||[Aug. 11th, 2012|01:48 pm]
Thanks to the kindness of friends, I have seen a number of movies recently--award winning and otherwise. (Sometimes very otherwise.) This raises the question, "Bruce, why are you writing about a 35 year old Japanese horror film that was essentially undistributed in the U.S. until 2009/2010 instead of something a bit more recent?" The answer is "Because it was interesting in a slow train-wreck way, and because elements of it have stuck strongly enough in my head to make a more detailed examination worthwhile." I will therefore attempt to give my impressions of the film without spoiling any goodies along the way--which is admittedly a mug's game.|
When it comes to horror films, and more particularly ghost stories, I admit I'm not an expert: I tend to cling to my copy of Danse Macabre by Stephen King like a copy of The Lonely Planet Guide to Horror, and firmly believe that if you want something to think about beyond immediate shock value you want names like Richard Matheson or Robert Bloch rather than Rob Zombie. (Because of my inexperience in the area I have been sternly told by scarlettina that I must watch The Cabin in the Woods as soon as practicable.) Keeping this in mind, it seems to me that ghost stories fall into three camps.
The first camp is what you might call "The assembly of the mechanism," wherein we see the process that causes the nasty thing to be formed and/or take up residence and the results thereof. The best example of this that I know of is actually a non-ghost film and is more of a reassembly of the mechanism than an assembly, namely Psycho II.
The second camp features an individual plunged into the middle of an ongoing haunting who has to deal (or fail to deal) with it, with their innate skills and weaknesses being the key to their success or failure. The Innocents is pretty much the film to beat when it comes to this camp--sorry about that, Nicole Kidman and Daniel Radcliffe, but thank you for playing!
The third camp is where a group of protagonists wanders into the middle of a haunting without understanding what's going on and gets creamed, one by one (survivors ideally hoped for by the audience, but decidedly optional). Bad examples of this group are what springs to mind when you hear the term "Dead Teenager Movie." Hausu is firmly in Category Three, but with enough unique elements to elevate it well above the bottom of that particular barrel.
This was producer/director Nobuhiko Obayash's first feature film after a successful career making commercials and advertising films. By various accounts the final shooting script was based on suggestions from his pre-teen daughter of what would be neat to see in a horror film, rather akin to the process that brought forth the online comic Axe Cop thirty years later. This would be a definite handicap in the case of, say, a comedy of manners, but in the case of suspense and horror films there are different dynamics in play.
As King points out when describing both the radio chiller A Trip to the Dentist by Arch Obler and the campfire tale about the "guy with The Hook," the basic plot of both stories is pretty damn stupid if you break them down--they just don't stand up to logical analysis. The reason both stories work and work well has to do with the way they're presented: at a certain point in the story you've left the real world behind and are in a far distant land from the sane, the mundane, and the logical without really realizing how or when you jumped the tracks and ended up in the cornfield. (A useful term describing this point was coined by, I believe, John Badham, who directed Blue Thunder and War Games. He called it "the refrigerator moment," and defined it as when the viewer gets home, goes into the kitchen, pours a glass of milk from the fridge, starts to drink, and says "Now wait a minute..." According to him, the director's job making a suspense film is to get you as far through that glass of milk as possible before "Now wait a minute..." hits, and it seems to me this applies even more when it comes to horror in general, and ghost stories in particular.)
This applies to Hausu in spades. The physical effects in the film are at the level of "Let's buy the physical effects team a beer" (and I love the one where a cat is supposed to leap into the shot but is very clearly pitched in from just out of the frame), and the optical effects are, if possible, even less impressive, probably because Obayash wanted them to look like the creations of a child. (The phrase "Be careful what you wish for" springs to mind--this ain't Paperhouse.) The story is less coherent than The Hook, although it's not as weak as the time I was on a schoolbus and someone breathlessly recited the non-musical version of Little Shop of Horrors. Hausu works, however, because the director labors like a switch-engine to set up the progression of events so that the milk moment never occurs to you through his visual style, through his editing, and through the bizarre twists he executes on what you expect in a story of this type.
We begin with some high-school girls due to go on a vacation from school--there's a brief introduction that sets up each one as having a name which sums up their chief attribute--along with their dreamboat teacher. Up to this point the film is shot as plain vanilla as you could imagine. The lead (called "Gorgeous"--we're not shooting for subtlety here) arrives home and learns her Beloved Composer Father has returned, in a series of scenes shot in a style somewhere between a love story and the life of Electra, whichever comes first. The next day BCF introduces a woman who he plans to marry almost immediately.
At this point Gorgeous writes to an aunt she hasn't seen since her mother's death asking if she and her friends can come to visit for their vacation, and the filming style changes again to emphasize small strange events happening in a way that does not match what we've seen so far at all. The aunt writes back and agrees, and when Gorgeous and her friends change their destination--the teacher will meet up with them later--the strange events and shooting style fade into the background.
We then get a short sequence where the girls ride a bus to their destination that brings to mind a 70's 7-UP commercial in spades, and seems to me to be where Obayash begins to use his experience with commercials to overtly set up a different world from the beginning of the film. The group arrives at the town nearest their destination and are directed by a reluctant villager (Torgo-level strange, of course) to the estate. The house is creepily run down, the aunt is enfeebled and elderly, and her cat looks as if it formerly belonged to Ernst Stavio Blofelt. The girls kick into action to help out around the house, which energizes the aunt in turn--just the way you'd expect in a commercial, with the difference being that as the girls begin to disappear we see both what happens to each and how the aunt gains more energy and becomes younger each time a girl has "an incident."
The fates of the victims bring to mind King's line about a scene making you unsure whether you should laugh or throw up--true "What the hell?" moments. (Without spoiling anything, one involves a melon and another involves a piano in such a way that I actually said "Now there's something you don't see every day, Chauncy" and began humming The Haunting Torgo Theme--you'll recognize both scenes if you rent it.) You could argue that this is no different than the Dead Teenager film of your choice, but in my limited experience with that genre the look-at-the-train-wreck aspect of who gets what and how has a lot less "WTH?" than Hausu, which is why I found Hausu interesting--the question is never as mundane as "will it be a knife, or an axe, or a rockhound's hammer behind the couch, under the bed, or in the Conservatory with Colonel Mustard?"
This ties in with what I've always thought of as "The Mary Poppins Rule," the best illustration of which is the difference between the way the novel Ringu handles its central premise and the way the Japanese film handles it. The book's author had written SF before Ringu, and he spends much time and effort setting up the mechanics of how and why the Big Bad works. The director of the Japanese film follows The Mary Poppins Rule: "I never explain anything." If X and Y take place, then Z happens without a lengthy explanation as to why or how: it just works. Hansu follows The Mary Poppins Rule in spades--or should I say lampshades?
For me, the last few incidents are a bit weak because while they are properly Tales of the Crypt "ironic" they aren't foreshadowed by the names and characteristics of the victims to the degree the earlier occurrences are. (The one that caused me to shout "Fruit Cart" truly comes out of nowhere--and isn't what you're thinking if you've heard that term.) The film concludes with the Big Bad fully operational, although in such a way that I found myself wondering at the end how is was ever going to pull this trick off again. Burnt Offerings, say, begins with active agents capable of luring victims, whereas the closest equivalent in Hausu would be hard-pressed to lure a cat with yarn. Since this Big Bad has, shall we say, more specialized dietary requirements then the one in Burnt Offerings that might explain why it first appears much more run down, busloads of schoolgirls visiting small villages and wandering into trap-door spider range being a less-common item than house renters in California--which I suppose is a Refrigerator Moment of sorts in itself.
I tend to come down on the John Huston/Burt Reynolds point of view on remakes: don't remake a classic--remake a film where something was wrong with the script, or the direction, or the acting, or the editing. When it comes to Hausu I'd have mixed feelings about a remake: God knows the technical could easily be improved on, as could the acting, and possibly the script. As far as the directing goes--well, that's another matter. You'd need a director as unafraid of going beyond the weird as Obayash was (probably because it was his first feature), which makes the pool of possible directors much smaller. Tim Burton could do so--Beetlejuice is clearly in a nearby subdivision of the imagination (which brings to mind my favorite theory that, out in California, E.T. and Poltergeist are happening at the same time in the same suburb)--but the question of how audiences could be lured into the theater if a new version appeared is not one I'd have an answer for.