Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Italian Horror Blogathon: The House by the Cemetery (aka Quella villa accanto al cimitero)

Lucio Fulci was on something of a roll when The House by the Cemetery was being filmed. Coming off what was his most creative stretch of films, Fulci was definitely establishing himself as the maestro of a particular brand of otherworldly horror. Aided by screenwriter Dardono Sacchetti and longtime partner cinematographer Sergio Salvati, this third entry in Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” series (which also includes City of the Living Dead and The Beyond) is the most neglected of the three films that make up the unofficial trilogy. Even though it doesn’t have the more memorable moments of visceral gore a la City or outré ambiance a la The Beyond, it is certainly one of the Italian horror master’s best films — with an emphasis, more than most of his non-giallo films, on character development and a slow burn, Gothic mood — sadly overshadowed by the films that came before and, more infamously, the films that followed. I was floored by my recent revisit of the film; I had seen House by the Cemetery three times prior to this viewing, and I have to say, my admiration has grown exponentially for a film that I initially didn’t think much of.

The film opens with a girl and her boyfriend sneaking into an abandoned house for a quick cuddle. The boyfriend wanders off, and as the girl looks for him, she stumbles upon his dead body and lets out a scream before a hand wielding a knife enters the frame. The knife then proceeds to go through the girls head, and in one of Fulci’s more famous effects (seen in the trailer below), the end of the blade comes out of her mouth. The girl’s body is then dragged away by the unknown assailant into a dark doorway just as the camera pans up from the floor to the (creaking) door closing, leaving the viewer without an answer. The film then cuts to the exterior of the house while the credits role. The opening feels very much like an American slasher (the tagline to the American poster is even quite slasher-y with its tagline: “Read the fine print: you may have just mortgaged your life,” which is an amazingly awesome tagline) and not at all like what follows, which is Fulci’s take on American favorites The Shining, The Amityville Horror, and Frankenstein.

The story proper begins on the same exterior shot of the house, only as the camera zooms in, we see a little girl peering through the curtains, mouth agape, looking out the window in an horrified fashion. Fulci freezes the frame and then zooms out to reveal that the girl is in a portrait that young Bob (Giovanni Frezzi) is starring at. Bob — who we will learn is an obvious takeoff of the Danny Torrance character — is the son to Norman and Lucy Boyle (Paolo Malco and Catriona MacColl), who live in New York but move to Boston for six months so he can take over his colleague’s (who killed his mistress and himself) research. Bob asks his mother who the little girl is, confusing Lucy. He tells her, “the girl in the picture.” Of course when Lucy looks at the picture, the girl is not there. However, when she leaves the room after telling Bob to quite joking around with her and pack the rest of his toys up, Bob looks at the picture again to once again find the little girl staring out the window.

This opening few minutes is atmospheric and intriguing (especially thanks to Walter Rizzati’s score), but the minute we hear the dubbing for Bob, it immediately takes us out of the movie whenever Bob is on screen; it’s that bad (there is a special feature on the DVD where Frezzi acknowledges the awful dubbing, good naturedly attributing this monstrosity that was out of his control to his popularity among horror fans). Thankfully, Fulci and his crew calibrate, making the awful dubbing (a staple of Italian horror, sure, but Bob’s voice is beyond even the most egregious Italian dubbing) an afterthought.

Back to the plot: as the Boyle’s move to Boston, they come to find that the house they were initially supposed to stay in is no longer available. However, one of the real estate agents, Harold, suggests “the Freudstein place” much to the chagrin Harold’s real estate partner Mrs. Gittelson (Dagmar Lassander), who takes Harold to task for not referring to it as “Oak Mansion,” which immediately causes Lucy to feel apprehensive about moving into this house. But Norman is so eager to get into his colleague’s aborted research that he agrees to take the keys belonging to the Freudstein house.

Bob, sitting in the car waiting for his parents to come out of the real estate office, sees the girl from the photo and shares a conversation with her from a distance, hinting that the two have the same kind of psychic/supernatural connection. As soon as Bob moves into his new house, she begins playing with him on a regular basis, warning him and his family of imminent doom if they stay in the house. One afternoon she shows Bob the tombstone belonging to one Mary Freudstein — located outside of the house they’re stating in — informing him that she isn’t really dead.

Meanwhile, Norman begins to hear strange noises coming from the basement, people in the town keep insisting that they’ve seen him before despite his claims that he’s never been there, and Lucy finds the tombstone — in a great reveal — for one Jacob Freudstein under a rug while she sweeps up around the house. Norman eventually finds out that Freudstein was an experimental Victorian surgeon who conducted illegal experiments in his basement. Hmmm. This knowledge seems to unlock a flurry of unfortunate circumstances (signaled by blood flowing from Freudstein’s tombstone) where people connected to the Boyle’s are being murdered by the mysterious killer from the opening of the film, who then drags them away to an unknown location.

The House by the Cemetery applies more of a slow burn approach to its story and setpieces. The idea that the townspeople seem to think Norman has visited the town before and that he has a daughter and not a son are admittedly little things, but they add enough intrigue to keep one watching. Fulci really lets things develop, and even though there isn’t that sense of dread that pervades every moment like his previous two “Gates of Hell” films, the attention to character detail here (that isn’t really found in his other two films of the trilogy) adds some dramatic weight to those tense final moments. Perhaps more than any other film he made, it really felt like Fulci was going for a Gothic horror atmosphere with this one.

This committed approach to make a Gothic horror really gives Fulci’s DP, Sergio Salvati, a chance to create some memorable, Gothic images (big empty mansions, cobwebs, shadowy corners, et al) that are evocative of Bava. Unfortunately, this would be the last time Fulci worked with Salvati, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s the last time a Fulci film had this kind of atmosphere in it. Perhaps more important than any other director/cinematographer collaboration in Italian horror, Fulci and Salvati really brought out the best in each other (Salvati was just as responsible for what made the likes of Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes, Zombi 2, City of the Living Dead, and The Beyond so memorable). Just a cursory glance at both of their IMDB pages suggests they were creatively stunted after they stopped working together. 

One of my favorite touches of Salvati’s is in the way he switches his aesthetic approach throughout the film, flipping back and forth between a sweeping camera and handheld. In one of the film’s best scenes — it’s both a great setpiece and tremendous moment that moves the narrative forward, something Fulci became increasingly less concerned with in subsequent films — we watch as Norman listens to his colleagues notes over a tape recorder. The camera cuts away from Norman in the library listening to the recording, but we can still hear the message from the recorder  (the use of diegetic sound from the tape recorder playing over this scene portends doom in a way that reminded me of The Evil Dead) as the camera zooms in on Norman’s eyes and then cuts to the cemetery outside of the house, switching to an handheld approach, walking the viewer through the cemetery, into the house, and up the stairs before we hear the word, “blood” echo from the tape recorder, triggering blood to poor out from Freudstein’s tombstone.

At this moment, the camera continues with its handheld aesthetic as it makes its way down the stairs of the basement — crudely gliding over the tables of dripping blood and severed limbs — before zooming in on the image of a corpse with an eviscerated stomach. This handheld approach makes the reveal of what’s been going on in that basement (apparently Freudstein has been collecting body parts and using his victims’ organs to regenerate himself) resonate more viscerally than the more deliberate, Bava-inspired camera dollies used throughout most of the film. Salvati employs the same tactic when Freudstein finally appears onscreen (more on that in a bit) as the shooting style is switched  to add more immediacy and menace to Freudstein’s presence.

It isn’t just an atmospheric horror film, though. Don’t fret hardcore Fulci fans, there are still plenty of those classic Lucio Fulci moments throughout The House by the Cemetery: completely arbitrary moments that displace the viewer (a mannequin in a store window has its head fall off, spilling blood everywhere in a scene that rivals the “What the fuck!?” moment from The Beyond where a random vial of acid falls on a woman’s face); extremely deliberate, “I dare you to look at this” moments of gore; an animal attack (this go-round it’s a bat in what is one of Fulci’s least inspired moments — flesh-eating spiders from Hell it is not); and a loose dream logic narrative structure that plays more like a nightmare (again, though, really toned down compared to the other two films of this series).

It should be noted that the palpable detachment found in later Fulci’s films is not evident here. In addition to the Gothic atmosphere he tries to establish, the other thing Fulci still seems to be invested in is the visceral nature of the film (although to be fair, even if I hate the movie, he did seem invested in that regard with The New York Ripper). The gore here doesn’t occur as often as it does in his previous films, but it is still really gory. The film’s most gruesome setpiece — Mrs. Gittelson being fireplace-pokered to death — was supposed to be even more brutal than it already is. In the scene, Mrs. Gittelson enters the house to tell the Boyle’s that she’s found a new house for them. However, she is approached by someone/something (okay, it’s Freudstein, who Fulci wisely leaves off camera until the end of the film) and gets a fireplace poker in the jugular for her troubles.

The scene plays out like a lot of Fulci gore setpieces with its overtly languid approach in regards to the moment the fireplace poker penetrates the woman’s skin. This is typical Fulci “I dare you to watch this” filmmaking, and it was intended to be the most graphic scene of Fulci’s oeuvre. When her body is being dragged away (this is one gory image), the remnants of what’s left are much more gruesome than initially implied by the fireplace-poker-in-the-neck scene that precedes it. There was supposed to be a scene where the caretaker’s head was brutalized by the poker as well, but they couldn’t execute it to Fulci’s standards, so the scene was cut (it was, it should be noted, not a scene that the censors cut and therefore has never been restored; I doubt the footage was ever kept). So if one looks closely at the woman’s body being dragged away, they’ll notice the poor woman’s face has holes in it. I don’t know what got into Fulci with this particular scene, but Jesus Christ is it brutal.

Oh, but just like the best Fulci films, The House by the Cemetery has so much more going for it than simple gore. Despite what the description of that previous setpiece suggests, Fulci is amazingly subdued here. The restraint he shows in saving the reveal of his monster until the very end is refreshing, and it pays off big time, for not only does Dr. Freudstein lay claim to one of the very best names I’ve ever heard in a horror film, but he is also quite simply one of the very best movie monsters I’ve ever seen. The ending comes off as doubly effective because of Fulci’s decision to withhold Freudstein for the whole film. All we have seen of Fredustein to that point is a hand here or foot there — always accompanied by a subjective point of view compete with creepy heavy breathing. This synecdochical approach to Freudstein’s reveal seems appropriate since his MO is to take body parts from others to restore his own body. So the ending is that much more meaningful because the reveal of the monster (who is only screen for maybe 5-10 minutes at the very end) is treated as something special.

About that ending: it is as good a setpiece that Fulci filmed, containing an ending with a twist that has the appropriate  “what the fuck just happened?” tone to it for an Italian horror film. And because we know that Italian horror films tend to favor nightmarish (il)logic more than narrative coherence, I was kind of on board for that ending. The logistics of the final scene made me think of The Beyond in the way it plays with time and space. It’s not as confounding as that weird freeze frame/cracked lens effect Fulci uses at the of City of the Living Dead, and it’s not quite as eerie and unsettling as the ending of The Beyond (where our characters are surrounded by a vast sea of nothingness), but it evokes a tone that falls safely somewhere in the middle of those two endings.

And really, a lot of The House by the Cemetery will feel that way to people: safe. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this piece, House doesn’t have teleporting zombies and a ghost priest that makes people regurgitate their innards, nor is it an ethereal horror masterpiece and one of the greatest horror films ever made. Even though the productions of the “Gates of Hell” trilogy all overlapped, and are very much of a piece (notice the similarity in settings that act as gateways: the bowels of the hotel in The Beyond, the catacombs in City, and the basement in House), they each offer something different. The House by the Cemetery is certainly the most subdued of the three.

“[T]here’s no logic to it, just a succession of images” is the way Fulci described this loose trilogy, and for the first time I started to notice that all three films, to quote Stephen Thrower, “haunt each other.” Fulci overlaps design (the inside of Freudstein's house looks like the inside of the Seven Doors Hotel), actors (MacColl, specifically), music, and cinematography (although Salvati went for look that's just a touch different with this one, they all definitely feel like some kind of eerie continuum, working together to fuck with the viewer) that give all three films a sense of déjà vu.

As I watched The House by the Cemetery again, I really began to notice how it shares a lot of the same eerie and atmospheric exterior shots as City of the Living Dead, or how it shares the kind of “I dare you to look at this” mentality of drawn-out gore scenes that are downright sadistic and nightmarish in how slowly they play out found in The Beyond. Scenes from each film become more intense and resonate more deeply because of our knowledge of the other films in the series. Because of this, I was able to appreciate House on a much different level than I had in the past; it unnerved me more because I was able to see how it worked in conjunction with the other films in the series, which gives it this kind of cross-tension that is unsettling because even though we aren’t watching the other films, they’re still affecting us. Prior to this viewing, I was always indifferent towards The House by the Cemetery; now, however, I think it rivals Don’t Torture a Duckling, Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes, and Zombi 2 as a candidate for Fulci’s second best film.


  1. So what's his first best? Lizard in a Woman's skin!!! I'm hoping it's City of the Living Dead as I think the Beyond wastes way too much time with lingering gross outs (like the tarantulas trying to escape the webs of silly string that's supposed to be a face)

    1. Erich, it is indeed The Beyond (although I really like City of the Living Dead, too). I just think that nightmare logic works better in that one than in any of his other horror films. I will grant you that the lingering gross outs are better in City, and that the spider scene--although not as silly as the bat scene in House--is pretty ridiculous. I should probably give City a rewatch, as I wouldn't be surprised at all if I were to have the same kind of change of heart I had in regards to House.

      Also, I haven't seen Lizard in a Woman's Skin yet! I know, I know. Maybe I could do psychodelic giallo double bill with Lizard and Martino's All the Color's of the Dark. Perhaps for next year's blogathon...

    2. IMHO Non si sevizia un paperino it is his best effort (tied with The Beyond) but this is really good movie: not a lot of sense but -as you said- the monster here is really great and creepy: one of the best I have seen!

  2. What a wonderful coincidence you should post this today Kevin, as I'll be looking at it later as part of that aforementioned double bill with Shock. As you suggest, this is definitely something of a grower, and probably more so than any film of Fulci's I've seen so far. And at present it's actually my favourite horror film ever made... it surprised even me when it overtook The Shining at the very last minute... obviously I'd never argue for it being a better movie (and it's certainly not the greatest Italian horror film ever made either), but it's undoubtedly the one I'd rather watch right now if I was given a choice. Great write-up as always by the way... frankly I'm now more than a little intimidated about starting my own :)

    1. Ooh, I look forward to reading your take on it. Thanks for the kind words, but there's no need to feel intimidated. Admittedly, this one got away from me, and like a lot of my stuff could probably use a tl;dr line at the bottom.

    2. I would't bother pandering to the ADD crowd, as frankly it's their loss if they can't be bothered reading an in-depth critique such as this. And in response to what you said to Erich, I think that City of the Living Dead is indeed another grower, and Lizard in a Woman's Skin and All the Colours of the Dark would make for one hell of a double feature!