House (Hausu; 1977, directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi) and The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971, directed by Robert Fuest) are almost international brothers, both bringing fantastic set design, acting that is equal parts creaky and overblown and mixing them with a baroque sense of horror. At times, it seems that both films have merely adopted horror because it offers the least limitations on the directors’ imaginations; after all, anyone seeking legitimate ‘scares’ from either of these films is sure to be disappointed, unless they harbour deep-seated fears of being eaten alive by pianos, or covered in the pure essence of brussels sprouts and then eaten alive by locusts.
I watched House in a packed midnight movie (arranged to coincide with what’s bound to be a great edition by Eureka!) and the consensus opinion seemed to be (fairly legitimately) What. The. Fuck. People sailing on seas of cat’s blood, men turned into piles of bananas, watermelon-headed girls biting each others’ bottoms. It’s a gymnastic exercise in headfuckery. But the undertone of the WTFing was that almost all of its oddness was due to its Japanese origins. House is clearly a work of great artistry and to attribute the pleasure it delivers to a kitsch or ironic sensibility is insulting to the artist who took the time to gloriously weird you out. It’s very easy to forget our sense of humour when we imbibe things from foreign cultures, or rather their sense of humour. Few would attribute Haneke’s pessimism about humanity to his Austrian background, and it seems a shame to forget Obayashi is more than a product of ‘weird’ Japan. There’s too much skill and art involved to be accidental or to be interpreted through the filter of kitsch. As Susan Sontag says ‘You can’t do camp on purpose.’
If we look at …Dr Phibes by contrast, it seems that this is closer to being accidentally fantastic than Hausu.
Vincent Price is at his sneering best but it’s with one decision that the film becomes incredibly memorable: Price is stripped of his distinctive voice for the majority of the film. It’s the elephant in the room, and it offers Price the opportunity to communicate his arch-villainy in movement and facial expression that are the perfect counterpart to his voice. A perfect example is when Dr Phibes is killing one of his early victims, a man with a penchant for pornography (Terry-Thomas, doing his best bounder). Having removed all of his blood, he contemplates the eight red bottles on the mantlepiece with satisfaction. He walks offscreen and we expect a cut away. Instead Price reenters the shot and gives a perturbed look at a Rubens-esque nude on the wall, then looks with supercilious scorn at Terry-Thomas and the audience. It’s a magical moment, the murderer disgusted by the pornographer, and perhaps further disgusted at the viewer for enjoying the spectacle of both.
…Dr Phibes is really made from the same genetic code as Saw or any of its six sequels, except it has the self-awareness (and humour) to truly commit to the juvenile premise of a killer revenging himself in the most outlandish ways possible. Most of the deaths one could imagine consuming reams of A4 paper on some afternoon double Chemistry lesson in Year 10. Once you’ve seen a man impaled by a bronze unicorn, then unscrewed by revolving his whole body, you can’t back down, and it’s a testament to the filmmakers that they ramp up the baroque deaths until the last scenes.
Packing more ideas than is even remotely decent, it’s hard to imagine someone not finding them curious, amusing or artful. It’s easy to laugh at these films, but the jokes on you if you think either filmmakers not in on it.
I think Lisa Katamaya hits the nail on the head about ‘weird’ Japan here.
That said, sometimes they are an odd bunch.
(directed by Obayashi himself and starring Charles Bronson).
The cinematrices post that demanded I see Hausu in all its glory.
Some stills I put together for …Dr Phibes.