Monday, September 16, 2013

Vamp or Not? House

When I get a late night text about a film telling me that it is definitely of genre interest, perhaps even vampire – all in capitals, no less – then I am tempted to check it out as soon as possible. When I discover that, in the UK, it is part of the excellent Masters of Cinema series then my interest is doubly piqued.

The above is how I came across the 1977 Toho studios' release House (Hausu originally). A film by Japanese director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, whose short Emotion: densetsu no gogo = itsukamita Dracula was the subject of an Honourable Mention. The film is a bizarre pop culture and bubble gum foray into horror and certainly deserves to be looked at under “Vamp or Not?” My thanks to Leila for making me aware of it.

Angel and Fantasy
The opening scenes introduce us to two schoolgirls named Angel (Kimiko Ikegami) and Fantasy (Kumiko Ohba). All the girls in the film have nicknames that reveal their stereotype of character. Angel is our central character and other translations of her name render her as Gorgeous, Fantasy lives in a dream world. Fantasy is taking her picture and then the girls leave the school (having talked to a female teacher (Fumi Dan) about her upcoming marriage, which turns out to be arranged). It is soon the summer break and Fantasy, along with some other friends, is going away with a teacher called Mr Togo (Kiyohiko Ozaki), whereas Angel is due to go on a trip with her father (Saho Sasazawa). The tone of the film is wacky and comedic at this juncture, the soundtrack light and throwaway.

Haruko Wanibuchi as Ryôko Ema
When Angel gets home her father has already returned from working abroad. He explains that someone else will be going away with them and introduces Angel to Ryôko Ema (Haruko Wanibuchi), who is to be her new mother. Angel reacts badly to this and refuses to go. Heading to her room she looks at old photgraphs of her deceased mother (also Kimiko Ikegami), literally scrubs her father from a picture and wonders how her Auntie (Yôko Minamida) is. We then cut away and meet the other girls; Melody (Eriko Tanaka) who plays music, Sweetie (Masayo Miyako) who is helpful and happy, Prof (Ai Matsubara) who is studious, Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo) a martial artist and Mac (Mieko Satô) a plump girl who loves to eat. Later we hear that Mac is short for the English word stomach. The girls discover that their trip is cancelled – Mr Togo’s sister is expecting a baby and thus has closed her guesthouse. It is suggested that they visit Angel’s Auntie.

train journey
Angel writes to her and, as she awaits a letter back, she finds a white cat whom she adopts. A letter eventually comes (delivered, suspiciously, at night) agreeing that they can visit. A psychedelic train journey later – that feels like it came out of a Monkees’ episode and Cameos the band Godiego who performed for the soundtrack – and they arrive in the country. Mr Togo misses the train as he got his bottom stuck in a bucket and arranges to drive and catch them up.

aproaching the house
During the journey we are told that many cats are intelligent enough to open doors, but only a witch’s cat can close a door. Clearly this is in reference to Snowy, the cat that Angel found and has brought with her. After an encounter with a watermelon farmer (Asei Kobayashi) they reach the house and meet Auntie who is wheelchair bound and has the cat on her lap. Fantasy tries to take a photograph but we see the cat’s eyes flash green, the camera lifts up out of her hands and breaks on the floor.

biting her bum
After an initial set-up in the house – including Auntie telling Mac that she is good enough to eat – the girls settle down for a meal. Mac goes to fetch a watermelon, which was kept in a well to keep it cool as the fridge was broken, and doesn’t return. Fantasy goes in search of her and pulls Mac’s disembodied head out of the well, which floats in the air and bites her bottom. Of course the others see nothing of this and put it down to one of Fantasy’s daydreams. Auntie then torments Fantasy for a while, letting her see her consume an eyeball for instance, and is soon so full of health that she has left her wheelchair. The girls become trapped and the house begins to consume them.

with Auntie in the garden
It is later revealed that Auntie’s fiancé (Tomokazu Miura) died during the (second world) war and, because he promised her he would return, she refused to leave the house. Eventually she died. She is described as a spirit and, although she consumes the girls whole not just their blood, this pushes us towards vampiric ghosts. During the day, whenever she goes outside, Auntie puts on dark glasses as she is frightened of the blinding sunlight. The consumption of the girls (she is said to feed on any girl of marriageable age) restores her health and vitality. The Masters of Cinema booklet describes her as undead.

There is also a possession element as she seems to possess Angel and, during this process, we see Angel's reflection with fangs. Later, when the girls see the possessed Angel in a wedding gown, it is noticeable that she has no reflection. However there is an element also of witchcraft. Witches, and their cat familiars, are directly mentioned and the cat was sent to Angel by Auntie to guide the girls to her. The house is possessed by or an extension of Auntie and so when it consumes one girl in a clock, her blood running through the mechanism, it is still Auntie consuming her. The entire idea of Auntie pining for her lost love and, when strong enough because she has eaten young women, being able to wear her unused wedding dress has an almost supernatural Miss Havisham aspect to it.

the cat 
Of course cats are important in the Japanese interpretation of vampirism. The traditional Japanese story, dating to somewhere between 14th and early 17th century and Anglicised in 1871, which is known in English as The Vampire Cat of Nabéshima, was loosely filmed in 1969 as Hiroku kaibyô-den. A cat was the source of the vampirism in the astounding 1968 film Kuroneko. We should also note that Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s earlier short, Emotion, was inspired by Vadim’s Blood and Roses, itself an interpretation of Carmilla in which the vampire’s shape-shifting preference was into the form of a cat.

Auntie toys with the girls
So we definitely have a creature once alive and now dead/undead with an all-consuming hunger, the sating of which provides vitality. The hunger is for girls of marriageable age (rather than just their blood) and it is associated with cats (and the connection that has to vampires in Japanese culture and classic western literature). The last thing to mention is that the girls are consumed but not gone, it is suggested that they will awaken (the next evening) and be hungry; thus it appears that they have been turned (into vampiric spirits, one assumes). I think that this strange movie with its unusual shots, deliberately childish sfx (much of the story was provided by Ôbayashi's young daughter and the effects homage that), bizarre and eclectic story and psychedelic heart should be classed as a vampire movie – specifically in the vampiric ghost sub-genre (possibly even a witch/vampire).

The imdb page is here.

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