Release Date(s)1977 (October 26, 2010)
Studio(s)Janus Films (Criterion - Spine #539)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
The nutshell: a group of seven teenage girls spend the night in a house that turns out to be haunted. The catch: this is no ordinary haunted house. Seemingly the work of a madman set loose with a film crew, House (known as Hausu overseas) is one of the most artfully insane pieces of celluloid ever to grace a movie screen.
From the brilliant minds of director Nobuhiko Obayashi, his daughter Chigumi Obayashi and screenwriter Chiho Katsura, House is not so much a film as it an experience. It sticks with you long after you’ve seen it and, if you’re like me, you have to go back and watch it again. It’s been seen by many as a stream of consciousness from the minds of the characters (young women) in the film, or to others as simply an exercise in experimental filmmaking. It was an art house favorite in the late 1970’s and developed a very minor cult following, but this is the first official U.S. release of it on any home video format. The fact that it got a release at all is reason enough to celebrate, let alone being picked up by one of the most respected names in the home entertainment market: Criterion. The editing and pace of the film can be compared to modern works like Domino, but this film also contains an enormous grab bag of in-camera effects and filming techniques that distinguishes it more prominently. Matte paintings, animation, crash-zooms, various frame rates, alternate angles, video effects, constant panning, color-filtered lighting… well, you get the idea. I could go on and on, but the bottom line here is that this film must be seen to be believed.
Now before I get into the A/V quality of this disc, I’d like to start off by clearing up a discrepancy. There’s been some minor controversy regarding the film’s aspect ratio, due mainly to the Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD. On that release, a cropped 1.55:1 presentation was utilized from the original negative. The reasons for this are unknown, as far as my research has lead me to believe. It may have simply been just a simple error. In that presentation, you can see a slight bit more of visual information on the left and right sides due to the wider aspect ratio. The film itself was originally shot using 35mm film stock, processed and then cropped to a 1.33:1 aspect ratio for theatrical release, which was the preference of Nobuhiko Obayashi himself and what is being presented on this Criterion release. I personally prefer to see it the way it was intended to be seen, but the improper cropping on the R2 release has left some videophiles wondering if they’re getting the full picture. If you want to be technical about it, no, you’re not getting entirely what was shot. If the image hadn’t been cropped for release, the dead space in the negative (the black bars on each side of the screen) would most likely contain instances of crew members standing in shot, special effects set-ups, shadows, equipment, etc. The point is that it was shot with full screen totally in mind so you’re getting exactly what was intended. Now that that’s settled, let’s move on.
As far as image quality goes, no previous release can surpass it. The images are crystal clear with a very consistent and barely noticeable amount of film grain. Colors are vibrant and strong while the contrast is Criterion’s usual high without overexposing the image. People have complained for years about the quality of the image due to it being available only on bootlegs, but now one can marvel at the striking visual detail of a hungry piano, a demon cat, or a flying blood-spewing decapitated head. The great quality does tend to reveal the crudity of some of the special effects work, but none of that matters to me in a film like this. Rest assured, this is a marvelous-looking picture.*
The original uncompressed mono soundtrack has also been included. I found it to be surprisingly boastful in areas, and just like the visuals, the audio is mixed for a completely batshit experience. I can only imagine how this movie would play with a 5.1 presentation (it would really suit it, in my opinion). It’s a very pleasing soundtrack that’s just completely off the wall. There’s also a “new and improved” optional subtitle track that is supposedly more accurate in its translation than the aforementioned R2 release.
Supplementing the package are a few extras including a short film by the director entitled Emotion, which was a hit on college campuses in Japan and eventually lead to the making of House. There’s also a 46 minute documentary entitled Constructing a “House”, which features interviews with the director, his daughter and the screenwriter. There’s a brief 4 minute video appreciation by director Ti West (House of the Devil) and also the theatrical trailer. Last, but not least, is a 22 page booklet featuring an essay by film critic Chuck Stephens. A couple of disappointments I have with this set is that it doesn’t include the 90 minute documentary from the Masters of Cinema release, which featured additional interviews and possibly covered more ground on the making of the film. A rights issue is most likely the reason for it not being included, so maybe we’ll see it in a future release. I would have also liked to have seen a stills and artwork collection of some sort. Other than that, this a very nice set of extras to complement such a great release.
Let me be clear here and say that House simply won’t be for everyone. This is not a movie you can just throw on and not put much thought into while you’re watching it. You’ll find yourself being constantly bombarded with visual information in the most insane and creative ways possible. It’s simply too much for some people to take in, and you might feel a little exhausted after sitting through it. But if you’re someone who’s tired of humdrum horror fodder and you’re looking for an experience like no other, I highly recommend House, in all of its psychotic glory.
- Tim Salmons