Lucio Fulci will always be synonymous with one word: gore. So convincing were his grisly excesses he was once hauled into court on suspicion of animal cruelty thanks to some disturbingly realistic mutilations courtesy of Academy Award winning special effects maestro Carlo Rambaldi, and three of the 72 movies banned as ‘video nasties’ by the British Board of Film Classification belonged to him. In 1985, infamous giallo The New York Ripper proved so offensive that every UK print was shipped to an airport and returned to Italy by order of BBFC secretary, James Ferman, and the controversy didn’t stop there.
Fulci would also exploit that old chestnut religion, sacrilegious characters such as mass-murdering tykes raising the ire of appalled Catholics the world over. 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 achieved cult status for movies such as the inimitable Zombie Flesh Eaters (Zombi 2), which is 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 mesmerising elegance? How many other instances 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 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. Some of those blood and guts flourishes are more than a little dated in hindsight, but there’s 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 the ‘trilogy’. It is also arguably the weakest, but there is still much 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.”
Attempting to apply conventional mechanics to Fulci’s work is an often futile endeavour. If you’re looking for a logical plot, neat resolutions and plain-sailing coherency, you’re in the wrong place, but if you’re looking for open-ended narratives that linger in the mind like the remnants of an all-consuming fever dream, welcome to flavour country. Fulci’s best works are like vague poems that beg for interpretation, and The House by the Cemetery is as dreamy as it is disorientating, forging a unique atmosphere that creeps upon you like a mist-concealed graveyard. To call his work sketchy and illogical is to miss the point entirely. His film’s are those things, sometimes maddeningly so, but their ethereal qualities are in part derived from the seemingly cavalier presentation. This is horror that you feel in your bones.
With commercialism in mind, the plot is as conventional as it gets, a family of three leaving 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 largely neglected 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 not as predictable as you may have presumed. Forced to investigate the not-so-subtle occurrences threatening his family’s very sanity, Norman begins to investigate and soon discovers that the property’s one time owner, Dr Freudstein (as in Sigmund, whose influence looms large here), is not buried in the cemetery as the town’s records would have them believe, but is in fact living in the basement as a mummified corpse that needs human victims in order to renew its cells.
Despite its narrative insouciance, The House by the Cemetery is something of an attempt at cinema in the more traditional vein, particularly when compared with the other two entries in his trilogy, and its cumbersome pacing often steps beyond the realms of shear, visceral atmosphere into ponderous territory. Fans will tell you the film falls short of peak Fulci, something that is difficult to dispute at times, but when it hits it hits, especially for those with a vampiric taste for split arteries, which drench Fulci’s death white canvas like an epileptic Jackson Pollock.
Fulci commits himself to painstaking acts of murder, scenes made all the more uncomfortable by the film’s sound design, Walter Rizzati’s often gentle, often painful, always ominous score a bona fide synth classic. The antithesis of the majority of mindless pap pushing society towards the censorship door, the film delivers palpable tension and philosophical symbolism 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. This is Frankenstein for the giallo generation.
There are a few modern influences here — the Freudstein home is straight out of The Amityville Horror, and 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 dressed in the eerily Gothic, with gorgeous set design and a director who stalks his victims from every cobwebbed cranny. Fulci creates a dreamlike canvas for his crimson splatterfest, resulting in the kind of unreal experience that seems to cleanse as it inevitably soaks.