The best thing to do with complex topics, I have found, is to ease into them simply. So: House. This is, apparently, what you get when an experimental filmmaker, Obayashi Nobuhiko, who turned to making TV commercials to make ends meet, was given the chance by a big studio to direct what it hoped would be a valid homegrown competitor to Jaws. Though what, exactly, Toho saw in the scenario for this film that indicated on any level "will appeal to the Jaws crowd" is beyond me, and that's before we get to the finished project, which goes so far beyond anything that could possibly have been implied by a scenario...

House, anyway, certainly drew a lot more from the "experimental filmmaker" side of the equation than any studio would ever hope for, and I'd be inclined to call what resulted to be one of the purest horror movies I could even imagine, let alone that I've seen, if only I was totally comfortable with the inclination that "horror" is the box House fits in most comfortably. It's genuinely unclassifiable, resembling something like a particularly florid Dario Argento movie with all the interstitials removed that more or less explain the rudimentary plot, and that cross-cut with a meta-movie whose mercilessly insincere staging is basically a parody of the act of filmmaking itself. But any comparison, even one as convoluted as that, implies that House exists on some kind of continuum where you can really compare it to other movies as a means of clarifying what it is and what it does, and that's just not the case at all.

Still, the film does have a plot, so let's go through it, just to have something we can hang our hat on later. And there's a certain fact about this plot that's absolutely revelatory, explaining just about everything of why the film works in the particular way it does: while the final script was written by Katsura Chiho, he was just fleshing out a story written by Obayashi's 11-year-old daughter Chigumi. We're going to return to that. In the meanwhile, let's meet some 16-year-old schoolgirls, beginning with Gorgeous (Ikegami Kimiko) - there's no indication that it's not her actual, given name - whose father (Sasazawa Saho) has just returned from a job scoring a movie in Italy (Sergio Leone, he brags, thinks he's better than Ennio Morricone, a random aside that I loved about as much as I loved anything else in this supremely lovable movie). And they're all set to go on vacation, but her father wants to bring along a surprise guest: his new fiancΓ©e, Ema Ryoko (Wanibuchi Hariko). This feels like a betrayal of the worst sort to the memory of Gorgeous's mother, so she writes off a passionate letter to her aunt, begging for permission to come visit with six of her friends. Despite the fact that they've only met once, ten years prior, a letter comes back enthusiastically agreeing with the suggestion.

So out to the country travels Gorgeous, along with her aunt's white Persian cat Blanche, and six friends: Fantasy (Ohba Kumiko), Kung Fu (Jinbo Miki), Prof (Matsubara Ai), Mac (Sato Mieko), Melody (Tanaka Eriko), and Sweet (Miyako Masayo). Armed with their seven dwarfish names and personalities to match (Mac, incidentally, is short for "stomach", because she's fat - and fucking hell, but if hers is the kind of body type that the Japanese regard as fat in a teenage girl, it's a more messed up country than I would have ever guessed), the girls tromp off to find Auntie (Minamida Yoko), a striking but frail white-haired woman in a wheelchair, with a large and somewhat cobwebby but still inviting house. And also an uncommented-upon tendency to talk to her young guests in language that would be hard pressed to communicate "I'm going to kill you and drain your essence to restore my own vitality" more clearly without stating it outright.

Things get really weird once the house starts to work its evil will on the girls, and I wouldn't want to give away what happens even if I thought I could, because House has a level of gonzo invention and absurdist ingenuity that's unworthy of being spoiled and also, honestly, impossible to spoil. And even at almost four decades old, the film remains sufficiently unknown in the English-speaking world (where it's only been available in any systematic way since 2009) that it remains far more obscure than its level of achievement deserves.

And besides, it's long before this point that makes the movie such a one-of-a-kind experience has made itself manifest. That happens from the beginning, really, with the film announcing itself (in English text) as "A Movie", before the title comes up (also in English), as a gutturally low male voice utters the Japanese interpretation of that word, generally rendered as hausu, while a pair of animated lips replace the "O" and act generally carnivorous and menacing. Also, it's in the boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio of old movies, which in 1977 stands out as a pretty ballsy choice, letting us know right off that this is going to be a very different movie with visuals that are going to call a lot of attention to themselves.

Oh, do they ever. Within about the first five seconds of the movie proper, we've already been introduced to heavy tinting and an editing technique that I don't think has a name, where the frame freezes and dissolves at the same time, so the movement stops in a ghostly way and yet moves on underneath its ghostly self. It's so disorienting that it doesn't even register as being cheesy and low-rent, which is true of a great deal of the imagery in House. The visual effects are at a level of aggressive crudeness that's doubly jarring when we note that the film premiered the same year as Star Wars: where that film represented astounding new leaps in how effects work could create new realities, House is basically an experiment in seeing how transparently chintzy you can make things before it breaks the film entirely.

But it works! This is a movie that's not going to be broken by things like fakery or discontinuity or inexplicable character logic, all of which are present in abundance - heck, the omnipresent use of beautifully painted but thoroughly unpersuasive backdrops is so complete that the movie's even able to make a visual joke at its own expense about it, when one such backdrop turns out to just be the painted wall of a train depot. It is, rather a movie in which fakery and confused artifice are precisely the point of the thing. Like avant-gardists given the keys to a real studio picture before and after himself, one of Obayashi's guiding interests was in ripping apart all of the rules and aesthetic framework of normal moviemaking to craft something that works in a completely foreign idiom.

There are, I presume, socio-cultural and political reasons why Obayashi might have wanted to do this, but I don't think we really even need to go that far. What House does immensely well is to create a pervasive, non-stop impression of a completely deranged and inexplicable world from the very beginning, long before the titular location makes its presence known. It's not, then, like the contemporaneous Suspiria, in that its narrative discohesion and madcap visual style are specifically justified within the story by a setting in which the rules of reality and sanity are bent. In House, it's the whole damn world that's insane, and the impression one gets is that Obayashi wasn't just thinking of the world within the movie, either.

But again, let's keep it simple. The non-stop bizarre gestures in House, with every scene just about feeling like it's operating according to a completely new set of rules for how to construct and combine images (it's a great film to watch if you're easily bored: ten minutes never go by without it feeling like an entirely new movie has started), and the horrifying moments so outrΓ© and purposefully cheap that it's honestly impossible to tell half the time if laughing or screaming is the more appropriate response, are part of the more basic requirement that the film sets for itself and fully achieves: make a movie about a haunting and a demon who drives her victims mad before killing them, and make sure that its entire fabric of being is as chaotic and inexplicable and anti-normal as the haunting and the madness are themselves. House torments us as comprehensively as Auntie torments the girls; and they, like we, are apparently split in half between whether to find it fascinating and enjoyable or creepy and terrifying.

Because it's not just a bombastically surreal movie, it's a frequently hilarious one. Partially because of the randomness of it all, where every new visual trick Obayashi pulls out is so weird that it's hard not to giggle, partially because of the well-timed reliance on comically reiterated motifs in the visuals and the audio (the soundtrack is dominated by a handful of character themes that lurch in and out dramatically, like the film itself only realises after a few frames which character it's paying attention to now), partially from things so outright absurd that just from the concept they're a little bit hysterical.

So anyway, I'd like to bring things back to little Obayashi Chigumi, from whose mind all of this glorious weirdness sprung. And that, I think, is why House creates that feeling of having the bottom fall out over and over again, reality crumbling, cinema itself broken into fragments of ideas that jam against each other instead of setting each other up. It's a stream-of-consciousness piece conceived by a kid, one whose capacity to imagine strange, disconnected nonsense hadn't been tamed by discipline, maturity, and a fully-developed brain. I think that's why House is so flawlessly able to create a truly deranged sense of what happens when the paranormal assaults the rational, above and beyond even the very great horror films by folks like Argento and Fulci working in the same vein: those filmmakers were using adult calculation to create an impression of what madness looks like. Obayashi fille had no adult logic to unlearn, and could simply roll out a story of ghosts and monster cats and aggressive killer houses that followed the arbitrary flow of a dream or a nightmare or just a childish sense of an eternal Now with no recourse to past or present, and even though House in its complete state has the feel of a film in which the writing was a complete afterthought, I'm convinced that it's only because it started from a scenario that came from such a source that it was freed up to achieve everything it did as a work of visual surrealist horror and structural chaos.

Body Count: ...ten?