Quick—what 1977 slapstick-horror movie features floating severed heads, a man transformed into a pile of fruit, a girl-eating piano, and the occasional stop-motion tangent? If you can’t answer now, you’ll be able to soon, because Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House is coming to town, and once you see it you won’t forget it. Never before released in the United States, this ever-growing cult phenomenon is finally seeing the light of a projector thanks to Janus Films, whose new print of the film begins at New York’s IFC Center this Friday, January 15, and then travels to cities across the country (click here for dates). On the eve of the official North American unveiling of this delightfully evil and more than a little goofy ghost story, we spoke with Janus Films’ Brian Belovarac about the rediscovery of a must-see mind-boggler, which Seattle Weekly has called “an effects-saturated dreamscape . . . It’s like Douglas Sirk on acid.”
How did Janus Films begin the process of bringing House to U.S. theaters for the first time?
House was originally brought into the Janus library as a possible Eclipse title, when Eclipse was conceived of as a possible subsidiary label for cult films. That changed, of course, and the film remained in limbo until we began to get a few screening requests from genre-savvy venues. It can be tough to convince theaters to book a repertory title that doesn’t have an established critical reputation, so we hadn’t originally thought of House as a theatrical release. It has developed a fair-size reputation on the gray market, where it’s been a staple for some time, but it’s such a blast to see with an audience that we did a small digital microtour in order to spread word of mouth. These screenings were successful beyond our expectations; we had two raucous, sold-out shows at the New York Asian Film Festival, and the film seems to have developed a cult-within-a-cult in every city it’s played.
Many viewers here—even cinephiles—will not have heard of director Nobuhiko Obayashi. Is he well-known in Japan?
Obayashi was already famous in Japan as a director of commercials before House, and its trailer even uses this as a selling point. And check out this Mandom ad—one of his nuttiest. He’s since directed almost forty films in many different genres, and is also a well-known television personality.
House is basically indescribable. But if you had to, how would you describe it?
An exhilarating grab bag of visual tricks, a disturbing satire that turns the giddy sheen of pop culture against itself, and an oddly moving coming-of-age allegory. I think it’s easy to praise the film as surreal, weird, etc., and leave it at that, but it’s a very carefully crafted work, and reveals a new layer with each viewing.