Opening in a night setting with a close-up shot of a gravestone surrounded by branches of a bush the camera then pans to the right as we hear the diegetic sound of dogs howling and Walter Rizzati’s atmospheric piano tinged synth score creep in and we see established the primary setting of “The House by the Cemetery”. The camera lingers for about 15-seconds to show us there is activity in the downstairs front room with the movement of lights as Rizzati’s music gradually becomes louder.
Cutting to the interior of this abandoned house the shot is of a tombstone in the floorboards of said front room and the camera then tilts up to introduce us to a young blonde woman sitting on the stone with her tits out putting her shirt back on just after shagging with her boyfriend who she is calling out for. She gets up to look around for him and after a little while a door slams shut behind her to reveal her boyfriend’s corpse hung up on it - his head cut open exposing his brain and a pair of scissors is embedded in his chest. The camera zooms in for an extreme close-up of her face as she screams in fright and then quickly tilts up to behind her a hand with rotting flesh holding a carving knife. The assailant just as quickly stabs the woman through the back of her head with the tip of the knife coming out of her mouth. She falls to the floor dead and then the camera zooms in on her left hand for a close-up of an engagement ring she is wearing. The unseen killer who is obviously zombiefied due to the decaying flesh on their arms grabs her legs and drags her body into the basement and its creaking door slowly shuts behind them. The title sequence then starts over another establishing long shot of the house behind some trees.
With this opening pre-title sequence director and co-screenwriter, the late Lucio Fulci has perfectly set-up the proceedings to follow - a hodgepodge of sub-genres with the haunted house and slasher and zombie elements and violent gory imagery all encapsulated in a powerful atmosphere induced by Sergio Salvati’s wonderfully crisp cinematography and the aforementioned powerful soundtrack by Walter Rizzati. As the film progresses themes and motifs are presented, which have striking similarities to James Whale’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1931), Stuart Rosenberg’s ‘The Amityville Horror’ (1979) and Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ (1981). Although, Fulci denied anything had been lifted from the latter two titles there. There is a clear influence here though of Whale’s ‘Frankenstein’ as the antagonist Freudstein (an obvious amalgamation of Freud and Frankenstein) embodies both the doctor and the monster and is another use of a horror sub-genre - the mad scientist. This is a ghastly creature; a living corpse made up of the body parts of his victims and is one of Lucio Fulci’s most creative and memorable villains of his horror era.
Dr. Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco) leaves New York with his family - wife Lucy (Catriona MacColl) and son Bob (Giovanni Frezza) - to pick up the research of his deceased colleague Dr. Petersen who committed suicide after killing his mistress. Peterson was researching the work of Dr. Freudstein who was a Victorian surgeon that conducted illegal experiments. They go to stay in an isolated house in the woods of Boston that had belonged to Petersen and before him Freudstein. Bob befriends a girl named Mae (Silvia Collatina) who only he sees and she warns him to leave the house. Soon a baby sitter Ann (Silvia Collatina) arrives, strange and creepy things start to happen, and the Boyles soon discover the terrifying secret behind the basement door.
This is the second Fulci experience I ever had after watching his most famous movie yet overrated 1979’s ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ (the UK title for ‘Zombi’ and my preferred title for it). I have always appreciated it for the same reasons I do this though. I have to give credit where credit is due because despite its shortcomings, this is a work of such power in its imagery and atmosphere. The cinematography is gorgeous, the prolonged set-pieces are sublimely executed with the gore galore provided by fantastic special make-up effects and supplemented extremely effectively by the director’s sound design as we hear excruciatingly the ripping of the flesh and the musical score is electrifying. Lucio Fulci also has the balls to put his leading child character Bob in mortal danger. This little boy communicates with the Freudstein’s deceased daughter Mae in the story’s fantastical supernatural elements that focuses on the children and although the ending may seem confusing, it is a fitting and haunting coda to this.
When Fulci’s films are structured to create an exercise purely in nightmarish imagery and powerful atmosphere with non-existent cohesive narratives and paying little attention to building suspense and tension it works very well. He strived for plotless affairs devoid of all logic existing to just string all this together and was successful with the solid City of the Living Dead (1980) and he perfected this formula with his greatest horror work ‘The Beyond’ released just previously in the same year of 1981 as the title in review here. All three make up his unofficial ‘Gates of Hell’ trilogy.
I can excuse the illogical inconsistences and the lack of suspense and tension in these movies because it does not matter. Here though like ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’, Lucio Fulci actually tries to tell a story focusing on characters and this is where he comes unstuck. He also uses the basic structure of a traditional haunted house tale - there is backstory about the house’s past, family moves in with spooky goings on although here there are more slasher elements and then resolution with the climatic confrontation of the family against the shambling walking corpse of Freudstein replacing the supernatural force. All this should be planned out with careful pacing and suspense and tension built up through the storytelling but there is little of it; other than in the scenes in which Ann and Bob, confront Freudstein in the darkness of the basement. Fulci knew nothing about pacing and building suspense and tension in horror and this is a problem when trying to tell a story focusing on characters.
Some may point out that ‘The Beyond’ uses the same haunted house structure as well. While this is the case, all it is is the house’s backstory, a non-character woman moves into the house and then shit happens as other non-characters round her are nastily killed off in a surrealistic experience of gruesome imagery and heavy atmosphere. Unlike that film though, this focuses on story and characterization mostly around the children. Speaking of the children the English dubbing track is largely okay except for Bob whose voice makes for one of the most annoying kids ever in horror.
Because it is so structured narratively, it is hard to excuse the illogical bullshit as well. Like when Ann is cleaning up blood off the floor in front of Lucy, the morning after the estate agent who sold the house to the Boyles is murdered on top of the tombstone and Lucy is not in the slightest bit concerned. There is also when Norman catches Ann trying to open the basement door late at night and does not say or do anything about it. Although this is actually an ineffectual red herring with an implied relationship between Norman and Ann and her sudden appearance supposedly triggering the sinister goings on. It can be seen coming a mile off though due to the information given to us previously that makes it a redundant attempt at misleading the audience.
I am not a fan of anything Lucio Fulci made post-Beyond. His greatest work outside of his earlier giallo fare and one of my favourite Italian horror movies seemed to be his Achilles’ heel and with increasing problems both personal and health related and his constant need to work to take his mind of his problems resulted in a creative burn out. In my honest opinion as an outright horror filmmaker Fulci is a mostly overrated auteur with the exceptions of City of the Living Dead and ‘The Beyond’ because they were designed to play to his strengths in the genre. It was not until I saw those two previously mentioned titles and then went back in his filmography and watched his four gialli all of which are excellent - ‘Perversion Story’ (1969), 'A Lizard in a Woman's Skin' (1971), 'Don't Torture a Duckling' (1972) and ‘Seven Notes in Black’ (1977) - that I really became to appreciate him as a director. Although he contributed four of the finest entries in this genre, he would fail miserably in his return to it with the overrated tripe of The New York Ripper (1982) and the dismal and forgettable Murder Rock (1984).
To an extent though, I quite enjoy ‘The House by the Cemetery’. It is by no means a completely awful effort and is certainly better than anything that followed later in Lucio Fulci’s body of work. Along with ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ it is a film I will stick on from time to time to appreciate its strengths. It serves as a testament to how great Fulci was at staging prolonged set-pieces of graphic violence and realizing truly horrific gory imagery and wrapping it all up in an extremely effective atmosphere but did not know how to pace a horror story and give it the suspense and tension it needs.
** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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