“No one will ever know if children are monsters or monsters are children”
– Henry James
And so ends Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery, with a begging-the-question quote cheekily attributed to Henry James but actually fabricated by the Italian filmmaker himself. The House by the Cemetery came at the tail end of Fulci’s “golden period”, released smack dab between the masterful The Beyond and the super-sleazy (though very good) The New York Ripper. House is an intriguing film: disjointed and inscrutable and yet indescribably hypnotic and brilliant.
In House, Dr. Norman Boyle moves from New York to Boston to resume the research of his late colleague Dr. Peterson. Peterson was researching a certain Dr. Fruedstein (though why Freudstein was worthy of academic study is never made clear) before going mad and killing both his mistress and himself. Also not crystallized is why researching Freudstein requires living in the Freudstein house, located unsurprisingly by a cemetery (irrelevant really, but it does provide for a cool title.)
Boyle takes his family with him, including his wife Lucy (Catriona MacColl in her third appearance in a Fulci film) and his son Bob, played by Giovanni Frezza. Bob is derided by many as the most annoying child in film history. Frezza certainly is, um, interesting looking: a kid with a forehead so large it looks like it’s trying to escape his face with a He-Man haircut that does him no favors. In addition, Bob’s dubbed voice grates like a tracheotomy patient singing Nickelback. But the most annoying thing about Bob is simply that he’s a kid named Bob and not Bobby and the word “Bob” is said in the film roughly 275 times.
As the family is preparing for the move, Bob looks at a photograph of the Freudstein house and spies a screaming girl in the window. He has some sort of telepathic link with the red-headed girl and is somehow able to communicate with her. She warns Bob to stay away. The young girl, Mae, is played by Silvia Collatina, an actress described by the actor who played Dr. Boyle as having “a very unsettling face, quite scary actually.” Between Bob and Mae, nobody’s winning any child beauty pageants here.
Upon settling in, many an unsettling and quite scary thing does occur, and much of it doesn’t make a lick of sense. The basement is boarded shut; the townsfolk feel they’ve seen Dr. Boyle before even though it’s his first visit; a beautiful girl arrives to babysit and proceeds to remove the bars from the basement door; and ungodly cries, squeals and moans emanate from the basement. Oh and Dr. Freudstein’s tomb is located smack-dab in the middle of the living room. Dr. Boyle nonchalantly shrugs off the discovery by saying “This ain’t New York” as if every house in New England came furnished with a built in central mausoleum.
For as many plot threads that are raised in House by the Cemetery, that many are left unresolved. And yet it doesn’t matter. Why? Because it’s f*cking Fulci operating at the peak of his powers. Fulci’s best films exist on a level beyond reason and logic, substituting coherence and unity for a dreamlike atmosphere that’s equal parts spellbinding, terrifying and beautiful.
And let’s not forget the gore. Fulci was a master in the use of the groovy, groovy red stuff. The man used blood and grue like Rembrandt used paint. For an example, take the scene with the estate agent. To Lucy’s credit, when she discovers weird things happening in the house, she initiates plans to do what most in horror movies should yet never do, namely get the hell out! The estate agent arrives but instead of finding Lucy, she finds a fireplace poker in her neck, wielded by one Dr. Freudstein (yes, he’s alive though with only one hand and a face resembling a melted yellow crayon.) For most filmmakers, it would be stab, bit of blood then cutaway. But Lucio Fulci is not most filmmakers. Freudstein twists and turns the poker as blood pours out of the wound. Then a second stab and more red rivulets. Next, the poker enters the neck, resulting in a hole the size of a half dollar and a drench of arterial spray. Finally, the poor agent is dragged into the basement with half her face looking like it was bashed by a meat tenderizer and her sanguine-soaked hair painting across the floor.
The final act in the basement is a tour de force of extreme gore, unsettling atmosphere and stifling claustrophobia. The surprise ending is supernatural in nature and seems to confound many, but it does work if one looks at the entire film as a reflection of childhood fears and nightmares: a world where security and safety are fragile and the known world feels as if it can fall right out from under at any given moment.
House by the Cemetery is at heart a very twisted fairy tale (and all fairy tales at heart are quite twisted.) The atmosphere is heavy, the score is fantastic and the gore is plentiful. Highly recommended.
****1/2 (out of 5)