Tasting Italian for the First Time: The House by the Cemetery
Think back to your first sip of beer. Chances are it was a domestic brew. Perhaps a Budweiser or a Coors Light. Or if you’re a Canuck like me, maybe a Molson Canadian. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a home-grown brew. They’re easy to procure and readily available. Plus, they do just what a beer should, which is either quench your thirst or get you right shit-faced, depending on your proclivity at the time of consumption.
But sometimes the palate becomes too accustomed to the local stuff, and the adventurous imbiber may wish to sample more exotic suds. Elixirs brewed and shipped from places abroad. The imports. It’s the same with horror. Once a fledgling horror fan feels too satiated with the homegrown terrors – the Fridays, the Nightmares, the Halloweens, etc. – they too may seek to wet their whistle with something a little more exotic. And so it was with me when I discovered the Italians.
From pizza to pasta, Verdi to Vivaldi, Raffaello to Rocky Balboa, the world owes much to Italy. And if you’re a horror fan, there’s also the holy trinity of Italian horror directors to be thankful for: Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci.
When I started researching horror from around the globe, it was those three names which intrigued me the most. I wanted to watch anything and everything they had made. But one could not just walk into your local Blockbuster and rent Argento’s Suspiria, Bava’s Black Sabbath, or Fulci’s Zombie (that is, unless your local Blockbuster was really cool… mine wasn’t). But thanks to the DVD boom, Anchor Bay was releasing a bunch of uncut Fulci films around that time, and the first one I managed to get my grubby little hands on was The House by the Cemetery.
Lucio Fulci directed 56 films in his career, including westerns (Four of the Apocalypse), gialli (A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin), mob movies (Contraband), and even films intended for children (White Fang). But it’s the pure horror films from his golden era (beginning in 1979 with Zombie and ending, arguably, in 1982 with the uber-sleazy The New York Ripper) for which he is most lauded. No one, and I do mean no one, could shoot gore like Fulci. The man used blood and grue like Michelangelo used paint.
The House by the Cemetery came as the filmmaker’s golden period was starting to wind down. Released in 1981, it’s certainly not the best Fulci film, but it was my first, and as they say, you never forget your first. Like most of the maestro’s most celebrated horrors, The House by the Cemetery is a film that defies conventional logic. It’s flawed and inscrutable, yet at the same time indescribably hypnotic and brilliant.
In House, the protagonist, Dr. Norman Boyle (Paulo Malco), is sent 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 Boyle to uproot his entire family from New York to Boston and live in the Freudstein house, located, naturally, right by a cemetery.
Along for the ride are Boyle’s wife, Lucy, played by Catriona MacColl in her third appearance in a Fulci film, and their precocious son, Bob, played by Giovanni Frezza. Frezza is derided by many as one of the most annoying kids in film history. He is certainly interesting looking: a kid with a forehead so large it looks like it’s trying to consume his entire face. His He-Man style bowl haircut also does the child no favors, and his dubbed voice grates like a tracheotomy patient singing Taylor Swift. But the most irritating thing about Bob is simply that he’s a kid named Bob (wouldn’t Bobby be more appropriate for a child?), and the word “Bob” is uttered at least 375 times throughout the film’s 86-minute runtime.
As the family is preparing for the move, Bob looks at a photograph of the Freudstein house and notices what appears to be a girl screaming in the window. Apparently, he has some sort of telepathic link with the red-headed child and is able to communicate with her. She tries to warn Bob to stay away. The girl’s name is Mae, and she is played by Silvia Collatina, a young actress described by Malco as having “a very unsettling face, quite scary actually.” Between Bob and Mae, nobody’s winning any beauty pageants in this one.
The Boyle family barely has an opportunity to unpack before the scary shit starts to go down. And let’s be honest here; much of it fails to make even the slightest lick of sense. The basement is inexplicably boarded shut; the townsfolk claim they’ve seen Dr. Boyle before even though it’s clearly his first visit; a beautiful girl suddenly and mysteriously arrives to babysit Bob; she removes the bars from the basement door for no apparent reason; and ungodly cries, squeals, and moans emanate from down below. Oh, and Dr. Freudstein’s tomb is located right smack-dab in the middle of the living room, a discovery made while Lucy is cleaning house. Dr. Boyle nonchalantly dismisses the morbid discovery by shrugging his shoulders and exclaiming, “This ain’t New York!” Apparently every house in New England comes furnished with a built-in central mausoleum.
For as many plot threads that are raised in The House by the Cemetery, that many are left unresolved. And yet, it doesn’t matter. Why? Because it’s fucking Lucio Fulci operating at the peak of his powers. Fulci’s best films exist on a level above and beyond logic, eschewing coherence and unity in exchange for a dreamlike atmosphere that’s equal parts haunting, terrifying, and beautiful.
And let’s not forget the gore. No discussion of Fulci is complete without mentioning his use of the groovy, groovy red stuff. For an example, take the scene where the real estate agent bites it. To Lucy’s credit, when she discovers the weird shit happening in the house, she attempts to do what most characters in haunted house movies should yet never seem to do — namely, get the hell out! The estate agent arrives, but instead of finding Lucy, she finds a fireplace poker in her neck.
The poker is wielded by Dr. Freudstein. Seems the reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. He may be alive, but he’s obviously seen better days as his face now resembles a melted yellow crayon. For most filmmakers, it would be stab, a bit of blood, and then a cutaway. But Lucio Fulci is not most filmmakers. Freudstein twists and turns the poker as blood gushes profusely out of the wound. Then a second stab and more red rivulets. Next, the poker enters deep into the wound, which results in a hole the size of a half dollar and a drenching arterial spray. Finally, the poor agent is dragged into the basement with half her face looking like it was bashed by a meat tenderizer as her sanguine-soaked hair paints the floor.
The final third in the basement is a tour de force of extreme gore, unsettling atmosphere, and stifling claustrophobia. The surprise ending is supernatural in nature and has confounded many, but that’s par for the course for Fulci. Best not to think too hard or try to piece it together, but rather, enjoy the film for the twisted fairy tale that it is.
And really, in the end, The House by the Cemetery is at heart a twisted fairy tale (as all fairy tales are at heart quite twisted). The atmosphere is heavy, the score by Walter Rizatti is fantastic, and the gore is plentiful. What more could you ask for?