Thursday, August 16, 2012

Experiments in Unorthodox Horror: House (1977) and Detention (2012)



When crafting a horror film, directors use a variety of cinematic tropes to convey to the audience that the story they are watching belongs in the horror genre. Sometimes, the director may choose to get under the viewer's skin by keeping the source of terror off screen and only hinting at it through narrative hints and suggestive sound effects and camera angles. In other situations, the director may opt for graphic depictions of explicit violence and gore--either in brief and sudden bursts or repeatedly throughout the story--to keep the viewer anxious and off balance. But what happens when a director foregoes the mood-building techniques that are often associated with horror movies and chooses instead to utilize tropes from other genres to tell a story of dismemberment, death and despair?

Two examples of off-kilter horror can be found in Nobuhiko Ohbayashi's House (1977) and Joseph Kahn's Detention (2012). Even though these films are three decades apart, they both are coming-of-age horror films that are difficult to describe due to their unpredictable, illogical selection of counter-intuitive cinematic styles as a key part of their storytelling process. House is a dark fairy tale that's told in a psychedelic, stream-of-consciousness succession of images and moods, while Detention is self-referential teenage comedy/drama that's vigorously mashed together with time travel sci-fi, body horror and slasher film archetypes. Both films could have been scripted and shot as conventional horror movies, but the fact that they weren't makes them fascinating films to watching in their own right. Read on for my complete comparison.

House tells the story of Oshare (Kimiko Ikegami), a teenage schoolgirl who is looking forward to spending her summer vacation with her widowed father (Saho Sasazawa). Yet when she learns that her father's new girlfriend Ryoko (Haruko Wanibuchi) will be going with them on vacation, she decides to visit her aunt (Yoko Minamida) and brings several of her teenage friends along with her. When the girls start disappearing in the aunt's house, the surviving girls struggle to survive by fending off a slew of demonic, supernatural attacks, including a few from possessed furniture.


House is a hard movie to pin down in terms of what it's supposed to be. It's filled with horrific images, but it's not exactly a horror movie; it's campy and absurd, but it's not a comedy. It's frequently childish and immature, with scenes that could easily be inserted into a live-action TV show for kids, and yet it's not a film for children (at least by American standards). These observations may make House sound like an absolute mess of a film to watch, but it's not. In fact, I think that Ohbayashi's approach to how he filmed the script for House allows him to tell and haunting story of when adolescent idealism and naïveté collides with--and is annihilated by--the pain, possessiveness and sensuality of adulthood.

The movie focuses on Oshare and her friends, a group of teenagers who are reaching the end of their educational years. Each girl has a simple nickname that summarizes her personality: "Prof" is the nickname of the smart girl, "Melody" is the nickname of the girl who plays the piano, "Sweet" is the nickname of the girl who always does what she can to help, and so on. The characters' childlike approach to life is reflected in the movie's visual style: all of the settings are very stylized and obviously artificial. This idealized world runs amuck when the girls are attacked one by one at the aunt's house, as if their immature view of the world is turning against them as adulthood (as represented by the aunt, her past and her expansive house) exerts control over their lives. Essentially, House depicts the transition between childhood to adulthood as a sort of death that is traumatic, ghastly and inescapable in equal measures.


Curiously, House utilizes nudity as part of its grim depiction of growing up, although not in the way that most American audiences would expect. For example, nudity in slasher films usually happens in the context of teenagers having sex before they are inevitably murdered by a psychotic killer. In contrast, the nudity in House happens shortly before, during and/or after the girls' deaths--not as part of any sex act, but as if it was an inevitable component of dying. In a sense, the act of dying in a gory manner in House eroticizes the girls, reflecting their transition into sexual maturity and adulthood and the gruesome "death" of their pre-adulthood lives. Adding considerable unease to these death scenes is how some of the girls giggle with glee over their new status as unclothed and dismembered corpses.

Detention doesn't have the same thematic depth as House, but it still knows how to tell as coherent story in what otherwise appears to be a calamitous mixture of incongruous styles. Detention focuses on Riley (Shanley Caswell) as she struggles her way through high school in Grizzly Lake, a town that has been experiencing a rash of UFO sightings. Riley wants to ask Clapton (Josh Hutcherson) to the prom, but her wishes are complicated by her inexplicably spiteful best friend Ione (Spencer Locke), her amorous guy pal Sander (Aaron David Johnson), and a masked serial killer named "Cinderhella" who has been murdering students and has targeted Riley as his next victim. At times, Detention reminded me of Scream, Donnie Darko and a few episodes from the first three seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and yet it’s nothing like those titles.


While Detention bears similarities to the storytelling approach used by House, these films differ considerably in terms of how they view the relationship between adolescence and adulthood. Whereas House views the transition of adolescence to adulthood as a fixed point that can only be passed once in a lifetime, Detention takes a much more fluid approach by showing how the two age groups occasionally overlap. Part of this could reflect how the mainstream cultures of Japan and the US differ in their views of adolescence and adulthood, but I also think that this might have something to do with when both films were made. Ohbayashi's wild visual style reflects the incongruity between how adolescents view of the world and how adults live in the world; in contrast, Kahn's wild visual style emphasizes how incongruity dominates modern teenage life.

The movie world of Detention--where time travel, masked killers, human-insect hybrids and flying saucers coexist in a sort of mundane way in the halls of a high school--is a thematic parallel to the omnipresent information overload that real teenagers are bombarded with through the Internet, cell phones, computers, and high-definition, multi-channel media. One of Detention's subplots features a student who becomes the most popular student in school after travelling back to 1992, with the rationale that a digital-media-saturated teenager from 2012 is much more savvy and cooler than an analog-media-saturated teenager from the early 90s. The movie may lack the pervasive fatalism of House, but it pulls off a very impressive feat by telling a complete and satisfying story from a selection of disparate characters, situations, themes and styles--much like our fragmented-yet-interconnected electronic world, a world that even adults cannot escape. If Detention has any underlying metaphorical message, it is that if teenagers can make sense of and survive our current digital age, then there may be hope for us in the future after all.


Horror films like House and Detention are not for everyone. These films are more like frantic, feverish dreams than traditional narratives that feature well-defined, easily-understood plots and firmly established moods. But if you're willing to try something that's much different than what you normally expect from a horror movie or a horror-comedy, then House and Detention make for an unforgettable double feature.




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