Tagline: Read the fine print. You may have just mortgaged your life!
Director: Lucio Fulci
Writers: Lucio Fulci, Giorgio Mariuzzo, Dardano Sacchetti
Starring: Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Ania Pieroni, Giovanni Frezza, Silvia Collatina, Dagmar Lassander, Giovanni De Nava
Banned | 1hr 26min | Horror
As a director, Lucio Fulci will always be synonymous with one word: gore. So convincing was he in the blood department he was once hauled into court on suspicion of animal cruelty due to some disturbingly convincing mutilations courtesy of Academy Award winning special effects maestro Carlo Rambaldi, while three of the 72 movies banned as ‘video nasties’ by the British Board of Film Classification belonged to him. In 1985, subsequent giallo The New York Ripper proved so offensive to the censoring board that every print in the country was taken to an airport and returned to Italy by order of BBFC secretary, James Ferman, and the controversy didn’t stop there.
Fulci would also use religion as a source of controversy in his films, sacrilegious characters such as mass-murdering child killers raising the ire of appalled Catholics the world over, while 1972‘s Don’t Torture a Duckling, the first of his movies to feel the heat of public outrage, told the story of a small Southern Italian village overcome by a series of grisly child murders. All of this may seem a little old hat in 21st century cinema, but back in 1972 people were far more easily offended. For anyone reading these stories in the tabloids, Fulci was the devil incarnate.
So the man had his share of enemies, people who regarded his films as nothing more than a platform for cynical acts of slaughter, but there is more to Fulci’s work than gratuitous violence, and with censorship hysteria now a distant nightmare, it is okay to say as much without facing the prospect of jail time (how silly does that sound after all these years?). In reality, Fulci is something of an artiste, a filmmaker who has achieved an international cult following for pictures such as the inimitable Zombie Flesh Eaters (Zombi 2), a movie as fondly remembered for its surreal beauty as it is for its moments of legendary controversy. Who else could take a concept as absurd as a zombie fighting a shark and present it with such mesmeric elegance? How many other moments of censorship infamy were as talked about as the infamous shard of wood through the eyeball, a moment that was discussed with an almost mythical reverence for the decades that it was deemed unfit for public consumption?
Even by today’s standards, Fulci’s unofficial ‘Gates of Hell’ trilogy — one that includes, The Gates of Hell, The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery — is a fairly graphic series of films, and it is easy to see how society may have been whipped into a frenzy all those years ago. Okay, so some of the special effects are more than a little dated, but there is something about good old-fashioned practical effects that really hits home. CGI may look great, but in some ways it cheapens the horror. With a hands-on approach, sometimes the lines are just a little more blurred.
The House by the Cemetery is the third instalment of Fulci’s infamous zombie ‘trilogy’, and though it is arguably the weakest of the bunch there is still a lot to admire. The movie is famous for having a narrative that is often incomprehensible, partly due to problems with the screenplay involving script doctor Giorgio Mariuzzo, Fulci himself and screenwriter and eventual adversary Dardano Sacchetti, who Fulci would later accuse of stealing his ideas for Lamberto Bava’s made-for-TV movie Until Death. Sacchetti would disagree, saying of the then out of work Fulci, “It’s one thing for him to say that we were originally supposed to make the film together, but to claim that he originated the story and that I stole it from him is pure science fiction.”
In a conventional sense, The House By the Cemetery is deeply flawed. The premise is weak and wholly derivative, the plot uninspired and the dubbing generally lousy, but as is the case with directors such as Dario Argento, those elements are peripheral to the overall scheme of things. Like all great horror, this is something you can feel in your bones — an ethereal, often cringing experience which operates on a purely visceral level. It may not be as artistically refined as movies like Argento’s Suspiria, but it is art in the most gruesome sense of the word, and its dreamlike qualities derive from its technical disorientation. Whether or not this is purposeful is up for debate, but it works a treat nonetheless.
The tale is distinctly familiar as a family of three leave New York for a New England townhouse, a seeming idyll where Dr. Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco) looks to continue the work of former resident Professor Muller. The doc supposedly went crazy while staying at the house, slaughtering his wife in cold blood before hanging himself from a rail. If that wasn’t enough to dissuade them from going through with their quasi-vacation, the fact that their young son was warned by the spirit of a young girl should have been, her appearance in a seemingly innocuous painting indicative of the director’s often surreal persuasion.
It’s not often that you get a ghost and a zombie in the same movie, and when the ill-fated trio ignore all warnings and inevitably move to the titular house, you begin to realise that events are perhaps not as predictable as you initially presumed. Forced to investigate the not-so-subtle strange occurrences threatening his family’s very sanity, Norman begins to investigate and soon discovers that the property’s one time owner, Dr Freudstein (yes, as in Sigmund), is not buried in the cemetery as the town’s records would have you believe, but is in fact living in the basement. In a plot development reminiscent of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, his mummified corpse needs human victims in order to renew its cells. This is Frankenstein for the giallo generation.
Fulci commits himself to painstaking acts of murder, scenes made all the more uncomfortable by the movie’s often excruciating sound design, which goes hand-in-hand with Walter Rizzati’s gentle, yet painfully ominous score. The antithesis of the majority of mindless pap pushing society towards the censorship door, the film delivers palpable tension by the bucket load, particularly during its agonizing finale, revelling as much in horror’s traditional ingredients as it does in the explicitness of the kill.
There are a few modern influences here — the Freudstein home is straight out of The Amityville Horror, while the brooding isolation of The Shining is more than a little prevalent, featuring children with a very familiar gift, but this is the same director who brought us a grisly adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat, and the movie’s most impressive sequences are drenched in the eerily Gothic, with gorgeous set design and a director who stalks his victims from every cobwebbed cranny.
Much like Argento, Fulci creates a dreamlike canvas for his crimson splatterfest, resulting in the kind of unreal experience that seems to cleanse as it inevitably soaks.
Fulci forged his inimitable legacy through the act of the kill, and he rarely disappoints. The House by the Cemetery is no exception, and although any one of the kills could be deemed the best, the laborious throat cutting and ultimate decapitation of mysterious babysitter, Ann (Ania Pieroni) proves the most unsettling.
Fulci can be masterful when it comes to creating tension, and The House by the Cemetery has more than its fair share of nerve-jangling moments, but the scene in which young Bob Boyle is stalked by the movie’s basement-dwelling zombie is perhaps the most effective as his frenzied mother struggles with the lock on the other side of the door.
Ann, although seemingly unrelated to any of the movie’s macabre happenings, is perhaps the most unsettling character in the movie, a fact punctuated when her death is foreshadowed by a decapitated mannequin with the same hauntingly alluring eyes.