Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The House By the Cemetery (1981) review



Catriona MacColl (Lucy Boyle), Paolo Malco (Dr. Norman Boyle), Giovanni Frezza (Bob), Silvia Collatina (Mae Freudstein), Ania Pieroni (Ann), Giovanni De Nava (Dr. Freudstein)
Directed by Lucio Fulci

The Short Version: The fourth of Fulci's string of zombie pictures is the lesser of the four and also the one that makes absolutely zero sense. Two different plotlines collide and equal a jumbled mess consisting of familiar Italo zombie horror trappings and obvious allusions to Kubrick's THE SHINING (1980) that go nowhere. Inferior to the previous three, fans of splatter effects will be rewarded with a pornocopia of wet n' wild money shots such as torn out throats, decapitations and destruction of female breasts that Italian directors always seemed so fond of mutilating. Recommended for Fulci and Euro horror enthusiasts. All others will likely shut it off after experiencing a few of this films many instances of illogicalities. 

Norman Boyle takes his family from New York to Boston to investigate and write a report on the murder-suicide of his friend and colleague, Dr. Peterson. Peterson was researching a disgraced 19th century physician, Dr. Jacob Tess Freudstein at the time of his death. Upon moving into creepy Oak Mansion that sits next to a cemetery, bizarre occurrences take place. The Boyle's soon discover to their horror that the house has a permanent, and zombiefied resident living in the basement. 

Lucio Fulci, having already redefined zombie cinema with an island set flesh feast and two otherworldly demonic living dead monster-pieces, turned his attention to dream-like, pseudo mad scientist zombies with a confusing, mind melting mess of a movie. 

HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY seems to strive for so much, yet manages to succeed at so little. It's all about the gore here with everything else seeming a tad bit sloppy. It starts off as a slasher movie with an opening sequence that feels like we've missed half of it. In it, a couple has finished having sex and one of them has disappeared. Having just opened the movie with the girl putting her shirt back on, she goes looking for her boyfriend which never ends up as a good idea in these movies. Like a giallo, we see the killers hands (as well as his gruesome handiwork) in action; one looks normal and the other has a zombie-styled appliance with flesh hanging off it to give the impression this killer might not be of the living.

Not long after, the film takes on the form of some sort of ghost story a la THE SHINING. Fulci and the script try for an hallucinatory atmosphere during the bulk of this thing; a film whose incoherency and others like it, often get a pass strictly on imagery alone. Sprinkled in amongst all this are specacularly pornographic instances of gore whereby the camera gets in close during the splattery money shots.

While the script never makes any sense, the basic plot concerns a family menaced by a 19th century ghoul named Dr. Freudstein who has managed to stay alive by replenishing his dying bodily cells with fresh living ones. The few times we see the good doctors dwellings, there's nary a mad scientist laboratory prop in sight. No petri dishes, no bubbling bottles of glowing serums, just lots of blood and mutilated corpses strewn everywhere. For a doctor, he keeps very filthy "living" quarters. While we never see him eat anybody, it's assumed he simply devours the flesh; which seems impossible considering Freudstein -- once we finally see him -- doesn't appear to have a mouth.

The rest of the time the movie makes an attempt to be an Italian version of THE SHINING. The Boyle's have a picture of the house they're about to move into in their NY apartment. Upon reaching Boston, the mansion they're renting looks exactly like the one in the photo. Also, the leasing agent and the librarian claim Mr. Boyle has been there before. Did his friend, Dr. Peterson really murder his mistress and kill himself? Did Boyle do it? What does this have to do with a crusty looking shuffler lurking in the basement of the Oak Mansion? It's later stated that Freudstein killed Peterson's mistress, but why would that push the man to kill himself? Why did he not just go to the police? None of these questions are satisfactorily answered, but confused further with the addition of a creepy babysitter and additional scenes that make no sense.

There's also a peculiar fixation on mannequins and dolls that's never fleshed out. The aforementioned babysitter bears a striking resemblance to a stores display mannequin seen near the beginning of the movie. Since the script never elaborates on this angle, we're left to conclude that the gruesomely surreal shot of the mannequin is little more than foreshadowing. The use of dolls makes for a slight macabre touch, but again, it's never explained. It would seem the makers of LIVIDE (2011) were inspired by Fulci's nonsensical fairy tale among other examples of confusing Euro horror. But there's more to CEMETERY's befuddlement than meets the eye.

Why does the mansion look like it's been dilapidated and abandoned for years in the opening scene? A few minutes later we learn it's only been vacant for a couple of months. Why is the cellar boarded up? To keep Dr. Freudstein confined? If so, how does he manage to kill the couple upstairs? Why is the babysitter pulling the boards off to get into the cellar? Why does Norman stop her from doing so, but then walk away without a word? 

What's the function of the whole supernatural plot device with the little girl Mae Freudstein and her mother, Mary Freudstein supposed to be? The ghost of Mary does nothing to prevent any deaths, yet Mae only seems to convey warnings in an abstract form. She's seen playing with Bob, but never vocally tells him to "get out" during these moments. 

Why do we hear cries and whimpers of a child in the background a few times during the movie? Is this whole thing all in Bob's head; a nightmare he's having? What's the correlation between the film and the Henry James quote that is laid over the last shot before the credits roll? Again, nothing is explained, nor exposed in a sufficiently vague manner to leave enough for the viewer to come to a logical conclusion.
  The film presents other conundrums of a Kubrickian sort. The librarian claims Norman had been there before with his daughter, yet he says he's never had a daughter, but a son only. Is the ghost girl supposed to be his daughter? Again, the script never addresses these things. It seems there are two movies being made here -- the zombie story and the supernatural ghost angle. Neither gel very well together.

Some wholly stupid things happen in HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, too. Lucy sees Ann the babysitter cleaning up what is obviously blood; a trail of which leads into the cellar. For whatever reason, Lucy seems neither alarmed, nor concerned. Lucy walks into the kitchen and actually asks what is she doing, to which the reply is "I made coffee"!

There's a bat attack that provides the absolute funniest scene in what is supposed to be a serious horror film. When the Boyle's finally decide to investigate the basement, a bat comes out of nowhere and attacks Lucy. She tries to bat (haha) it away to no avail. Meanwhile, her husband just stands there holding the flashlight on her as she runs around with this crazy bat chewing away at her scalp. When he finally decides to take action, the bat goes for him this time. This leads to a lengthy and bloody Norman versus the Bat scene which involves a knife and a convincing bat appliance that, upon being stabbed square in the middle, suddenly begins to bleed out in a few other places.

Towards the end when little Bob is trapped in the basement, Lucy beats and bangs on the door to try and get him out. Norman is just outside. Does he rush in to see what the fuss is? No. He creeps inside the house in what is apparently an attempt to get the audience to believe Freudstein is upstairs. He takes forever to simply walk into the kitchen. This scene, like a few others comes off incredibly stupid. It borders on parody considering how ridiculously long it takes people to move, or even turn around in Italian horror pictures.

This scene is salvaged to a degree when Freudstein viciously pushes Bob's head against the door as his dad chops away at the door with a hatchet. As the blade pierces the door, it comes ever so close to the boys head. This mirrors a similar, and brilliantly accomplished scene from Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980) that involves Catriona MacColl, a coffin, and Christopher George trying to get at her with a pick ax.

There were a few hands contributing to the script here, and instead of finding moderately logical means to move things along, credibility is stretched to its limits in what amounts to a lazy attempt to tell its story. Meanwhile, this laziness has been long passed off as the films "dream-like, otherworldy quality" in adherence to its rampant incoherence. It's also worth noting that it's mentioned Lucy is on medication that may cause her to have hallucinations. This, too, is never explored. Instead, it's left to the audience to wonder if what they're seeing isn't the result of some hallucinogen they've inexplicably been exposed to.

While there's no connection between Fulci's ZOMBIE (1979), CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), THE BEYOND (1980) and this picture, there's some notable, if likely inadvertent similarities between them all. All four films have supernatural elements -- ZOMBIE with its voodoo and skin-crawling drum beats; CITY with its demonic connotations and book of Enoch; THE BEYOND beams the outreach of hell's gates via a warlock, a book of its own title Eibon, and a devilish painting recreating the title "beyond"; and HOUSE strikes back with its shades of macabre imagery, Freudstein ghoul, ghosts and what would seem to be a gateway into 'The Beyond' via a picture of the Freudstein house where Mae first warns Bob to stay away; speaking to him from the window seen in the photo.

Regardless of HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY being discombobulated much of the time, it still retains some nice photographic touches, some modestly creepy imagery and a standout score from Walter Rizatti. The organ based main theme sets the mood nicely, even though the film refuses to make sense. The gore effects are arguably some of the finest work of Gianetto De Rossi's (ZOMBIE) and Maurizio Trani's (DAWN OF THE MUMMY) careers.

My first exposure with HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY came in 1984 upon seeing the commercial on television. And like other similar movies, my mother refused to take me to the drive in to see it, as it was playing in town at the time. Ultimately disappointed with it upon renting it several years later, my opinion remains the same, although the special effects are quite spectacularly messy and accomplished. 

It's far from Fulci's worst, but it's not a very good movie overall. It presents some ambitious ideas, but none of them seem to fit properly and there's no way to avoid the massive plot holes. If you watch this simply to see Fulci's team of effects wizards play in their ghoulish sandbox, you'll do just fine as that's really all this movie has going for it.

This review is representative of the Anchor Bay DVD.

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