House of Terrors Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: January 10, 2023 (website exclusive LE September 20, 2022)
Video: 2.35:1/1080p/Black & White
Audio: Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
Run Time: 80:28
Director: Hajime Satô
A recently widowed woman discovers that her former husband, who died in an insane asylum, owned a remote country mansion. She and a group of friends go to the villa and find a weird demonic statue in the hallway. They are joined by a hunchback caretaker, who tells them of the numerous murders that have occurred there. Soon, the guests begin to hear strange noises, including disembodied laughter, and feel that they are being stalked by a disturbing presence that haunts the mansion. (From Mondo Macabro’s official synopsis)
The popular history of Japanese horror is in large part characterized by movies that are connected to strictly Japanese artistic traditions and folklore. From post-war classics, like Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) and Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964), through the contemporary J-horror phase, these films often appeal to Western audiences because of their exotic idiosyncrasies and mythologies. However, Japanese audiences and filmmakers also liked American and European horror, leading to a separate category of Japanese-flavored versions of Hollywood horror classics that were rarely seen outside of their home country. For example, Shinsei Adachi’s The Invisible Man Appears (Japanese: Tōmei Ningen Arawaru, 1949) was (naturally) a variation of James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933), Michio Yamamoto’s Bloodthirsty trilogy (The Vampire Doll [Japanese: Chi o Suu Ningyo, 1970], Lake of Dracula [Japanese: Chi o Suu Me, 1971], and Evil of Dracula [Japanese: Chi o Suu Bara, 1974]) was inspired by the Hammer Dracula movies, and Hajime Satô’s Goké, Body Snatcher from Hell (Japanese: Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro, 1968) was a mish-mash of ‘60s American sci-fi/horror.
Satô, in particular, pinned his career on chasing these types of fads. His career as director was short and overlooked in his day, but guaranteed a cult following, thanks to his penchant for sincere and sincerely strange sci-fi and fantasy movies, including Terror Beneath the Sea (Japanese: Kaitei daisensô, 1966) and superhero romp The Golden Bat (Japanese: Ôgon batto, 1966), both starring Sonny Chiba. Following two thrillers that didn’t see release outside of Japan (The Eighth Enemy [Japanese: Hachi-nin me no teki, 1961] and Metro Police Story: Trail of a Teenager [Japanese: Keishicho Monogatari: Judai no Ashidori, 1963], which was part of a series), Satô made his horror debut with House of Terrors (Japanese: Kaidan semushi otoko; aka: The Ghost of the Hunchback, 1965), a black & white chiller in the spirit of Universal’s monster movies (hence the Quasimodo-like title character), Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (pub. 1959), and the new breed of Italian Gothics released in the wake of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (Italian: La maschera del demonio; aka: The Mask of Satan, 1960). In fact, Italy was one of the few territories outside of Japan to theatrically distribute the film, complete with an Italian language dub and Anglicized director’s pseudonym (Richard Goodwin).
The plot is broad enough that it’s difficult to refer to it as an adaptation of a single Hollywood or European film or story, but the bones of the idea can be found in Jackson’s novel. There are strong audio/visual allusions to Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), in particular, to the point that less magnanimous viewers might accuse Satô of directly ripping off one sequence. Alternately, the script, by Hajime Takaiwa, is similar to any number of haunted house stories where an innocent protagonist inherits a spooky manor. Notably, there is a retributive angle to the hauntings, similar to what was commonly seen in Italian Gothic horror, though vengeful spirits are also a mainstay of Japanese ghost stories, so this may be an issue of overlapping cultural indicators. One thing Satô gets right, besides the dramatic photography, fog-strewn and cobweb-swept sets, and general eeriness, is the sense of melancholia and barely contained perversity that defines Bava and Antonio Margheriti’s black & white films. Despite the brief runtime (less than 90 minutes), the audience is given ample time to soak in the atmosphere and mixed East/West ritual of everything. This also pumps up the jump scares, which are pretty potent for a nearly 60-year old film.
House of Terrors has never been available on US video before. It reportedly wasn’t even available on Japanese home video. If you wanted to see it, you had to download a subtitle-free, Italian TV version that aired under the title Il Pozzo di Satana (Satan’s Pit). Mondo Macabro’s Blu-ray debut (which was first available as a limited edition via the company’s website in September of 2022) is presented in 1080p black & white and the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. According to specs, the transfer was created from a 2K scan of the original negative. Shôei Nishikawa’s cinematography is very dark and very moody, so the dynamic range is pretty delicate, requiring enough light/whiteness to tell what’s going on, but not enough to grey-out the rich black levels. Details and grain texture is a little on the soft side, but not as a result of DNR or other post-scan tinkering – it’s more like they were working from a print source, rather than the negative. Print damage is minimal, mostly white flecks and horizontal chop between some frames (probably the end of a reel or something similar) and gradations are relatively clean with only minor posterization.
House of Terrors is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono and its original Japanese (I don’t believe there was ever an English dub produced). Sound quality is surprisingly robust for a film of this vintage with a single channel mix. Dialogue is clear, only distorting when someone screams or yells particularly loud, and the Haunting-like demonic house effects and moaning ghosts have some real punch. The score was an early effort from Shunsuke Kikuchi, who does his best impression of the kind of music you’d hear from American B-movies of the 1950s, complete with trilling soprano and whirring theremin. Kikuchi was an incredibly prolific composer, who collaborated with Satô on several films, but is also known for original work on the Gamera series, Kamen Rider, the Female Prisoner Scorpion series (including the song “Urami-Bushi, which was featured in Kill Bill ), and Doraemon. He also composed the music for all 153 episodes of Dragon Ball, all 291 episodes of Dragon Ball Z, and all the Dragon Ball movies, pre-GT.
Commentary with Tom Mes – The Midnight Eye co-editor and co-author of The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film (Stone Bridge Press, 2004), both with Jasper Sharp, discusses the House of Terrors’ home video history, Satô’s many inspirations, the film’s combination of Japanese and European Gothic culture, and the careers of the cast & crew,
Hunchback, Pit or House? (3:47, HD) – The editor-in-chief of Otaku USA magazine and author of TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion (VIZ Media, 2001), Patrick Macias briefly chats about Satô’s career, stars Kô Nishimura and Mitsue Suzuki, and the Italian release.
Silent Waves Pocket Guide to Toei Horror (3:43, HD) – Macias returns for an even quicker look at Toei Studios’ early horror output.
Italian opening credits (1:01, HD)
Mondo Macabro trailer reel
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.