31 Days of Hell – The Other Haunting of Hill House: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Sweet Home (1989)

With Mike Flanagan’s new Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House causing quite the stir this Halloween, it seems inevitable that plenty of its newfound fans will find themselves looking back at the past screen versions of Shirley Jackson’s iconic horror novel. One of the finest haunted house tales ever written, it is no surprise that Jackson’s masterpiece has long been a subject of fascination in the world of cinema, and has been adapted several times with varying levels of success. Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation, The Haunting, is a masterpiece in its own right, with potent atmosphere and slow-burn psychological horror that still packs a punch. Jan de Bont’s 1999 version, on the other hand, is terrible: a gaudy and overdone pile of mediocre CGI that jettisons the book’s intelligence and subtlety and is exactly what you would expect from an adaptation by the director of Speed. But what most people don’t know is that there is a third film which, though uncredited, draws heavily enough from Jackson and Wise’s work that it may as well be an unofficial loose adaptation or remake. The details of the story are substantially different, but the structure and spirit are very similar indeed, and the result is a very good film in its own right which effortlessly blows de Bont’s embarrassment out of the water. That film is the 1989 Toho/Capcom co-production Sweet Home, written and directed by Japanese master of horror Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

Much like The Haunting (of Hill House), Sweet Home follows a team of investigators who travel to a notoriously haunted mansion isolated deep in some wooded hills; a mansion haunted as a result of the horrible, tragic deaths that befell members of the family for whom it was built. The film’s atmospheric sense of dread, its characterization of the house as a malignant entity, and its gradual unveiling of the tragic history that resulted in its haunting all draw heavily from both Jackson’s novel and Wise’s film. The differences are mostly in the specifics: rather than a team of paranormal investigators, the team in Sweet Home are art restoration experts and documentarians, who have come to make a TV special about the house, which was built not by an industrialist, but a famous painter. They have come to capture the unveiling and restoration of paintings believed to be entombed inside the house; paintings from the final months of the great artist’s life, when he barricaded himself inside his haunted home and set out to chronicle the story of his family’s tragic fate. It is a very effective reinterpretation of the same basic premise, and one that offers great possibilities for creepy art design, which the film thoroughly makes use of.

The other way in which Sweet Home differs from its obvious-if-uncredited inspiration is in its approach to the horrors of the haunting. While Shirley Jackson’s novel is far more psychological than visceral, and Robert Wise’s film is a true slow-burn that believes in suggesting rather than actually showing, the studio intended this film to be a much more aggressive special effects showstopper; a Japanese answer to the likes of Poltergeist. Fortunately, it meshes this more visceral style with the gradually-building nature of the story very smoothly, in a way that mostly really works. It still starts as a solid slow-burn, but (mostly over one fantastic, long sequence) builds up to a special-effects-driven horror-show. Ironically, it handles this balance much more effectively than the official 1999 remake of The Haunting, whose CGI-heavy effects sequences often felt woefully out of place. It certainly helps that both the atmosphere and the effects are excellent, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa is an expert in building and sustaining suspense. The haunted house ambiance is absolutely spot-on, with art design of foreboding decay draped in heavy shadows. The shadows are also the key to one of the film’s creepier visual elements: one of the ways in which the haunting manifests is by bringing the shadows to life as a slithering, malicious entity (think of the fan-favorite Doctor Who episode Silence in the Library). The effect is technically simple – just practical lighting - but has got to be one of the more unique and effective ghostly presences in the genre. The effects elsewhere in the film, however, are decidedly more elaborate.

In an unusual move, Toho flew in American special effects maestro Dick Smith (Scanners, Ghost Story, Tales from the Darkside) to handle the film’s special effects, and he pulled out all the stops. The haunting of Sweet Homes Mamiya Mansion takes many forms, ranging from atmospheric and subtlely creepy to in-your-face gory and insane, and they all look great. There’s ghostly makeup, there’s animatronics, and there’s unexpectedly nasty gore that feels reminiscent of a Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci flick. Smith was clearly given the keys to the funhouse on this one, and he makes the most of it. The effects work alone make the film worth recommending, but the film is strong enough in its other aspects that they are more like the icing on the cake.

Not that the film is without its flaws. Of course, one could argue that it is a flaw in itself that the movie is basically an uncredited remake of another film (one could call it a rip-off if they were being less kind), but it brings enough of its own mythology and unique backstory to the table, and Kurosawa executes it well enough, that most fans tend to give it a pass. It does, however, have a pretty erratic tone in the first act, with some too-broad comic relief that feels out of place, especially once the characters get to the house and the film enters its atmospheric build-up phase. In keeping with the excessive broadness of some of the comic relief, some of the characters (ie, the obviously more disposable characters) are too one-dimensional for their own good. There are also a few moments early on where the film tips its hand a bit too heavily (why is there a six-foot-tall axe just sitting around in a way-too-conspicuous way? Could it be to set up a gory kill later? I wonder...). The rumor is that, not unlike Poltergeist, Sweet Home's production involved a bit of a power struggle between the more uncompromising horror auteur officially in the writer/director's chair and producer Jûzô Itami, who wanted a more mainstream-marketable commercial film, and one can't help but suspect that it is from this behind-the-camera tension that its first-act unevenness stems. Fortunately, these flaws are more or less isolated to the first half-hour of the movie; once the haunting of the house kicks into high gear, they are long forgotten as the film gets very good, and as Kurosawa presumably takes a stronger hold on the film's artistry.

There is one more very important detail that no review of Sweet Home would be complete without: the film was the result of a collaboration between Toho and Capcom, and was produced simultaneously with a video game version for the Famicom (Japanese Nintendo). This may be a unique situation in both film and video game history: it isn't a video-game-movie or a tie-in game based on a film, but companion pieces made in tandem, exploring the possibilities of the story using the strengths of both mediums. The game follows much the same initial story as the film, and features many of the same art-design and horror motifs, but also noticeably breaks off in terms of the ghostly foes that the players face. Sweet Home for the Famicom is often called the first survival-horror game, and it truly does fit the bill: in many ways (right down to the creepy mansion setting and the use of a door-opening animation as a loading screen) it feels a lot like a precursor to Capcom's Resident Evil of a decade later. Gameplay-wise, the combat is a pretty accessible, not excessively deep or grindey RPG (think Mario RPG or Pokémon in terms of depth), while the exploration elements very much blaze the trail for survival-horror conventions to come, and the game presents a pretty solid challenge and level of tension. And despite having 8-bit graphics in a top-down style similar to the original Legend of Zelda, it is a genuinely atmospheric, gory game that is about as disturbing as something for the Famicom/NES could possibly be. Between the gore and the very dark subject matter, it is unsurprising that Nintendo of America refused to release the film on their more family-friendly version of the platform, and as a result the game has never been officially available in the US. However, a fan-sourced English-language version exists as ROMs and “reproduction cartridges” for NES, and is highly recommended for fans of survival-horror or retro gaming.

Since the game was never released in America, it is not a huge surprise that the film did not come out here either, given that in the 1980s foreign-language horror was thought to be an extremely niche market in the US. However, it is shocking that in subsequent years Sweet Home has gotten as little distribution as it has, which is to say, none at all. The film has never been released on DVD anywhere in the world, and was only ever released on VHS and laserdisc in Japan, meaning that is has never been officially available with English subtitles. This is presumably due to rights issues, possibly resulting from the unusual partnership between Toho and Capcom which produced the film, but regardless of the reason, it is a real shame: Sweet Home is thus almost impossible to legally purchase, and literally impossible to legally purchase in any version that non-Japanese-speakers can understand. And unlike most films with this level of rareness, this isn't some obscure indie, but a big-budget, major-studio theatrical feature which by all rights should have several DVD and blu-ray special editions by now. Fortunately, as with the video game, fans have come to the rescue, and an English-subtitled version of the film exists on YouTube. It has been up for quite a while without getting pulled, so presumably it is safe for the time being, but I highly recommend that you watch it while you can, since for the foreseeable future this is likely the only way it will ever be available.

Sweet Home is a strange beast: a visually-impressive major-studio horror blockbuster, written and directed by one of Japan's finest genre auteurs, with special effects by one of America's great practical-effects artists, which despite that pedigree is almost entirely unavailable through any official channels. That it doesn't have an Arrow or Scream Factory release by now is somewhat mystifying, and probably proof of how tangled its rumored rights issue really is. While we can hope that eventually this situation will change, it seems rather unlikely, so we can at least be grateful for the fan-subbers who uploaded it to YouTube in its only English version. As a loose, unofficial adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, it is worlds better than Jan de Bont's The Haunting, and as a haunted-house horror-show in its own right, it is very impressive. It may start out a bit silly, but Kurosawa's expert atmosphere and tension paired with Smith's wild and nasty effects work are a powerful combo. If you devour Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House and want a very different take on the same basic concept, this Japanese counterpart may be just the thing. And if you're looking for a new horror game to enjoy this Halloween, the NES game would be an excellent choice as well.

- Christopher S. Jordan

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