One of three horror films cult horror director Lucio Fulci released in 1981, following The Black Cat and The Beyond, House by the Cemetery is an odd but interesting syncretism of supernatural and gore movie.
In the prologue, a young woman in a deserted, cobwebbed house buttons up her blouse, obviously after having just done the nasty with her boyfriend, who is, uh, hanging around in the basement. After creeping around for a bit, she stumbles across his impaled body, and as she screams a blade is viciously plunged through her head, improbably emerging from her mouth. Her body is dragged across the floor and into the darkened basement; the door bangs shut. Cue titles. Even this brief sequence mashes up filmic styles, beginning with the dread of the unknown and then dropping straight into slasher movie territory.
Set in “New Whitby, Boston”, the story follows New Yorkers Norman and Lucy Boyle (Paolo Malco and Catriona MacColl) moving into Oak Mansion, the abode from the pre-title sequence. Set amidst a gloomy wood, the old house is an imposing three stories with a turret on the side, and was once the home of a certain Dr. Freudstein, whose tombstone is found under a rug and inset in the wood floor. Norman is continuing the research of a Dr. Peterson, the previous occupant of Oak Mansion, who killed his mistress before hanging himself.
From the opening moments, the film is ripe with horror movie tropes. The house manifests creaking and scratching noises, plus the sound of a child sobbing. In a Stephen King-like touch, the couple’s son has a telepathic connection with a mysterious little girl in New Whitby who attempts to warn him that the house is dangerous. Lucy finds a creepy old doll. There’s an uncanny cellar, the door to which inevitably closes behind some hapless victim. A cassette tape plays back the previous occupant’s descent into madness (he does not recite ancient Sumerian incantations though). A glowing pair of eyes appears in the inky black of a deep shadow. And the flick attempts a Shining-like mysterious ending that is merely head scratching. However, despite the ripeness of the cliches, the film does have a hypnotic aspect thanks to Fulci’s stylish visuals and composer Walter Rizzati’s pulsing electronic score.
There are moments that don’t entirely make sense or are unconnected to other elements. Norman finds the enigmatic babysitter, Ann (Ania Pieroni), prying open a barricaded door but then leaves her, not even asking her what she’s doing. Scratching noises and the sounds of a crying child randomly manifest. Lucy is on some unnamed medication that may cause hallucinations–a set up for a “is she imagining it or not” angle that never develops. House by the Cemetery, then, falls squarely in the tradition of genre films that eschew strict narrative to sustain a disorienting and nightmarish tone of unpredictability.
In one sense, the film is an odd marriage of styles as this is goremeister Fulci’s version of a haunted house story. The first iteration of the screenplay was influenced by Henry James’s novel The Turn of the Screw. This aspect sits uneasily with Fulci’s trademark pushing of the gore content and there’s a distinct crudity to the unnecessarily gooey slayings in the context of the otherwise supernatural trappings of the picture (like Fulci’s Zombie (1979), the film made the UK video nasties list). The murder of a real estate lady dips deep into splatter/slasher territory, with slow motion closeups of spurting blood. Another victim has her throat slashed not once but THREE times in succession, gouts of blackish stage blood squirting out generously. Even an attack by a bat is pushed to the limits with the creature latching onto Norman’s hand and having to be stabbed to a bloody pulp to make it stop. Ultimately, the film even takes a swerve into Frankenstein territory, though this spoiler-lite piece will leave out exactly how and why that happens. The shift in tone can be quite jarring, though it does have the effect of conjuring a genuinely unnerving atmosphere where you’re unsure what grim, sadistic event will manifest next.
Four of the five gory slayings we witness are of women, opening the film to accusations of misogyny. Actor Paolo Malco’s recounting of Fulci’s sadistic enjoyment of shooting the death scenes of the female cast seems to bear this out. Though in the interview on the disc with Dagmar Lassander, who plays the real estate agent skewered with a poker, she flatly contradicts this and notes how nice Fulci was with her. So who knows? When the sequences of women being slain are this sadistic yet lingeringly rendered, it’s hard to argue against misogyny, though I wonder if Fulci was simply a misanthrope. Discuss amongst yourselves.
For all its crudity, there is a visual sumptuousness to House by the Cemetery. Fulci uses the full 2.35:1 widescreen to great effect. He often has an actor’s head in the foreground corner of a frame, rack focusing to a character in the background. The sets of the house are convincingly aged and decaying, reminding one of Mario Bava’s ghost tale Kill Baby…Kill (1966). The film was shot on location in New York, Boston, and Concord, Massachusetts. Interiors were filmed in Rome.
I’m running out of superlatives to describe how exquisite the transfers of older genre films are on 4K discs like this. Though there is the occasional softness to the image that appears to be intentional, the picture is opulently detailed, with bright colours and bottomless blacks. Suffice it to say that Blue Underground have shot for the moon and hit the stars with the image quality on their House by the Cemetery 4K disc.
The extras, the bulk of which are on the second disc, cover all the bases of the film production. Every principle member of the cast is interviewed and they have fascinating recollections of working with Fulci. In his interview, Giovanni Freazza, who plays the little boy in the film, amusingly apologizes for the appallingly bad voice that was dubbed over his lines in the English language version. Other featurettes involve the writers, the cinematographer, and the special effects artists. The one audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films, is lively and informative.
Suffice it to say that Blue Underground’s 4K disc of House by the Cemetery is a horror hound’s must-have.
The complete list of special features:
(Disc 1 – 4K)
- Audio commentary by Troy Howarth.
- Deleted scene.
- Theatrical trailers; TV spot.
- Poster and still galleries.
(Disc 2 – blu ray)
- Meet the Boyles – Interviews with Stars Catriona MacColl and Paolo Malco
- Children of the Night – Interviews with Stars Giovanni Frezza and Silvia Collatina
- Tales of Laura Gittleson – Interview with Star Dagmar Lassander
- My Time With Terror – Interview with Star Carlo De Mejo
- A Haunted House Story – Interviews with Co-Writers Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Briganti
- To Build a Better Death Trap – Interviews with Cinematographer Sergio Salvati, Special Make-Up Effects Artist Maurizio Trani, Special Effects Artist Gino De Rossi, and Actor Giovanni De Nava
- House Quake – Interview with Co-Writer Giorgio Mariuzzo
- Catriona MacColl Q&A
- Calling Dr. Freudstein – Interview with Stephen Thrower, Author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci