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 √