The House by the Cemetery 1981
aka Quella Villa Accanto Al Cimetero
Directed by: Lucio Fulci
Starring: Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Ania Peroni
There will be spoilers in the later part of this review, so best not to read if you haven’t as of yet seen this –
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Lucio Fulci had been working steadily in Italian cinema since the late fifties and had achieved critical acclaim for efforts like Four of the Apocalypse and The Psychic, but he didn’t find his film-making forte until sometime later. After being briefly blacklisted in his home country for expressing his political views in movies like Don’t torture a Duckling, he returned to grace with the popular Zombie Flesh Eaters and finally discovered his trademark. During the years that followed, he quite proudly carried an association with no holds barred exploitation that resulted in a string of notable horror films. These included the brutal Giallo, New York Ripper and the splatter drenched, The Beyond. If Flesh Eaters was Fulci’s Dawn of the Dead, then House by the Cemetery could quite easily be his Friday the 13th
There are no flesh eaters munching on blood spurting throats to be found anywhere; and instead Fulci makes good use of the traditional stalk and slash ingredients and marries them off with his own flair for graphic visual violence. I find it to be somewhat strange that some critics continue to misleadingly label this as a regular zombie horror picture, when it looks strikingly clear from the first knife through the cranium murder that Fulci’s inspirations for the feature owed more to the other leading horror sub-genre of the period, the slasher. If you are still not sure, answer me this: what is the difference between House by the Cemetery and Black Christmas? An attic and a basement? Both have mysterious ‘live-in’ killers that store corpses in the abode, and share a knack for keeping themselves extremely well-hidden. So why is only one of those features touted as a stalk and slash flick?
That’s not to say that the zombie classifications are completely unfounded. I mean, what exactly was Dr. Freudstein if not a psychotic re-animated corpse? But one thing that I deliberately haven’t touched on is that it is in fact a whole lot more than either of those aforementioned brandings…
The project re-teamed Fulci with Fabrizio De Angelis as producer and the special effects genius of Gianetto De Rossi, whose work on Flesh Eaters is still very highly regarded. The best returnee here is Sergio Salvati whose unique style of photography helped set the tone for every good Fulci feature. With such a great crew at his disposal and a genuinely creepy location to create some gore drenched set pieces, House by the Cemetery was bound to be memorable…
A young family relocate to a house by a cemetery in New England so that doctor Boyle can continue the studies that a colleague never completed because he committed suicide. Before long it becomes apparent that the house has more than just an architectural character….
Released by VipCo (heavily cut) in the UK in the early nineties, I picked this up back then as a teenager and have watched it countless times. I never really used to think that much of it as most of the gore was missing and the plot seemed to drag terribly. As I have matured and discovered other areas of cinema, I decided to come back and give it another look (in all its uncut glory, of course).
My favourite ‘outside of slasher’ films are those by David Lynch and Luis Buñuel and I began thinking, what if I had just given up on Mullholland Drive deciding that it was incoherent rubbish? Instead, I watched it another time, with an open mind, and finally, all was revealed (well I think it was). House is heavily panned for its lack of logic, but returning this time around, everything made a bit more sense to me. Now I have the opinion that instead of being a misconstrued feature with only a few nice kill scenes, it is actually a very intelligent script with a surreal and Lynchian plot. The killer is not called FREUDstein for nothing you know…
Now come the spoilers – Ok so I was seriously not considering sharing my thoughts, I mean the best thing about ambiguity in cinema is the fact that everyone has their own opinion, but I wanted to see if maybe some of you would agree with me. We know Norman Boyle had definitely been to that town before with a female (according to locals who keep saying he had visited with his daughter, which he venomously denies). People suggest that he and the mysterious (and gorgeous) Ann were having an affair. Well it was them that had been there previously together, but I’m more inclined to believe that they were partners in his research firstly and therefore found that they were attracted to one another along the way. Norman had learned from his friend Dr. Peterson (whom he denied knowing to his wife) that Dr Freudstein had uncovered a way to stay alive. Whether he knew that Freudstein’s methods included freshly splattered corpses is questionable, but he most definitely was aware of that the doctor was up to something in that house.This would also explain why Ann mops up the pools of blood without batting an eyelid (she knew enough about the research not to be shocked by it) and is ignorant to Lucy, Norman’s wife, whom she considers to be a threat to her romance with Doctor Boyle. I think Ann knew what was going on and helped to make Lucy think that she was going mad. But why she decided to head down to the basement and into the madman’s clutches is anyone’s guess? Perhaps she just didn’t believe it to be true
Now even if Norman knew more than he let on about the house, he obviously wasn’t planning on revealing that and adding more strain to his marriage. I believe that he was only really after one thing – Freudstein’s secret. This explains his somewhat lackadaisical rescue attempt when he hears the tape of his predecessor warning him about the monster and why he doesn’t really want to rush off and save his family. A small part of him was most definitely concerned, but he was more consumed by the strength of his yearning – totally obsessed.
As for the final scene, Fulci has admitted that the children entered another dimension and I’m guessing in that he meant death or eternal life in ‘the Beyond’. I would suggest that the child gets killed by Freudstein and the two ‘angels’ guide him in to the spirit world (or hell). It’s quite obvious that Mae is a supernatural being and maybe young Bob is like the kid from The Sixth Sense. Or maybe they were all dead from the start and The House is actually hell – again, the beauty of ambiguity.
I read many reviews that criticise the confusing plot in the film, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it was deliberate from the filmmakers and The House by the Cemetery is not going to take your hand and lead you through the story, instead you need to work it out on your own. Lost Highway has a similar lack of an incoherent structure, which I also enjoyed working out.
Yet another interesting point is that this film was meant first and foremost for the Italian Market, with obvious latter translations so that the rest of the world could see it. But the copy I own hints that Norman is the killer (he is holding a knife above the house). Now we know that this is not cinematically the case, so automatically we think that its typical cack-handed marketing. But consider that for a second. Who is the real monster? Is it the maniac in the basement or the one responsible for leading victims to him for selfish reasons?
Now I’m not saying those reviewers are dumb and I’m the Spanish matador that worked it all out, because there’s one major problem that ruins this for English speaking audiences my friends (I’ve most recently seen the Italian version with Spanish subtitles) – and it is the biggest flaw of the feature – poor translation and gawd awful dubbing. Much like Kenji Fukasaku’s classic Samurai Reincarnation, it was unfortunate enough to be awfully converted for the English speaking world, which pretty much ruined the chance for anyone who doesn’t understand Italian to enjoy it. Take young Bob’s voice-over for example, who succeeded in turning the child into the most vocally infuriating character ever set to celluloid. Due to the poor acting, the movie becomes pretty slow and long-winded in places. It’s a shame, because that was a sin that Fulci himself considered totally unforgivable. His attempts at building an unsettling atmosphere are impressively creepy, but the ghost-like cries and ‘bumps in the night’ are ruined every time one of the poorly dramatised cast-members has a line of dialogue.
If the only reason that you are watching is for the gore, then you will be slightly disappointed. I mean, when Freudstein eventually does come out of his hiding place, the murders are nice and gooey, and Fulci’s flair for setting a Gothic tone runs rampantly throughout the feature. But there aren’t too many killings aside from a great climax and I don’t think that it was Fulci’s mission to simply make yet another exploitation piece. Walter Razzatis music sets the right mood in places and the snappy editing adds to the overall peculiarity. Fulci is not a master of the type of suspense that John Carpenter excelled in. His strengths are setting a slow morbid tone that engulfs his features and keeps you aware that terror will consume the characters at any moment.
The use of a Henry James passage for the film’s finish wasn’t just plucked from a bookshelf either. In fact I could never track down where it came from and would suggest that it’s a quote he created and attributed to the author. Fulci, a great fan of James, who never gave too much away about this feature, did confirm that it was heavily influenced by ‘Turn the screw’. He had to however, because the references are so obvious (especially the children being terrorised by a menace in a house with a bloody history). But there are also some nods to Lovecraft, especially that the film is set in Lovecraft County (New England).
So what we have here is a miss-understood masterpiece that got lost somewhere in poor translations. Or maybe not. Perhaps it is just the illogical rubbish that some have said – but that’s the beauty of a surrealist feature, it can be whatever you want it to be.
As a fan of this type of exploratory cinema, I prefer to think of it as I have described here, but either way the fact that it is open to this much discussion makes it the work of art that it is.
A slasher with a brain – and then some… You can watch it if you just want to see some (very typical, but gooey) stalk and slash murders or even if you want a little more...
Final Girl √
Directed by: Tyler Tharpe
Starring: Amy Paliganoff, Travis Patton, Andrea Johnson
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Freak is not particularly rare or hard to find and it secured global distribution on both VHS and DVD, which is a real feat for a slice of regional filmmaking. Despite that status, it never gets mentioned really by any slasher enthusiasts that I speak to and it’s something of an overlooked entry to the category.
The production was launched ten months after the release of Scream, but this is no cash-in on the craze started by the cycle’s rebirth and feels cinematically closer to its earlier cousins. It was one that has been sitting on my shelf for a while, but it’s only now that I have found the time to give it a whirl.
In the opening, a disfigured child kills his mother with a rock in a macabre and daunting scene. Many years later, we meet Staci a young woman who is about to move house with her younger sister Jodi. They set off at the exact same time as the murderer from the opening is being transferred to a new hospital for treatment. After a mistake from the driver of the transportation van, the menace is free to roam the roads and he homes in on the two sisters as they head across the spacious Ohio farmlands.
Like most DTV slashers released over the past fifteen years, Freak has been visibly produced on the most minuscule of budgets. It works to the films favour however as the grainy 16MM photography and the desolate Midwestern backdrops give it a good gritty tone. The plot was heavily influenced by Halloween and shows no shame of wearing its inspirations on its sleeve. Much like the aforementioned classic, it spends time developing its characters and builds suspense through portraying the psychological effects of its actions rather than using sharp shocks and gore. I am inclined to label this as more of a slow building thriller than an out and out slasher film even if it does utilise every single cliché and knows within which genre it wants to be classified.
The maniac here looks really creepy in his workman clothes and face covered in bandages and comes across visually as a combination between Michael Myers and the nut job from Blood Harvest. His intentions are authentic as in he doesn’t seem to want to kill as many bystanders as humanly possible and instead he has a more deluded plan of action. The fact that he only murders three people (one in the prologue) may put off most gore hounds, but I quite enjoyed the steady simmering of the synopsis and it has a neat vibe of impending doom. The abused child coming back for revenge gimmick has been done a plethora of times, but here it is handled quite effectively with an authentic pay off. This also hints at an obvious plot twist that looked like a dead-cert, but it never really gets explained and is only conveyed through hints and guesses. I wonder if there are some missing scenes for this somewhere that never made the final print, because it’s unusual not to reveal such a branch in the story in further detail.
What I did find interesting was that director Tyler Tharpe only uses a very light score during the terror moments in his feature, which was something of an odd and risky decision. There’s a nice acoustic piece for the scenes that move the story along, but nothing menacing when the mood switches. Horror thrives on its musical accompaniment and very few can survive without an atmospheric theme, but Freak manages to pull it off. The director goes for realism and just about achieves it and there’s nothing here supernatural or unbelievable, which credits his approach. His framing is tight and he pulls off some good scares and well-edited jumps whenever the bogeyman is on screen and the final chase sequence is remarkably exciting. After watching this, I hunted out his other feature, Return in Red, which shows that Tharpe is a director that believes in his methodology of slowly boiling up his plot through deep characterisations. In these days of MTV quick cuts and beautiful leads, his style is refreshing and owes more to the classic tactic of Carpenter and dare I say it Hitchcock. One of the weakest links of modern slashers is that they leave their story in the hands of a group of personas who all have the looks of Armani models and offer no connection to the average everyday Joe like you and I. This makes it extremely hard to relate to them and therefore the horror is only possible through the wizardry of a slick cinematographer or excessive gore. I like that this was brazen enough to take a stab at individuality and it cannot in any way be considered as an attempt at over-exploitation ie Gutterballs. There’s no nudity, profanity or outrageous effects here.
The dramatics are not outstanding, but they’re definitely strong enough to carry the plot and make you care about its players and intrigued by what fate has in store for them. This was also one of the rare stalk and slash flicks that uses protagonist narration to help expand the story’s background and the final girl here is a real fighter and shows immense courage when left to confront her assailant. The feature also touched on the morals of one particular character, whose recklessness and lack of concentration allowed the fiend to escape. He is more concerned about the impending consequences and his own predicament than the doom that has been left in the wake of his actions. His grovelling pleas for a favour in the conclusion were squirm-inducing.
I am somewhat hesitant to class Freak as a hidden gem, because I respect my slasher readers and I am not sure that all of you will agree. It has long periods were the pace falls quite limp and this is definitely NOT an audacious killer spectacular along the lines of Friday the 13th or Scream. If you like your chills built through characters and creepy imagery (check out the shots of the psycho sitting in the corner of his cell) then this should be a real treat for you, but as a teenie kill splatter flick, you will hate it with a passion.
This is a very brave attempt to be different and I saw a lot of excellent stuff that I really enjoyed here. It reminded me a lot of Symphony of Evil, but without the fantastic score, which is perhaps one thing that this lacked. It is a very rare occurrence that I can pick up a bottom shelf DTV slasher flick and be thoroughly impressed and maybe that’s what makes me rate it so highly.
Recommend, but with caution. It is only if you like this style of picture that you will really enjoy its benefits
Final Girl √√√
Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, PJ Soles
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Over ten years have passed since I pencilled my first slasher movie review under an alias on the web. I was studying at that time and writing up flicks when i should have been doing coursework, so i wrote under the name of Chrisie Tuohy – a tribute to my Nan, Cristina, who had died that year. That’s a long time ago and surprisingly enough, I have never got round to reviewing my favourite ever and the one that started it all (for me anyway) – Halloween.
It’s a big task, because it has been covered so many times and I’m not the best writer, so could I really do it any justice? I always had this on my mind. How do you put it to words something that changed your life? Could I really say what needed to be said?
I came up with an idea. I’m not going to cover the same old ground here and instead I will write about the effect that Halloween had on me and why I love it so much and what I think makes it such a classic.
I recorded this on video when I was very young and I remember that apart from being genuinely terrified (walking from the living room to the kitchen in pitch black was a challenge) I was sincerely intrigued. Just what the hell was Michael Myers? Why wouldn’t he die?
It took me a while before we had access to the Internet to learn that there was a sequel (you can imagine my disappointment when the first that I found was part 3 – I mean, where was Mr. Myers?) and so I had a burning passion to understand some more about this pure evil. I used to badger my mum constantly, always talking about it – well she WAS an adult and she had seen it many moons ago, but she didn’t share my passion and couldn’t answer my question, so it became an obsession.
More than anything, I really wanted to relive that experience. I mean was there another film that could terrify me that much? So became my love of slashers before I even knew that they were called that and it’s an addiction I have carried all my life.
Back in those days there was a label called VipCo in the UK and it claimed to be a leading provider of horror movies and video-nasties. In my eagerness, (I had a lot of time) I managed to get the owner’s phone number and used to call him quite a bit. He never really enjoyed speaking to me, but persistence paid off and he pointed me in the way of some more slashers (only the ones he was releasing, of course) and from then my collection began.
I never really got to feel how I did that night, but I have had some great fun courtesy of my favourite past time and I don’t regret a thing.
In the opening, an unseen maniac escapes from an institution and heads back to the town where he murdered his sister when he was six years old. It’s the anniversary of his previous crime and he is back to celebrate it in some style.
Now the first thing you notice having watched so many slashers and not this one for a long time is the cinematography. It’s essential to have creativity in kill scenes and totally expected, but to see such energy during the parts that are there only for the actors to carry the script or just focussing on open locations is a brilliant ingredient. Halloween could have walked the fine line of losing its focus during the development of its players, a fate that befell many other genre entries, but there’s a constant feeling of dread that surrounds the characters and from the first introduction, you can sense the fate that’s waiting for them.
Donald Pleasence was not John Carpenter’s first choice and he was looking to recognised genre heavyweights such as Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing for the iconic Sam Loomis. Both turned him down (Christopher Lee called it the biggest mistake of his career – although for me that’s accepting a role in Mask of Murder) and even though I think that either could have done a good enough job, Pleasence makes the role his own and it’s probably one of his best performances. Jamie Lee Curtis shines on her debut and I don’t think anyone has captured the geeky and naive innocence and warmth that she delivers so effortlessly. It’s easy to root for Laurie Strode, she’s the perfect heroine. She will fight to defend those close to her, she’s loyal, she’s shy, she’s intelligent and she boasts an under-developed beauty. It’s also very easy to relate to her, I think that everyone who is slightly sensitive has a piece of Laurie Strode inside them and Carpenter’s script captures the essence of an ideal protagonist.
I believe that the reason that Michael Myers was so much scarier than other bogeymen and I think it helped Jason from Friday the 13th Part 2 (before he became a comical character), was that he only lived to kill. In slasher movies that have a ‘guess who is the maniac’ sub-plot, the impact is different because you have usually seen this character behaving normally (probably the most normal in an attempt to divert suspicion) and then all of a sudden we learn that he’s a psychopath with a lust for murder. It doesn’t quite cut it in the same way. Myers on the other hand was terrifying, because he hadn’t spoken for fifteen years and his modus operandi was simply to stalk and slaughter random targets. Unlike the murderers that I mentioned earlier, you could never imagine this masked assailant sharing a joke with the person he wants to kill or taking a stroll to the shop to buy a newspaper. This was a pure force of evil, without a motive – and he can’t be compared to someone that’s seeking vengeance for an earlier wrongdoing. This wasn’t about revenge, it was about cold-blooded murder.
Now one of the oldest rules of the Horror category, from way back in the days of Grand-Guignol is that if you really want to make your monster scary, don’t show him until the climax. There are many samples of this that you can find within the slasher cycle, but again none of them do it as well as its done here. The framing here is artful and the tension is ramped by the enigma of the silhouetted spectre. We don’t really see the iconic mask until the final quarter and what is most memorable is that we never get a chance to clearly witness the face that’s underneath it. What could this guy look like? I would love to take a peek at ‘…the blackest eyes, the devils eyes’ as Sam Loomis puts it. Imagination is a wonderful thing and Carpenter allowed ours to run away in to the shadows left by one of the most terrifying fiends ever to stalk the silver screen.
The suspense here is marvellous and holds up quite well even today after I have seen the film a million times. I love the way Myers sits up in the background and looks at the petrified Laurie Strode, it is cinematic perfection and I can’t think of a time where it’s been conveyed any better. Carpenter was right in giving us no motive and nothing to relate to Myers’ persona and we still don’t really know why he became an unstoppable killer. It’s a shame that the sequels never managed to build on the film’s strengths and perhaps this is a motion picture that should never have had a continuation.
Whether or not Halloween started the slasher genre is irrelevant, this is the best example by a country mile and it’s crazy to think that it’s never been improved upon. It’s impossible to come up with another movie that has been imitated as many times and as I said to the girl that I watched it with, you may have seen this all before, but this is where it came from – this is the source. The rest are just wannabes.
You’ve read all the praise before, but for me this is without a doubt the best horror movie anywhere ever. I would also suggest that Carpenter at the height of his creativity was the greatest director.
Watch it tonight, go on, I dare you…
Final Girl √√√√√