchal emissary).
Kristine: Auntie is a fun evil Japanese Miss Havisham though! And she is serving up serious dyke glamour.
Sean: I did not live for her blonde bob.
Kristine: It is not blonde! It is steel gray. She is amazing!!
Sean: She’s a total bottle blonde.
Kristine: You are being an ignoramous.
Sean: She’s all “Make me look like Charlize Theron” to her stylist.
Kristine: You’re beyond ridic. You know nothing about style icons. Auntie would be the best Halloween costume. Complete with eyeball in mouth.
Sean: No, but seriously. The movie is this: “I hate stepmothers so I am going to run to the nearest approximation of my dead/lost mother – her sister – and seek solace and bring all my girlfriends to make a feminist utopia.” When Gorgeous writes to her aunt, she says she wants “to let you comfort me in mummy’s place.” But then it all goes to bloody hell.
Kristine: I agree with your synopsis.
Sean: Auntie wants to molest all the girls, right? She is sort of a predo-lez.
Kristine: Yes. She wants to eat them. Remember when the girls first come to the house and one asks what happened to Auntie’s legs (since she is in a wheelchair), and she says, “It doesn’t matter, I have you now.” That’s foreshadowing of how she is going to “consume” their bodies, right? Via the house?
Sean: It went from the idyllic pre-sexual homosocial bliss of girlhood friendship to like, serious menstrual anxiety where the girls are floating in a torrent of period blood. That bursts from a pussy’s hole.Kristine: The period stuff hits close to home. I know I have told you I have had my period for like, two straight months.
Sean: So you agree it was total menstrual bloodbath? I mean, it literally scatters and washes the girls away from one another, drowns one, etc.
Kristine: Oh yeah, a menstrual bloodbath on par with The Descent. You know, maybe society has been right all this time. Being a female is absolutely monstrous.
Sean: Well, clearly this movie agrees with you, from the “O” in House being a ladymouth with monster teeth (a.k.a. a big ol’ vagina dentata).
Kristine: And for doing the classic thing of equating powerful women with witchcraft. In fact, the very first time we see Gorgeous she’s posing for a photo in which she’s dressed “like a witch from a horror movie.” So, right away the movie is foreshadowing her ultimate fate.
Sean: It does seem kind of sexist, the whole thing. This movie is basically just a Freudian explosion right?
Kristine: Well, Freud + Jung.
Sean: Via Scooby-Doo, menses rituals, and ’70s animation. Yes, you’re right about Jung.
Kristine: Freud + Jung + I was going to say Scooby-Doo!!!
Sean: Prof even loses her glasses, á la Velma.
Sean: Who is your favorite girl?
Kristine: Mac! Duh.
Sean: Of course, the potato lover.
Kristine: I must be tiresome and point out that Mac is not fat. Or chubby. Just for the record!
Sean: But she is proud of her love for food, and her girlfriends’ teasing is not meanspirited about it. They’re just like, ‘A bitch likes to eat. What of it?’
Kristine: Her insatiable appetite = totally Freudian.
Sean: Explain that to me. I am not up on my Freud.
Kristine: I am no expert, but I recall from Freud the idea that ladies are messed up because they are socialized to deny their appetites around things like sex and food. Freud says the “feeding drive” (disgusting term) is stronger than the sex drive. I think this movie backs that up. The girls “consume” their individual interests and passions, right?
Sean: Well, one of my favorite moments of displacement is how the movie subs the watermelon they eat for Mac’s body, so that when Auntie is eating it, it’s a moment of total cannibalism. Actually, they all consumer her body like some ancient sacrifice (shades of Edith’s cake in Picnic at Hanging Rock which is, btw, this House‘s sister film).
Sean: Oh yeah. For sure.
Kristine: Especially how they deal with “archetypes” of female character (like how in House the girls are identified by names like Kung Fu, Prof, Gorgeous, Sweet, Fantasy, etc.)
Sean: Yes, totally. Is Mac really your favorite?
Kristine: Truthfully, I don’t have a favorite. I mean, Kung Fu is lots of fun but she’s not necessarily my fave. Do you have one?
Sean: Hmmm…. Probably Gorgeous, just for being a bitch diva sitting at a vanity while her friends all die around her. She hears the blood-curdling screams of her friends and is too busy like, applying eyeshadow to care. I love how her friends call her “fashion puppy.”
Kristine: Is it Fantasy who is watching Gorgeous, closing one eye and then the other?
Sean: I don’t remember that but probably, because she is the one who is in charge of cameras the whole movie, including in that first moment where she’s photographing Gorgeous dressed as a witch. She’s also the “Cassandra” who witnesses all the deaths but is never believed until finally she is enveloped in a lesbian/breastfeeding embrace by Gorgeous.
Kristine: Hee hee. This film is so wonderfully nuts.
Sean: Completely. So the other thing I had not remembered was how the whole movie is basically about the cultural trauma inflicted on Japan during WWII, especially concerning the bombings of Hiroshima/Nagasaki. Auntie’s fiancé is killed in the war, and that sets off all the uncanny/supernatural goings-on.
Kristine: Yeah, but I have to say all that fell flat for me. I think it is sincere on the part of Ôbayashi, but it didn’t really resonate that much for me other than establishing a standard of “manliness” for the girls to rebel against. I did love when the fiancé’s plane went down and he is this stoic robot.
Sean: Oh I loved all of it! When Gorgeous’ parents get married in the b&w flashback, the flash of the wedding photographer’s camera becomes the Hiroshima/Nagasaki mushroom clouds? And then when Auntie and her lover kiss in the flashback all the girls chant “Kiss of fire!” (and as they kiss, the filmstock melts).
Kristine: Sure, but as a theme that ran throughout the entire film? No.
Sean: Plus one of the first supernatural acts performed by Auntie/Snowflake is to break Fantasy’s camera (a callback to the Hiroshima flash). Going back to Peeping Tom, Auntie destroys the mechanism for recording information and looking.
Kristine: Yes, but yawn.
Sean: Another thing I liked was how the far-off sound of a plane would suddenly intrude on a scene.
Kristine: That was the one part of the WWII-theme that I thought really worked. And seemed true to Auntie’s Miss Havisham-esque PTSD.
Kristine: I liked the plane rumblings a lot.
Sean: Me too. There was one moment where Kung Fu is outside and is just like, “It sure is nice here in the country!” and then the sound of a plane intrudes and she just goes all melancholy, then the scene ends. I loved all those weird little moments.
Sean: That dead fiancé is really the only male/romantic figure the movie takes seriously. Gorgeous’ father comes off like a putz, and the movie keeps cutting back to Mr. Togo, the teacher who Fantasy has a crush on, as he journeys towards the house, as if he might rescue them all. But then he’s just turned into a bunch of bananas and it’s a total anti-climax.
Kristine: Yes, and there’s even a snide cut-away of Togo rescuing Fantasy on a white horse like some knight errant. The movie is making fun of those hero fantasies. Prof tells her, “He’s a man. You can rely on him!” and it feels sarcastic.
Sean: All those moments where the movie undercuts the classic tropes of romance were great. But I honestly don’t know what to make of the movie’s closing monologue about love. What exactly is the point of it?
Kristine: Wait, remind me of the speech?
Sean: Gorgeous-as-Auntie ends the movie by saying, “Even when the body decays, you may always live on in the heart of another together with the love of that person. Therefore the story of love must always be retold. So that the one you love can live on forever. Live forever, the feelings of the beloved, which never fades, only one promise… That is love.”
Kristine: Oh that. Ugh. That’s just a bunch of nonsense. What’s more important is the movie ends with all the girls basically having been turned into lesbian vampires. Remember when Gorgeous tells Ryoko, “They’ll soon wake up. They’re all hungry. One always wakes up, if one has hunger.” The movie’s ending is bleak and anti-romantic. That nonsense speech about love is just the ramblings of the deranged ghost bride.
Sean: So we’re not meant to take those words at face value, but instead to see them as evidence of her derangement?
Kristine: That’s what I’d say.
Kristine: So as I understand it, this film was basically forgotten, or not seen by foreign audiences at any rate, and then Criterion picked it up and it started screening at art houses outside of Japan and gained a cult following. Yes?
Sean: Correct. It was never screened in the United States until 2010.
Kristine: That’s so wild. Doesn’t it make you wonder what other amazing, crazy films are out there that we probably will never see? I wonder who at Criterion picked it up.
Sean: No idea.
Kristine: We Americans aren’t used to the world not knowing about our cultural artifacts. It seems unthinkable to us that there would be a movie that many Americans had seen, but that hadn’t been screened outside of the US. I am totally obsessed with all the art we don’t even know about.
Sean: I guess… I don’t know, I assume that’s true of all kinds of movies… But maybe not? Since the Internet age, I feel like we all have access to each other’s shit.
Kristine: But who knows if that is really true.
Sean: I just remember the 1980s and trying to find rare movies on VHS and how hard it was.
Kristine: Yes! And mail-ordering records and Doc Martens…
Sean: Right. Compared to that, this is an era of amazingness. Like, no Mexican horror movies were available to me back when I was a teen. So I just think this resurgence of visibility for House is pretty cool. I’d like to see that happen for more weird cult objects.
Kristine: I am aware this is not a sophisticated thought, but I remember when I learned about John Kennedy Toole and I got deeply freaked out and depressed thinking about all of other Tooles out there (both living and dead) who have created amazing works, but unlike JKT or Henry Darger (outsider artist), their stuff was never discovered. It freaks me out. Until that moment, I never knew that I had always naively believed that all you have to do is create good work and it will be recognized and find an audience.
Sean: Yes…. But I find it hard to get worked about that because I have the opposite anxiety. How much art and writing and film is all ready at my fingertips and I’ll never possibly be able to get to it all in my lifetime.
Kristine: Very true.
Sean: So, do you have a favorite death scene in House?
Kristine: Oh, I love Melody and the piano. How first the piano chomps her fingers off and she is totally elated. And then, as it drags her body inside the machinery, she is stripped of her clothes and we get this crazy visual of girl parts, like some René Magritte painting, or the infamous Hustler cover of a woman going through the meat grinder.
Sean: Wow! Remember how Prof wants to think of the house as a “mechanism” that can be figured out?
Sean: The piano is a great metaphor for the evil machine. I noticed this weird moment where Mac doesn’t seem to know what a stove is, and then Auntie says the fridge isn’t working so “Why not use the natural fridge?” So appliances and other modern consumer products don’t work in the house, right? I dug how the house is this classic Gothic space in which the only “machines” that work are old pianos, giant clocks, music boxes, etc…. Nothing modern.
Kristine: I totally agree with you on the antiquated machinery of the house. Love that. What was your favorite death?
Sean: Sweet! When she is attacked by mattresses and feathers? It was the most sexual thing that has ever happened. And how her attack is foreshadowed by the appearance of that creepy doll? Which is another expression of anxiety about children/babies/procreation? But the best is that when Prof and Kung Fu investigate Sweet’s disappearance, they find only her apron and her bra – that’s all that’s left of her. They also find Snowflake and the doll (now also naked) and Sweet’s panties and one of the girls is like, “These panties stink!” I was dying. I also loved when Sweet later appeared to Kung Fu inside the clock, getting ground up and turned into green goo by the giant clock gears.
Kristine: OMG. When she was huffing her panties?
Kristine: Again, like Melody, she is “stripped” by the house.
Sean: Yes. Prof is also stripped naked when she falls into the ocean of menstruation.
Kristine: Auntie is a super freak.
Sean: But it cracked me up they were like “Here’s her um… apron (symbol of domesticity) and here’s her bra (symbol of budding sexuality).”
Sean: Snowflake was the bitchiest cat ever. Even worse than Jonesy.
Kristine: Snowflake rules. Sean, “Old cats can open doors but only ghost cats can close them again.”
Sean: I sort of hated Snowflake.
Kristine: Inappropriate. And unacceptable.
The Girl’s Rating: Stylistic triumph AND Pop perfection AND Batshit insanity
The Freak’s Rating: Stylistic triumph AND Pop perfection AND Batshit insanity