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?!”

Fantasy with Mac's head


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.

Gorgeous with her aunt and school friends

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.

by Alyx Vesey
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13 Comments Have Been Posted


I've never seen Coraline (and take a bit of umbrage as an animator at stop motion being called "antiquated") but I am full on obsessed with House (or, as it declares itself in the trailer: HAUSU!). I have never thought to watch it specifically from a feminist perspective (although that is always part of my POV) but love it instead for its aggressively unique, deliciously stylized aesthetic vision.

The feminist angle I would take on House is the role of men. There is the crush discussed early on with a handsome gent, there is the betraying father (getting married w/o telling his daughter), there is the completely nutso melon seller (love those background melon puppets!) and the failed man coming to the "rescue" turned [SPOILER ALERT] into a pile of (totally not symbolic) bananas. One could argue that the betraying father (shot almost exclusively through an obscuring screen) is a key point in the movie, but I would say more that he is the medium through which the "new mother," last hope and final victim is launched. He, and every other male in the movie, is irrelevant beyond the periphery.

And while the girls are clearly stereotyped (or, I would argue, stylized) down to their ludicrous, Spice Girl-like names they are not portrayed in my view as stupid, weak, flighty or any other universally negative stereotype, except perhaps poor Mac and her ludicrous (but if you like richly symbolic) over-eating. Thinking back I believe I see them as aspects of a single girl, a beautiful, talented, strong, imaginative, kind, hungry, intelligent girl. One who gets beheaded, killed by pillows, eaten by a piano, drowned in blood but still seems to triumph... maybe, as one of the final images suggests, "losing" to the Auntie is really just being welcomed into the arms of the powerful, undead matriarchy?

Not that I think about this ever. At all...


You hit the nail on the head

You hit the nail on the head when talking about the girls. On their own, they're a gaggle of wacky stereotypes but they're actually representative of aspects of Gorgeous' personality.

Come to think of it, when the girls are killed, they come back as ghosts. They're assimilated into the house. So in a sense, they're not really "dead." I think the mirror scene, which shows that Gorgeous and her aunt are the same person, and the scene near the end when Gorgeous' giant head pops in through the door frame and her lips float in the air, talking, emphasize that Gorgeous is the house, or has at least become a part of it.

Personally, I see the movie as being about a girl's path to maturity and adulthood. By the end of the movie, Gorgeous has become one with the house (adulthood) and accepted her new mother into her life. Or her house, if you will. She just had to get through the absurdities of the path to maturity, what with blood coming out of cats (totally not symbolic) and all.

And there's my wacky take on this.

You got it!

Yes, I thought that might be too "out there" of an interpretation but they aren't really doomed at all, are they? And neither is the new mother? Everything seems very safe and beautiful at the end, not terrible at all! As someone who was yelled at for rooting for the pagans in the original Wicker Man I'm sometimes shy about my more counterintuitive interpretations. :-)

And yes, cats, blood, floating disembodied lips... nice and literal. No symbolism at all. ;-)

That's a pretty sharp wacky

That's a pretty sharp wacky take, Anonymous. I didn't want to reveal it in the body of the entry in case folks didn't want it spoiled for them, but I'm completely with you on the girls being integrated into the home and thus not dead. Granted, I don't know tons about Japanese folklore and their understanding of ghosts (merely that they have a strong presence), but it seems to me that those girls are very much alive with the aunt.

I didn't mean to offend with

<P>I didn't mean to offend with my use of the word "antiquated", M. Kitka. I simply meant that the film was blending older and newer forms of animation and that the use of stop motion sort of made the film look older. I didn't mean to suggest that there wasn't innovation a-plenty on <EM>Coraline </EM>or discredit the animation team's efforts. </P><P>Also, I love love love your analysis of men's roles in <EM>House</EM>, as well as the use of stereotyping and the functions of the undead matriarchy. Super-smart and something I would have further developed if this post wasn't already as long as it is. The point about the undead matriarchy especially helps me articulate feelings I couldn't quite express about the ending. So thanks for thinking about it!</P>

Great post!

I heard of House/Housu before ( ), but Coraline is one of my favorite films.

I would have liked to have seen it discussed on its own however, as I feel it offers a lot to discussion about children and fears. I've often felt that childrens movies should have some sort of scary edge; all the kids I've known (including little me!) secretly love to get scared enough to pull the covers over our heads or peek out through fingers, but more importantly they're a way of passing on what there is in the world thats WORTH being afraid of and what isn't. In this, Coraline has a much bigger role than the "be careful what you wish for" tagline suggests. (*SPOILERS*) In particular, there's a scene at the end where the now-transformed Other Mother is chasing Coraline back through the tunnel after Coraline made it clear she wanted nothing to do with her or her insane world, and as Coraline is desperately trying to get away, you hear the Other Mother shriek: "Come back! I'll die without you!" This and the constant manipulation disguised as affection is a great way to suggest to kids (presumably at a good enough age) that when someone says they love you, its not always the kind of love that they have to feel obligated to return. (*END SPOILERS*)

In a world where young women are frequently indoctrinated to give up everything they have to the "power of love" ( ) this is a lesson that girls do NOT get told enough.

Great point about

Great point about "manipulation disguised as affection" and a wonderful counter to the more typical Disneyesque princesses and the way those movies deal with affection. I'd say that this idea applies to House as well, considering the way the aunt, supposedly an affectionate, loving relative, ends up destroying the girls. But alas, the only time I saw House I was so lost in the effects that I have now forgotten the specifics of the story. I'll have to pay more attention next time, and think about these issues.

Excellent comparison with the

<P>Excellent comparison with the Disney princesses, IBrokeIt. I definitely recommend a second viewing because it's awesome and also because some of this stuff becomes clearer upon review. Also, not to put a plug in for Criterion, but the supplemental features for their <EM>House </EM>DVD really put some of these points in sharp relief -- particularly the interviews with director and daughter.</P>

I hear you about wanting

<P>I hear you about wanting deeper analysis on <EM>Coraline</EM>, Mari. Thank you for your smart comments, especially about Coraline's final stand-off with her Other Mother. I thought about reviewing both films separating but had to dialog them alongside one another to include them. If interested, I hope you watch <EM>House </EM>at some point.&nbsp;It makes a fine double feature with <EM>Coraline </EM>and I think you may find some commonalities between Other Mother, the actresses, and the aunt.</P><P>Also, I like your points about how kid like to get scared (though not me at that age -- I'm more into getting scared&nbsp;now than I was growing up) and how girls need to unlearn lessons about giving everything up to the "power of love." It&nbsp;brings to mind&nbsp;something said by my wise eight-year-old neighbor and <EM>Coraline</EM> fan. Able to&nbsp;look past the horror to see the story's true meaning, she surmised that&nbsp;Coraline is ultimately&nbsp;"very brave." I'm happy she took this lesson from it, especially since she's a pretty brave girl too.</P>

Weird, well, more of a

Weird, well, more of a coincidence I guess, but I was actually watching the trailer of House a couple of hours ago and was thinking "I really need to check this out." And I am definitely gonna catch this at some point now. Thanks for the heads up.

If you're in Boston...

Well, anyone living in the greater Boston area can see House on the big screen February 3rd at the Brattle theatre in Cambridge. I know I'll be there! :-)

Ahhhh, wish I could be there

Ahhhh, wish I could be there instead of hanging out in Austin. If other readers have the means or are in the area, you should go. If not, try and get your nearest cinema to play it. Having seen this on DVD in my living room, I can only imagine how much more vivid it is on the big screen.

Ooooo, maybe ghosts are

<P>Ooooo, maybe ghosts are telling you to see <EM>House</EM>! ;) I heartily recommend seeing it, Cherokee. I can safely say that I've never seen a movie like it before, but it totally informs other things I've seen that follow it. Something tells me Michel Gondry is a fan and this is the kind of horror movie he'd try to make. </P>

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