written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
When we hear “Japanese horror movie”, we usually instantly think of pale-faced, long-haired girls with the annoying tendency to appear out of thin air in the most impossible places at the most inconvenient times, watching you through the shower curtain or crawling out of your TV. That is unfortunate, because the history of Nippon horror has so much more to offer.
Like Sweet Home, a stylish and fun horror romp from 1989. As the title already suggests, Sweet Home is a haunted house movie, but one that stands out a little among the other efforts of this classic subgenre.
Mysteries of the Mamiya Mansion
When hints of a hidden fresco by the legendary artist Ichiro Mamiya, who died under mysterious circumstances, are discovered underneath the wall painting in his dilapidated mansion, which is of course remotely located in a spooky forest, a small team of TV-reporters and restorers heads out in hope for a sensational story.
A bunch of stereotypes that could also serve as the personnel of a Japanese version of Clue makes up the crew. There is the good-hearted, but confused director (Shingo Yamashiro), the sleazy, womanizing photographer (Ichiro Furutachi), the self-confident, motherly producer (Nobuko Miyamoto), the obsessed art restorer (Fukumi Kuroda) who is the first to sense the supernatural threat, and so on. To appeal to younger audiences, the back then very popular singer-songwriter Nokko was thrown into the mix as the director’s pubescent daughter Emi. Things turn eerie when after the initial euphoria about the discovery, the gradually uncovered fresco unveils depictions of the dark backstory of the Mamiya family. And someone, or rather of something, is not too happy about this reveal and is out to bring death -or worse- upon everybody…
Creaking floorboards and other inexplicable noises, creepy shadows, ghostly voices- the haunted house/ghost story genre has its share of trademark atmospheric traits. But as much as I can appreciate classic Gothic horror, it happens that modern ghost movies which rely too much on those more subtle, traditional elements often end up feeling too constrained or even mildly boring. Sweet Home takes a different approach and infuses a good dose of “pop” into the well-worn scenario.
While a lot of the genre-specific tropes still remain intact, from the vengeful ghost to the dark family secret, the execution is closer to EC comics and Mangas in terms of aesthetic and tone than to attempts at a more timeless feeling like, let’s say, The Others. The horror is a little more substantial, means the creaking floorboards and the creepy shadows are still there, but they are complemented by some rather gnarly imagery like a putrid (un)dead baby in a tiny coffin or scenes of people melting and dissolving in spectacular ways. And instead of a boring translucent spectre, the ghost is a massive, impressively realized creature whose grotesque design again shows the influence Carpenter’s The Thing had on Japanese pop culture long before it received the deserved reappraisal in the West.
In that regard it is also close to the excesses of the bright-coloured, spectacle- and effects- driven US- horror films of the same era (the late 1980s), see The Blob, Nightmare 4&5 or Evil Dead 2. Speaking of practical effects, you should definitely check out this movie if you enjoy the old school kind, because the work on display is top notch, not at least because they could get the legendary Dick Smith (The Exorcist, Scanners) for the make-up.
Equally marvellous is the production design. The spooky mansion, which is adorned with Jugendstil– ornaments, a style the Japanese are very fond of, exudes an effective sinister atmosphere. Lots of attention has been spent on delightfully morbid details, like the intricate Giger-esque carvings on the baby coffin or the ornaments on a giant axe that comes into play at a pivotal moment.
Plot and pacing don’t always match the quality of the visuals though and occasionally the story just plods along, getting lost in heavy-handed exposition. But it is still worth sticking with it till the end, because as soon as the spectacular monster showdown starts, these shortcomings are made up for and forgotten.
The acting is surprisingly solid, far above the genre standard. Nokko was in her mid-twenties when the movie was shot, but she is totally convincing as 13 year old. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (not related to Akira) is still active and has such different movies as the mystery movie Cure (1997) or the family drama Tokyo Sonata (2008) on his prolific resume.
Now here comes the bummer: For some reason, Sweet Home has not been released on DVD or BluRay outside of Japan yet. All we have is a small number of VHS-rips of varying condition circulating on the web, just check the screenshots in this article for image quality reference. The upside is you can watch it on Youtube in full length for free, if the fuzzy image does not bother you. Hopefully it will be picked up for a restored re-release in the near future, so the candy-coloured visuals can be adequately appreciated.
Trivia: Sweet Home inspired a “Famicom”- video game of the same name by CAPCOM, which is credited as the forerunner of the survival horror genre and a major influence on the Resident Evil- series. Read more about it in this insightful article on Kotaku.
Although it suffers a little from some pacing problems, Sweet Home is still a Japanese delicacy for lovers of films filled with creatures, goo and beautiful designs and worth seeking out. When it gets its deserved BluRay-release one day, it could become a minor classic of 1980s horror movie history.
* For more disturbing Japanese horror, check out my review of Evil Dead Trap (1988).