Bechdel Test Canon Double Feature: House and Coraline
As this is the penultimate post of the series and goes live during the winter holidays, I thought it might be fun to do another double feature. Today, we focus on two selections that take place at home. This domestic space is one scholar Drew Beard knows generates considerable terror and anxiety, which he explores in his blog Horror Begins at Home. We're also looking at films that were popular with children. As an adult, I think grown-ups project their fears onto younger people. Either that or kids are still at an age where their imaginations can accomodate evil cats, ogres, witches, talking animals, mythical beings, haunted houses, transfiguration, and other phenomenon without the psychic baggage many adults carry. But films can still leave quite an impression on children, as blogger Caitlin Collins demonstrates in her Childhood Cinematic Traumas mini-series. So as scared as I was by parts of Coraline, I'm fascinated to know what kids got out of it.
Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi's 1977 cult classic House and American animation director Henry Selick's 2009 film adaptation of Neil Gaiman's book Coraline seem like a stretch to pair together. Coraline has a stately air in its dark ruminations on childhood, which seemed to appeal to Magnetic Fields' frontman Stephin Merritt, who adapted it as a stage musical. House is best known in the states for being inexplicably wacky, an example of what Chuck Stephens refers to in his essay for the film's Criterion release as "le cinéma du WTF?!"
But they actually have quite a bit in common. Both made use of several media platforms before the films' release to create interest, generating a profitable ansillary market for toys, books, soundtracks, and other promotional material for kids to gobble up. House is especially noteworthy for doing this well before the film was slated for release, as mainstream Japanese cinema at the time was more interested in making art house fare, despite major studios like Toho also being responsible for Godzilla's rise as an iconic movie monster.House and Coraline also have interesting musical scores. The former was a collaboration between reputable score composer Asei Kobayashi and members of psychedelic band Godiego, who created House's eclectic mix. The latter featured Bruno Coulais' spooky classical score, which made effective use of young female voices. Both are technically inventive films. Obayashi made advertisments for many years and employed many in-camera tricks and film animation to create the illusion that House was assembled by children. Coraline, the only animated feature of this film series, converged antiquated forms like stop motion with state-of-the-art 3D technology.
Most importantly, the two films foreground girlhood. They are invested in girls articulating their identity. The gaggle of schoolgirls who serve as House's principal cast all go by nicknames that succinctly define their roles in the group. Coraline, on the other hand, is constantly asserting her real name, as people often call her Caroline by mistake. Many of House's set pieces and paranormal activity actually originated from Obayashi's daughter Chigumi experiences and imagination as well.
Ultimately, both films are about girls confronting family trauma in the domestic realm. House's protagonist Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) confronts her family's past demons while vacationing at her senile aunt's (Yōko Minamida) home. As it turns out, her aunt died several years ago after succumbing to heartbreak following the loss of her husband, who fought in World War II, and haunts unmarried women and girls, including Gorgeous, the sextet of school friends with whom she's lodging, and her widower father's new wife.
Coraline centers on its titular only child (voiced by Dakota Fanning) who moves into an old house with her distracted parents that is also shared by an elderly landlady, her grandson, two retired actresses (delightfully played by Absolutely Fabulous' Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French), and a Russian acrobat. While adjusting to her new digs, Coraline encounters a parallel universe in her home where she encounters a more attentive Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) and Other Father (John Hodgman), until it's revealed that they are evil avatars.
Of course, the hysterical and absent maternal figures that hover over both House and Coraline may give some feminists pause. The presence of predominantly male film crews might as well, particularly in how they depicted the nubile bodies of House's principal ensemble. However, in their preoccupation with female adolescence and the ghosts that haunt women and girls, I think both films deserve consideration... even if you have to cover your eyes or catch your breath.
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