Sunday, July 3, 2011

Lucio Fulci's The House by the Cemetery (1981)

Oh glorious haunted New England mansion…. A supreme visual brought to life with the sound of Gothic CASTLEVANIA-esque theme music by Walter Rizzati, tombstones, and leafless winter trees. What splendid grandeur and majesty you emit against the daytime sky and how even more beautiful you are at night… What evil cosmic secrets do you hold? How I’d love to see what fate would befall a family that was to all of a sudden move in and inhabit you. What’s that you say? I can? In a film called HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY. 

It’s been blogged about a thousand times and reviewed to death, but I still feel that Lucio Fulci’s HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY deserves all of the love it can get. The film primarily concerns the Boyle family who are played by the likeable Fulci fan favorite Catriona MacColl, who has to be one of the best female screamers ever (consider the intro scream from THE GATES OF HELL), as Lucy, Paolo Malco as Norman, and Giovanni Frezza as little Bob (who it seems was dubbed by a woman, which ends up being just as awkward as it is creepy). These poor souls unknowingly mortgage their lives when they move into a quiet and isolated house in the woods next to a cemetery. The thought of a husband and wife moving into an isolated house with their creepy kid and into a deadly scenario may have THE SHINING written all over it, but the overall ordeal shares no similarities to that film. 

There is a memorable and fairly iconic relation between the son and a nineteenth century ghost girl that haunts the area, named Mae. The encounters between these two kids possess a childlike innocence that blurs the motive for why Mae is contacting Bob from beyond. The end result of their friendship is confusing but so fascinating and endearing that it’s no wonder that former kid actors Giovanni Frezza and Silvia Collatina’s Facebook pages are constantly bombarded with friend requests by loving fans (myself included). We may not know them personally, we may not be actual friends, but we would still like to know how poor Bob is fairing after the traumatic events that transpired in the evil basement of that damned house. And who doesn’t have a desire to express admiration to Mae, the cool Gothic ghost girl, for saving Bob from a fate worse than death in a satisfying heartwarming ending that makes the viewer want to run off and buy Fulci’s other films (me 10 years ago) and ultimately become a hardcore lover of Italian Horror? And what great sports those two are for friending so many fans. 

The plot of the film is setup by a confusing Lovecraftian backstory that involves a researcher, referred to as Mr. Peterson, driven insane by his findings in a New England mansion before slaughtering his mistress and hanging himself. Norman and his family move into the same house in Boston so he can continue Mr. Peterson’s research because this project, which is very vague in detail, is so important that it needs to be saved from going under. As Norman uncovers exactly what it was that drove his colleague to the deep end, he and his family end up under threat from something very evil and sadistic that resides in the basement and needs their dead corpses to survive. I say sadistic because the monster, known as Dr. Freudstein (Giovanni De Nava), doesn’t just kill for survival but really seems to enjoy making its kill. For example, pleasure moans can be heard from Freudstein when it violently stabs the landlord, Mrs. Gittleson (Dagmar Lassander), repeatedly with a fire place poker. Freudstein seems to savor the moment by inducing as much bloodletting as possible before finally ending it with a poke in the neck as blood spatters in a grand finale. All of this is the cruel and unnecessarily complex execution of Fulci’s entertaining gory death scenes that his horror films are primarily remembered for.

SIDE NOTE: Since this is a horror blog, naturally I’m going to be telling you about the gory stuff, but Fulci made great accomplishments with giallo (DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING [pretty gory too]), action (FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE), and comedy (I LADRI) films as well. 

Nevertheless, I will in no way agree with anyone who says that gore is everything here. The music gives the film an exciting and Gothic feel, the child theme is a nice touch, and the whimpering child sounds that can be heard coming from the monster as it stalks its victims is strange and amusing. The monster makeup by Gianetto De Rossi is great and basically takes all the ingenuity of the zombie makeup seen in other Fulci films and focuses it all onto giving the basement monster a grotesque and macabre look that won’t make viewers regret waiting the greater part of the film’s runtime when it finally shows its face. 

Also worth mentioning is the character of Ann the babysitter, played by Ania Pieroni, who is a highly suspicious and entertaining addition to the household, whose presence makes things both more interesting and more confusing. Pieroni, who I’d like to say, despite many jokes from film critics, has lovely dark eyebrows and is a knockout. I mean if you don’t agree with me at least check out this screen grab of her as the Mother of Tears in Dario Argento’s INFERNO, which I have a feeling is going to get reviewed on this blog very soon. 

Ania Pieroni not in HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY

The script written by Dardano Sacchetti has its fair share of plot holes, but the macabre elements in the story are very satisfying. It should also be noted that Sacchetti was the script writer for THE BEYOND, which along with HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY is considered to be one of Fulci’s best, and it should be proof that a script doesn’t necessarily have to be coherent to have an impact. However, “Narrative incoherence” really sticks its maggot ridden head out the most when after Mrs. Gittleson‘s demise, Ann is on all fours the next day cleaning up the blood trail left behind while Lucy opens the door to wish Ann a good morning and doesn’t even seem to notice or care that it looks like a massacre just took place. This may be an instance of clumsy filmmaking, but let’s be optimistic and try to come up with a reasonable explanation…  Maybe Lucy was so tired and groggy that morning that she just happened to not notice the blood, what with her medication she takes and all. As for Ann cleaning the blood, this might best be understood if one were to assume that she is unknowingly drawn to Dr. Freudstein, which makes sense if one were to recall when Norman caught her prying the boards off the basement door in the middle of the night. It could also be the film's way of throwing suspicion on Ann so we are caught off guard when later she endures multiple slashes to the neck resulting in her head falling off and tumbling down the basement stairs, while little Bob has to endure the traumatic visual. 

Poor Bob… He and the Kid from Fulci’s other film THE GATES OF HELL, and maybe Joshua from TROLL 2, should form a support group for all children traumatized in Italian horror films. Anyone who has seen these films knows what I am talking about. 
THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY does suffer from occasionally being slow as well, but when we’re talking vintage Euro-horror, when is slowness not an issue? Being able to tolerate slowness is what separates those who’ll dig the Hell out of this and those who won’t. A very common defense to slowness is that the ambiance that is prevalent in these films makes them worthwhile to endure, and classic euro-horror, as many know, excels in ambiance.

I would also like to mention that I love Norman’s beard, Hell I love the bearded Fulci characters in general. There is something so dignified, classy, and intellectual to these handsome characters whose charming beards always seem to land them a gruesome demise. After spending time in Fulci’s world, one would eventually learn that it is not wise to have a beard. This is especially true in Fulci’s MANHATTEN BABY. 
Even though it isn’t the season for the beard, I would like to closeout with a Hall of Fame collage of the many bearded Fulci characters (+1 imposter), many of whom suffered crowd pleasing death scenes done with that touch that is undeniably Fulci.


  1. Hello I'm new here. I'm a new follower too. I love horror movies/stories and will be back. For short story with zombie rotness - follow the link ;D

    Shah .X

  2. Who's the dodgy looking guy with the blue top in the 'beard' collage? A horror movie villain if ever I've seen one.

  3. @Shah Wharton: Hi! Thanks for joining! I hope you find my writing to be interesting and creative, which is what I shoot for. I was just at your blog and I think your short story THE DEAD PARTY made for a very clever and enjoyable read, and I encourage other visitors to check it out. I really liked your blog’s emphasis on creativity and mental health. I wish you good luck.

    @Rich Flannagan: Thanks for stopping by! Actually, I thought that bearded guy in the blue shirt came off as quite the gentleman, so I was totally shocked when he turned out to be the killer!! ;)

  4. Great review, Giovanni. I really did like this movie,it had a great story line even though some parts were HILARIOUS! Or..maybe I laugh at anything? :|

  5. @Real Queen of Horror: Thanks! It was a lot of fun to work on, and you're correct, some parts in this film are hilarious. Darn! I forgot to include Richard Johnson in the Beard Collage. :P

  6. Boy, G., I'm probably an even bigger fan of Euro-horror (and specifically Italian horror) than you, but I don't think I could disagree with you more strongly on this one. I see no skill in Fulci's horror flicks at all. I know there is a cult of revisionists who have tried to rehabilitate him, and suggest he was secretly some sort of genius who was just misunderstood, but his utter ineptness as a director bleeds through every frame--his movies look as if they were made by someone with no talent or training in the art of cinema, and absolutely does not care. He doesn't seem to care about anything, in fact, except cutting up women. His ineptness is even present in the copious gore for which he is renowned. A competent director, faced with less-than-stellar gore effects, manages the staging of the scene, through angles, lighting, and so on, in such a way as to conceal their weaknesses. Fulci's solution is always the same: throw lots and lots of light on it, then let the camera linger.

    Ranking most of his horror tales--this one included--at the same level as third-rate hack-work would be generous. I'm told, over and over again, that he did some good work in gialli, and, if true, that would make him among a VERY few filmmakers who worked in gialli and produced anything worth the film on which it's printed. NEW YORK RIPPER sure as hell wasn't any improvement over his usual horror crap. I'm skeptical of the claim, in any event. I have a friend who is a rabid fan and has tried to convert me, and more than one film that was destined to make me see the light on Fulci turned out to be SOS. I suspect the reason he made something like 60 movies and all but a few of them have been almost entirely forgotten is because they're as bad as the ones on which his reputation rests, but lack their sensationalistic elements, robbing them of any possible merit.

    On the other hand, I'm a huge Jesus Franco fan, and throwing charges of hack-work, in a negative sense, may be like chucking stones in glass houses (on still another hand--some of us have three, especially Franco fans--I readily concede when a Franco flick is awful). When it comes to Fulci, though, I just don't see it.

    I feel bad that I've been away for a while, and, upon my return, end up writing something negative! I calls 'em like I sees 'em, though.

  7. @cinemarchaeologist: It’s is no problem at all. I’m glad you are visiting again and was a little worried you may have forgotten about me, and by the way, your opinion is always welcome here. I encourage commenting whether it is positive or negative because it definitely makes the post more memorable and significant.

    With regards to Fulci’s horror films, I can see where you’re coming from, but the problems you mentioned I think are more noticeable in Fulci’s horror films from later in his career. I honestly thought that A CAT IN THE BRAIN felt very lazily made. However, I do think this may have been attributed to the health problems Fulci was facing at the time.

    I don’t mean to sound like another person trying to convert you, but some other films from Fulci that have a completely different flavor than his horror output that I would encourage you to check out, if you haven’t already, are DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING, A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN, BEATRICE CENZI (A.K.A THE CONSPIRACY OF TORTURE), and THE EROTICIST (which is not as erotic as it sounds, but is more of a political comedy). The films I have just mentioned, I believe, do not contain the flaws you described and if you see them I hope they change your opinion of Fulci.

    I have said in the review that I don’t think it’s all about the gore when it comes to Fulci’s horror. As you mentioned there is an element of sensationalism, but I would also like mention a unique feeling I get from Fulci’s more highly regarded horror films which is like a sense of the macabre and fear of an inevitable unpleasant doom in an inescapable nightmare realm. This caused a movie like THE BEYOND to really stay in my subconscious and resulted in me maintaining an undying enthusiasm for the film for years.

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a fascinating comment by the way!

  8. You're way too kind. I haven't forgotten you. I've just been going through a really bad time, and haven't, of late, been able to push words together into sentences that were worth writing. I've let my own blog go to seed, and haven't really written a lot on anyone else's, either (I'm way behind in my reading).

    All of Fulci's horrors have seemed lazily made to me. That isn't really a precise enough way to put it. I always get the overwhelming impression he's completely indifferent to what he's doing. I've actually ended up defending him from time to time over the years from those who go after him for his incoherent narratives. Euro-genre filmmakers often have a bias toward a visual stream-of-consciousness approach to storytelling that tends to alienate American viewers accustomed to more straightforward narratives. I defend him against their criticism, but I suspect they actually have a point with him, that his films become incoherent because he had lost any interest in trying to tell a story (or was no longer capable of doing so).

    Fulci is terminally unoriginal, and it grates on me, probably a lot more than it should. Genre films tend to be duplicative, particularly Italian ones. A success is always aped to death, and I'll readily concede the reason this wears on me a lot more with him than with others is probably mostly because I don't like so many other things about his movies. I think I probably read it as, again, another sign of indifference. Fulci just rips off whatever is popular at the time, and adds extra gore. That isn't limited to his horrors, either--he did the same thing with FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE, back in the '60s (and I single it out, there, in a way that probably sounds strange because it's one I've seen). He just seems to have no higher ambition than to rehash the work of much better filmmakers.

    I've never gotten that trapped-in-a-nightmare vibe everyone attributes to him. Among the long list of things that totally bursts that bubble for me, he is, as I said earlier, always throwing in attempted unpleasant imagery that is so ineptly executed it kills any atmosphere, and his characters are relentlessly stupid. If you discover you can destroy the undead with head-shots (and really, why should you be able to do that in THE BEYOND, except for the fact that you could in Romero's movies?), and you continue wasting your ammo on their torsos, you aren't trapped in a nightmare from which you can't escape--you're trapped in a bad movie from which you're too stupid to escape.

    Fulci loops some of the footage during that part of THE BEYOND in a way that is usually written off as inept. He did the same thing toward the end of ZOMBI 2, though, so I think it's fair to say it's intentional. Whatever he thought he was accomplishing by doing this, though, the only thing at which he actually succeeds is making an already-inept-looking picture look even worse. The images I always remember first from THE BEYOND is that looped footage, and the plastic spiders tearing pieces from a wax head (which had me laughing hysterically the first time I saw it).

    THE BEYOND was one of those movies my friend gave me to convert me to Fulci-dom, and obviously, it failed. Don't be apologetic for sounding as if you want to convert me or anyone else--if you really like something, you naturally want others to dig it. With Fulci, I just don't see anything worth the time. I'll probably end up trying again, at some point in the future, though.

  9. These are all great points that you’ve brought out very well. I don’t think there’s too much I can say in Fulci’s defense at this point. I agree that the characters can be quite mindless which most definitely attributes to their inability to survive the situations they’re put in. For instance, Susan in ZOMBI 2 standing completely still in front of the arising Conquistador Zombie and not simply retreating, but instead takes a bite to the neck (I just felt a jolt of excitement just now after recollecting that particular scene). Despite a lack of cleverness, Fulci’s horror films, for me, are very entertaining, and have (forgive me for sounding cliché) a feel and style that I enjoy very much. And by the way, you are not the only one who thought the Tarantula’s in THE BEYOND were hilarious. I saw a screening of that in 2003 and the audience was in an uproar of laughter during that scene and many others.

    As you said, it is very common for Italian filmmakers in the 60s-80s to capitalize on popular American cinema at the time, be it western, spy, zombie, etc… I can easily imagine that in order to get a film financed and noticed by the general audience, they would have to be horror, western, or giallo depending on what was fashionable at the time. I don’t think that Fulci handled this by creating unoriginal projects, but rather accepted what type of film had to be made (wanting to do fantasy for instance, but instead having no choice but to do a horror film that resembles an American one that enjoyed box office success in Italy) and created something that didn’t resemble the source material in anyway (I don’t think ZOMBI 2 felt like DAWN OF THE DEAD at all) and ended up standing on its own and having a unique effect on viewers that has never been duplicated since, despite many attempts.

    As long as it’s not too painful, I urge you to keep trying, and maybe check out the film titles I mentioned in my previous comment. Sometimes it takes a little time or the right film to finally change your opinion of a filmmaker you may not be too enthusiastic about. I wasn’t impressed with Paul Naschy or Jess Franco at first, but over time, and some attractive DVD releases, these filmmakers/actors grew on me and I wouldn’t have believed that I’d ultimately come to love Naschy, and Franco as you already know.

  10. No more on Fulci, but I had some further thoughts. You wrote, above, that you were thinking about reviewing INFERNO here, soon. You should definitely do that. I think it's an incredible movie, and hold to a distinctly heretical view that it's probably even better than SUSPIRIA (and that's definitely NOT a knock on SUSPIRIA, which earns every bit of praise it has gotten over the years).

    I really love Italian genre stuff. I mean REALLY love it. Love their "art cinema," too. Italy in the '60s, in particular, would have been one of the most magical places to make movies that has ever existed. They start out with lavish period spectacles, which evolve--some (but not me) would say "degenerate"--into the musclebound mythological hero peplums, which were often a lot of fun. When they went Western-crazy, they noticed something few Americans who had made them ever had--a Western is basically an opera. An Italian form, indeed, and they frequently crossbred it with another, Neorealism, and also with their gothic films. Italian gothic horror was like a modern extension of the expressionist American horrors of the '30s, and made the work of their far more prominent rival in the field (Hammer) look like amateur hour. Their sci-fi films were these crazy, anything-goes affairs--you watch them and can't believe half of the things in them even made it to the screen. The gialli were, I must concede, a badly failed experiment. Great in theory, very few of them have ever worked for me (I think it's very unfortunate that Argento has wasted so much of his career making them, when his talents clearly lie in supernatural fantasy). The police/crime movie cycle was cool. The zombie/cannibal cycle is interesting (Ruggero Deodato, of whom I'm a big fan, basically invented Neorealist horror). Love the post-apocalyptic Mad Max-style movies--they had that same anything-goes spirit as the '60s sci-fi flicks. Moving forward in time a bit, Soavi gave the world CEMETERY MAN, which I rank as one of the best films of the 1990s.

    O.k., by now, I'm just ranting, and a bit off-topic, so I'll stop.

  11. Looking forward to writing about Argento’s INFERNO, but that will not be next time, but the one after. I love Soavi’s CEMETERY MAN too which I have planned for this blog as well. I see you are very knowledgeable about ITALIAN CINEMA, but you didn’t mention the spy films that were produced as well, which I am now getting into and will start writing capsule reviews for on ITALIAN FILM REVIEW. Was great talking FULCI with you thanks for all of the great comments.

  12. I believe everybody is there like us united all the same from which country we also come everybody: Lucio Fulci still belongs after his death to one of the probably best directors of the horror film. Like Romero, Argento, Carpenter, or mountain Cronen he has strongly stamped the genre of the horror film in the 80th. If he knew what is produced today for a nonsense, he would turn round in to a grave ^^

    (For possible mistakes in the grammar I ask for however my text Excuse me, is translated by an on-line programme from in German in the English one.)

  13. oh, I mean Cronenberg... the translate was false!^^

  14. I really need to see this but Bob's 'excellent' voice acting sort of prevents me from wanting to.

    So far, I've only seen 3 of Fulci's films. The Beyond which I thought was fantastic with its surreal atmosphere and its ability to stick with you long after you've seen it. City of the Living Dead was okay but I massively preferred the first half of the film (I didn't like how Catriona Maccoll's character went from determined psychic to damsel in distress). And lastly, I saw Seven Notes in Black which was very engaging and well-written.

    1. Hi Terence. I thought Bob’s dubbed voice makes this creepier and hilarious. You do get used to it and it is extremely memorable. I would recommend this one, especially if you liked THE BEYOND. Good point about Maccoll’s character in THE CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, those types of transformations are not uncommon. In HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, the babysitter goes from being a suspicious and threatening character to just another victim for the film’s zombie in the basement, which is unusual but commendable. I honestly preferred DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING over SEVEN NOTES IN BLACK, which I highly recommend over Fulci’s entire output. It is a masterpiece and contains a violent scene that was later used again in THE BEYOND.

  15. I finally watched this film! It was better than I expected although Bob was still very annoying (Mae, on the other hand, was so adorable)!

    That bat scene was even more ludicrous than the one in Suspiria and the babysitter was so random! But the ending was very creepy and MUCH better than the ending to City of the Living Dead (though I still think the ending to The Beyond is the best).

    And yeah, there's something about those bearded characters that makes one feel so warm and fuzzy on the inside! Norman is a great example.

    1. I’m overjoyed to hear that it was better than you had expected. That means you liked it, right?
      I don’t know why, but Mae ended up being my favorite character. She just has so many great parts like her prediction to the babysitter’s death, and the part after we see Dr. Freudstein’s face for the first time where the film felt the need to show her jump up into the frame and shout; noooooooooooo!!!! from some other room, most likely her home in the afterlife. Oh and that ending so random so confusing but so brilliant. And as random as she is, I still love that diabolically suspicious babysitter. And yeah, the ending for THE BEYOND is one of the best endings to a horror film ever. It gives me chills every time I watch Warbeck and MacColl with whitened eyes disappear into thin air, into THE BEYOND.

      Haha, I was in a weird and witty mood when I thought of the beard collage. It’s so weird that in retrospect I’m almost wondering what the hell I was thinking, but it’s something I don’t think anyone else thought of and for that I think I should be proud.