House ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

In several ways, House is an adolescent film. Obviously, it is about adolescents. Additionally, the picture was director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s first feature film, and cast largely with similarly inexperienced actors — their collective first, fumbling foray into the feature-length thing.

But most centrally, what I mean is that House is the perfect film to see when YOU are an adolescent. The film, commissioned as a summer horror picture intended to evoke Jaws, was a smash hit with the contemporary teenybopper crowd. I saw it decades after, when I was seventeen years old; rewatching it several years later, and enjoying it in a really visceral manner, I nevertheless confirm my suspicion that my first viewing happened at the perfect age for it to imprint on my brain.

The adolescence of it all is epitomized by the fact that when seeing it in 2014, I fell in love with the girls: main character Gorgeous, a fashionista; assertive athlete Kung Fu; eating machine Mac; brainiac Prof; talented musician Melody; timid Fantasy; and sweet, uh, Sweet. Their youthful vibrancy is attractive to young and old, but when you are an adolescent too, and you feel like you are their contemporaries despite the gap in time and space, you feel like you are them and they are you — you could be them or have them, or suffer as they eventually do.

That youthful vibrancy is the beating heart of the film; most obviously, they are young and cute, but they are also boisterous and full of energy. They are also willing to act on a lark, as they do when deciding to all visit Gorgeous’ spinster aunt, who lives alone in the small town Gorgeous was born in. Gorgeous is also young enough to throw a tantrum when she is introduced to the woman her father wishes to marry, clinging to the memory of her late mother. Even at her young age, there is a deeper youth she is unable to access, and mourns.

Mournful nostalgia is also embodied in her aunt, whose fiancée died in World War II, leaving her trapped in painful limbo, yearning for unattainable happiness. Being grown presents incipient disappointment to the young women. Gorgeous’ dad is a good father, but he lets her down by deigning to remarry several years after mom’s death. Mr. Tojo, despite Fantasy’s dream of him as a knight in shining armor, is a bumbling fool literally reduced to an object of impotence. A female teacher is getting married, but when the girls state it must be for love, she replies it is an arranged marriage; the girls’ juvenescent romanticism buts up against reality. By dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse, Auntie’s fiancée will never become a lame old head; he is forever frozen in amber as the epitome of youthful potentiality, and becomes, in death, the most important character in the film.

The supernatural twist of House— Auntie is actually dead, and her spirit uses magical powers to absorb the bodies and life force of unmarried women — asks to what extent a person would go to recapture the boundless possibilities of lost youth. Auntie succeeds, it seems, in her quest — at the end of the film, she has possessed Gorgeous, and when she meets dad’s squeeze in the final scene of the film, she promptly burns her to a crisp. In a fit of pique, Gorgeous might have done the same if she was capable; in this way, we see that Auntie’s murderous magic is intended to mirror the vitality of heat-of-the-moment violence that young people often commit. But Auntie is not hot-headed like a real young bull — she is considered and careful. She can posture as a young person — even embody them. But she is marked with the cynicism of age. She can never again be that innocent girl with a beautiful man and a bright future. After all, she is literally dead — the difference between that and lonely, bitter adulthood, it seems, is semantic.

House is a perfect film for adolescents because it expresses its truths with engaging flair that is most effectively engaged with by an interlocutor who is not marked with the cynicism of age. Its cinematic crudeness is most readily embraced by the young and young at heart. They find it easier to accept the vamping of the actors and the campiness of the tone… and the special effects are certainly campy. Undeniably crude and far from “realistic,” they nevertheless very effectively create the atmosphere of, as many others have noted before, a nightmare. The images on the screen evoke (the intended) strong feelings when you are watching; then, after the film is over, it is hard to find the words to describe exactly what you have just seen. The score does a lot of heavy lifting: it is cute and jolly yet simultaneously elegiac and even wistful. Even a teenager can understand, when hearing it, what it feels like for one’s youth to be history.

On this latest rewatch, I realized the actresses I had felt such kinship with as a teenager were in their sixties. House is quite literally a piece of their history; with every passing year, the stage of my life where the film clicked with me so strongly is solidified as my own history, too. That brief time in your life before adulthood is all the teenager has ever known; then, it is in the rearview mirror, and getting smaller all the while. At that age where you think you know everything, House suggests you don’t — and you should enjoy it while it lasts.