The Italian gore maestro’s gothic spectacular is both grandiosely ambitious and irritatingly flawed.
Honestly, you go for ages without seeing a Lucio Fulci film, and then two come along at once. Hot on the heels of re-exploring The Beyond comes a thorough new blu-ray of The House by the Cemetery, offering a chance to see if this too has lost its shine over the decades.
When I first saw The House by the Cemetery on VHS, not long after the Uk theatrical release, I considered it to be another step up for the maverick Italian director, showing an impressive maturity and willingness – at least in part – to replace the excess with a degree of subtlety. But as with The Beyond, I was perhaps being too kind in my fulsome teenage praise for the film – a movie I enjoyed enough to have the UK poster on my wall for some years and buy the soundtrack LP (or which more shortly). It’s perhaps this juvenile affection for the film that has made me reluctant to revisit it – especially in the wake of the disappointing experience rewatching The Beyond – and in truth, it was a fear founded in some reality. The House by the Cemetery now feels like a movie with grand ideas but lacking the necessary wherewithal to fully execute them. That it comes so close makes it all the more frustrating.
The film is essentially The Amityville Horror via Suspiria and The Shining, as a couple – Lucy (Fulci favourite Catriona MacColl) and Norman (Paolo Malco) – move into a grand, if dilapidated old house in New York, commonly known as ‘the Freudstein house’ after a doctor who had lived there many years before. Norman is a professor of some sort doing some vague research and is prone to acting mysteriously; Lucy is basically a throwaway character, and a wasted opportunity for MacColl. With them is son Bob, played by Giovanni Frezza, and one of the biggest problems with the film. Italian horror cinema has a curious penchant for odd-looking child actors – kids who seem to have been found in the sideshow rather than an acting school – and Bob may well be the most appalling to have graced the genre, an annoyingly whiny little shit who has been unkindly but accurately referred to as ‘the pig-faced boy’. Naturally, he seems to be the central character and is in the film constantly.
The Freudstein House has a bad history, which seems to include recent murders that have yet to be solved (we see one in the impressive opening scene), the family have an oddball babysitter played by Ania Pieroni, Bob is constantly given vague warnings by a ghost child called Mae and every so often, someone dies in a typical Fulci set-piece – a long a gory death that has a slow build-up. It seems Dr Freudstein was involved in strange and illegal experiments involving the elongation of life, and is still alive in the cellar of the house, surrounded by rotting and mutilated corpses – the sort of thing that a conscientious real-estate agent might have picked up on while inspecting the house, you might think. Whenever I’ve moved into a house with a cellar, I’ve always taken a look down there before signing the lease, but maybe that’s just me. Or perhaps it’s because I saw this film and now know to check.
The House by the Cemetery is probably the best-paced of Fulci’s early Eighties gothic – which we’ll say run from City of the Living Dead through to Manhattan Baby – and seems to be setting its sights higher than the other films – there’s a sense that Fulci wanted to make a sophisticated horror story here, leaving aside the zombies of his previous movies (we could argue that Freudstein is a zombie of sorts, but certainly not in the traditional sense) for something moodier. There are still the ultra gory moments, and at least one of them is as long and drawn out – albeit more effectively – than anything in The Beyond, but on the whole, Fulci manages to integrate the gore into the atmospherics more comfortably than in the earlier films. What’s more, he creates a few impressive, if rather ludicrous set pieces – although it does feel as though he is already copying himself at this point, the scene of an axe chopping through a door while Bob’s head is held by Freudstein millimetres from the blade feels like a re-run of a scene involving a shovel and a coffin in City of the Living Dead, for instance. But as unlikely as many of these moments seem – and if you expect the narrative to hold together or anyone’s actions to make any sense, then tough luck – the film pulls them off with such a sense of grandiosity that it almost defies you to point out the plot holes and general nonsense scattered throughout. Some atmospheric imagery helps immensely, as does Walter Rizzati’s score, which might not have the iconic themes of a Fabio Frizzi soundtrack but is, dare I say, better than any apart from Zombie Flesh Eaters.
Annoyingly though, for every impressive moment, there is a clunky performance (which can’t always be explained away as bad dubbing), a gaping plot hole or a careless bit of editing or framing – the claims that Fulci was essentially a hack who got lucky are harder to refute when you see some of the sloppy moments that made it into this film. None of them are vital scenes, but you do expect a filmmaker to take as much care with simple transitions as with the money shots, frankly. As I’ve said before, I think the dismissal of Fulci is as misguided as the deification of him, but there’s definitely a sense of laziness and disinterest at play in parts of this movie. And that’s a shame.
I’m genuinely curious to know how Fulci’s films play for audiences who are unfamiliar with his work and are not watching them through rose-tinted glasses – given the horror stories of Argento’s Suspiria being laughed off screen by hipster audiences, maybe it’s best not to find out. For the fans who adore him – and they are nothing if not fanatical – I doubt anything I can say will make any difference, and in truth, I do maintain a certain affection for this series of films even as I see their faults. The House by the Cemetery might not be the masterpiece I once believed it to be, but it was still a lot more entertaining, stylish, ambitious and weirdly operatic than pretty much any of the newly made horror films that I’ve had to endure recently. If Fulci was not, ultimately, quite up to the ambition of his own work, more power to him for at least trying and for making films that are still the most outrageous and gleefully ludicrous movies you will ever see.
The House by the Cemetery is now out on a new 4K blu-ray restoration from Blu Underground. The 3 disc set includes interviews with pretty much everyone involved in the film apart from Fulci, and the soundtrack CD – a must-have item in itself.