I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything remotely like Hausu, the 1977 horror-comedy that’s been making the rounds in a new print from Janus films. It goes so far over the top, and operates with such utter conviction in its stylish absurdity that while the temptation is to laugh, it’s never at the film so much as with it. And its style is utterly inimitable.

I’m not sure what the history of Hausu is and why it seems to have undergone a sort of renaissance lately, drawing raves from every corner (critically and otherwise), but whatever the reason, it’s a fantastic discovery. Seeing it in 2010, 33 years after it was made, is revelatory in uncovering the influence it obviously had on directors like Sam Raimi (who purportedly stated that it was the single biggest influence on his own Evil Dead series of films). The new Janus print is fantastic, looking as if it were made yesterday except for some minor visual flaws that do nothing to detract from the experience.

It’s a simple horror setup that has been used many times – a group bands together to visit a house, which turns out to be haunted and turns itself on them. In this case, it’s a group of Japanese schoolgirls, away on summer vacation and looking for a suitable locale after their plans to spend the summer at a camp fall through. One of the group, nicknamed Gorgeous, hits upon the idea of visiting her aunt, whom she hasn’t seen in years, after her own plans to visit her father’s getaway fall through when her father invites his new girlfriend along. She spurns the pair and gets together the rest of her friends to spend the summer together at her aunt’s mansion.

That's not a watermelon...

The Janus press release refers to the film as a sort of “Scooby Doo directed by Dario Argento,” which seems spot on – the group is made up of seven girls each with a distinguishing trait or talent. Even now I can remember each of them – aside from Gorgeous, there’s Fantasy, Professor, Kung-Fu, Sweet, Melody and Mac. Each of them fits the description their nickname provides, with Kung-Fu being the athletic tomboy of the group, Professor the bookworm, and so on. One of Hausu‘s delights is in these characters, which, like everything else in the film, are exaggerated and over-the-top. Mac, nicknamed such for her weight and eating habit, is rarely seen without food in hand, and Gorgeous can scarcely be found without makeup in hand, reapplying a touch here and there.

The film is a bizarre combination of so many fantastical elements that it feels utterly one-of-a-kind. Though ostensibly a horror, it’s far more funny than scary, but that doesn’t begin to describe the mishmash that Hausu presents. The opening scenes of the film, portraying their friendship and setting the groundwork for the later scenes at the mansion, are hilariously saccharine and sugary sweet – the director, Nobuhiku Obayashi, got his start in television which goes some way in explaining the unexpected tone of these introductory scenes. The soundtrack is loaded with pop hits that are more enjoyable than actually good, and work perfectly with the film’s bizarre tone. There are even some scenes that seem straight out of a softcore porno, with Gorgeous taking a bath and the camera giving us a gratuitous look at her naked body, or during the climax in which one of the characters finds herself nude and thrashing about in the water. (But hey, what good is a campy horror film without some T&A?)

Though a haunted mansion is hardly an inspired setting for a horror film, what sets Hausu‘s titular setting apart is the bizarre methods of dispatch the house chooses for its victims, and the special effects employed in portraying the house’s attacks. They’re not “quality” in the sense of modern CGI, but they’re supremely effective in giving the film much of its surreal quality and making it more comedy than horror. How could one recreate the wonder of a hanging ceiling lamp simultaneously eating and electrocuting a girl to death with computers? And some of the tricks employed by Obayashi are downright inspired, such as the manner in which he uses projection to stimulate a character bursting into flames while looking in a mirror.

Hausu is essentially pure entertainment – we’re allowed to delight in the imaginative special effects, the gorgeous cinematography, the amusingly camp soundtrack and the utter conviction which with everybody involved, from the primary cast to the extras to the director to the effects workers and so on, acts on their impulses. It’s never reckless, but it is excessive – in the best way possible. It’s unlikely that there will be many more enjoyable films this year than Hausu – though it was made in 1977, it’s primed to become one of the best releases of 2010.