I can’t tell if Lucio Fulci really was il maestro or a hack with a knack for absolutely revolting death scenes. For years I faced the gorehound fanboy chorus that shoved the notion that he’s some kind of mad genius down my throat and I really can’t decide. I certainly love watching his movies but recounting them for people who aren’t familiar with his style can be a real chore. Someone will want to know about The Beyond and I find myself at a loss to explain the plot and the appeal in any kind of understandable phrasing. His movies are just weird and I can’t tell if they were intended to be or not.
House By The Cemetery was released during Fulci’s most prolific year as a filmmaker, 1981. Along with this movie, The Black Cat was released as well as what many consider to be his masterpiece, The Beyond (aka Seven Doors of Death). Being such a busy guy, you might wonder how one man can kick out three movies in a year and have them make any kind of sense. I’m here to answer that question. He doesn’t. House By The Cemetery apes popular themes from some of Hollywood’s more restrained horror movies and puts Fulci’s personal brand on it by adding gallons of blood, vicious violence and a zombie but like many of his horror movies it’s a frenzied, surreal nightmare of incoherent storytelling.
Norman Boyle moves his family temporarily out of New York City to a colonial house in the fictional town of Whitby, Massachusetts in order for some much needed focus and relaxation while he continues the research his colleague, Dr. Peterson, was working on before he murdered his mistress and hung himself. He brings along his wife, Lucy (played by Fulci regular Catriona MacColl) and extremely weird son, Bob. Before they move in, Bob spends a lot of time at home staring at a photo wherein he claims a girl in the window warns him not to go to the house in New England. His parents, of course, dismiss it as Bob’s imagination and off they go to Whitby to move into the very same house in the photo.
Fulci sets it up nicely. As in many of his movies where he strives for a spooky atmosphere, he does a pretty good job of it. I don’t imagine how anyone would ever willingly buy the house in question as it is literally located adjacent to a cemetery but it’s a nice set-piece that lends a lot to the atmosphere. Drink it in deep, though, things are about to change. Fulci sets up a lot of potential plot points and then never goes back to them. However, if you’re here and watching the movie, you probably came looking for the kind of kills that only Fulci was providing at the time. Almost immediately, Daniela Doria, who puked her guts out, literally, in City of the Living Dead, gets a knife through the top of her head and out her mouth. There’s also a surreal and suitably gross decapitation scen.
Lucy is apprehensive about moving into the house, though she can’t put a finger on why. It might have something to do with the headstones in the front yard. Seriously. Had that been me, I would have told the realtor that she could go fuck herself and find me another house. Then we wouldn’t be in this mess, the realtor and babysitter would still be alive and there would be no zombie in the basement. There are other obvious creeps around that no one seems to pay much mind to. There’s the sound of crying throughout the house (which is actually kind of creepy) and the door to the basement is boarded up. Bob continues to play with his ghost girl/imaginary friend and the family has hired a babysitter (played by Ania Pieroni).
Most of the interactions between the family and the babysitter take place in extreme close ups of everyone’s eyes as they cast strange glances at one another and the camera shoots around to each of them as if to suggest something strange is going on. Fulci has a well-known hang up on eyes. Usually they’re being gouged out or people bleed from them but here he reins it in a bit and spends a lot of time zooming in on everyone’s gaze for reasons unknown. Anna the babysitter is also the last person you’d want to leave your child with. The entire time she seems to know something about the house and in an early part of the movie, May the ghost girl sees a mannequin that looks like Anna lose her head in a premonition of things to come. There’s also a scene where she feverishly tries to clean up the gore after another person is murdered in the house. Yet none of this is ever explored. She’s just one more body to occupy the scene and an eventual victim to be killed in one of the movie’s better kill scenes.
Lucy flips out and hears loud noises around the house and after a the bloodiest bat attack you’ve ever seen, demands to move out but before this can go down, the realtor goes to the house and becomes a victim of whatever it is that is lurking inside. In what is the best kill scene in the entire movie, she is punctured in several places by a fire poker and we’re treated to slow-mo eruptions of blood from the wounds before her mutilated body is dragged to the basement. Meanwhile, Norman has returned to New York and shifted his focus of research to the house, which is supposed to be some kind of cause of suicide in town and also was home to one Dr. Freudstein who was accused of conducting strange experiments on people in the house. Maybe he’s still there.
It’s fairly obvious that House By The Cemetery was filmed to cash in on haunted house themes popularized by The Amityville Horror and The Shining. Bob, the little boy, telepathically communicates with a ghost girl who sends hm warnings about the house. Lucy plays the tormented housewife married to a man obsessed with his work and trapped in a house that is freaking her out. There is also a scene that steals the glowing demon eyes right out from under Amityville. For reasons unknown, they couldn’t just leave well enough alone. I suppose that it is possible to make a bloody haunted house movie, but Fulci couldn’t help himself and during the film’s climax we discover that a dessicated zombie lurks in the basement and occasionally comes up to tear someone apart.
Fans of bloody special effects and Fulci will be pleased to find some nasty, close-up violence. They occasionally look a little cheap, as in the case of the murder of Anna the babysitter but you can rest assured that nothing is as cheesy as the spider attack from The Beyond. Forgiving fans of horror movies will find a lot to like in House By The Cemetery. The only thing that drags it down is the gratingly annoying little boy, Bob. His over the top cuteness is intensified by the sing-song voice used to dub his scenes. And unlike John John from City of the Living Dead, he has plenty of screen time to be repeatedly locked in the basement. As a matter of fact, everyone gets locked in the basement at some point. We, as a species, adapt to our climate, that’s why we have survived on this planet as long as we have. You might think, ther are bats in the basement. The bats bit Norman. I won’t go in the basement, or I’ll hire someone to come down and take care of them. And if that doesn’t sway you, you might think, people go down to the basement and never come back. I probably shouldn’t go in the basement. Fulci’s characters don’t seem to live by Darwin’s observations. These people willingly put themselves in harm’s way repeatedly even though you, the viewer, are assured that they should know better. Thankfully, for us, this means that everybody is going to die in spectacularly bloody fashion and in the end we can’t feel bad about it because they knew what they were getting into when they went down there.
Ultimately, the resolution is as nonsensical as most Fulci horror movies. In spite of all the spooky backstory that has been set up, Norman comes back from New York in the nick of time with all this heretofore unknown information about the evil Dr. Freudstein. He knows who he is and what he’s doing in their basement. How he gets this knowledge we never know. He just does.
Now you may think, Bryan has been shitting on this movie from the outset but the weirdest part is that I actually enjoy House By The Cemetery. It’s a nice way to burn 87 minutes and in spite of its blatant robbery of bigger Hollywood horror movies, a complete inability to weave a coherent story it’s packed with competent direction and fantastic kill scenes. What can I say? I see something in Fulci that I can’t really put my finger on. His characters are so completely stupid that it’s a wonder that they’ve survived childhood. These people do such stupid things and react in such inappropriate ways to the events around them that you’d think that they would have somehow accidentally drowned in the shower at some point. Like many Fulci movies, House is a frenzied mishmash of exploitation themes. The Italian script machine was in such a hurry to put as many popular ideas into their movie that they don’t take a second to step back and see that their movie is all duct tape and recycled ideas. With a little streamlining and some further drafts of the script, this could have been a genuinely good horror movie. But for now we’re going to have to settle on what it is.