The House By The Cemetery

cast: Giovanni Frezza, Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Silvia Collatina, and Ania Pieroni

director: Lucio Fulci

86 minutes (18) 1981
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont

The House By The Cemetery (aka: Quella villa accanto al cimitero) is one of the original 39 films to be banned in the Britain during the ‘video nasty’ moral panic of the 1980s. It is released here on DVD for the first time uncut in the UK. It is also a decidedly strange film.

The film opens with a wonderfully grim and typically Italian vignette in which a young blonde woman is putting on her top after having had sex with her boyfriend in an abandoned house. She calls out to her boyfriend, getting no response despite the sounds of someone else in the house with her. She suddenly comes across the mutilated body of her lover before herself being murdered with a kitchen knife through the head. The film then begins in earnest with Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco) driving to New England in order to take over the research position of a historian who recently went mad and killed his family. Boyle is accompanied by his nervous and potentially psychotic wife Lucy (Catriona MacColl) and son Bob (Giovanni Frezza). Bob is about ten years old but he has a blond bob, pouting lips and his voice is dubbed by a fully-grown female actress. This makes him resemble not so much a child as some kind of monstrous transsexual pygmy. Frezza would go on to make a number of horror and giallo films and it is easy to see why as his bizarre screen presence completely dominates this film.

The family move in to a creepy old house and immediately realise that something is wrong: Bob has started seeing a ghostly little girl (an ethereal Collatina) who brings grave tidings, Norman has to work in an office whose previous resident hanged himself, the babysitter has the kind of piercing eyes and bushy eyebrows that look in at windows, Lucy has gone off her meds, there’s a tombstone embedded in the kitchen floor and the house belonged to the mysterious Freudstein family. In effect, Fulci throws everything but the kitchen sink at the screen in an attempt to establish atmosphere and misdirect audiences but the gothic overkill of the various plot strands not only defuse each other, they also clash with the rather bleak atmosphere created by the ruined house and the film’s genuinely terrible synth-based score. Rather than being filled with tension and fear, the film drags quite a bit between its Grand Guignol set pieces.

Mercifully, the set-pieces themselves are well-directed, incredibly gory and great fun to watch. At one point, Norman is bitten by a bat but rather than rely upon the initial shock of the bite for effect, Fulci milks the scene shamelessly as Norman saws away at the animal with a kitchen knife in an attempt to dislodge from his hand until both him and much of the kitchen are covered with blood.

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In another scene, a woman is stabbed in the neck and Fulci has the camera zoom in pornographically as blood pumps from the gaping wound for what seems a positively indecent amount of time. There’s something about the shamelessness of Fulci’s use of gore that is incredibly endearing, especially as the film reaches its bloody climax with severed heads, dismembered bodies and a knife covered in maggot-encrusted excrement. The House By The Cemetery is so far outside of good taste that it is difficult not to warm to it.

However, what is most surprising about The House by the Cemetery is the slightly dream-like quality to its world. Most horror writers try to construct simple worlds. Worlds that are like ours but where a particular horror trope turns out to be real. For example, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is set in a version of our world in which vampires are real. We do not read Dracula expecting Mina Harker to turn up in a giant Japanese stompy robot. We assume that Stoker’s world is, with one notable exception, our world. However, Fulci seems to reject this assumption. In The House by The Cemetery, violence is not simply caused by the supernatural and the horrific. It is over-determined. If the zombie in the basement did not wind up killing the Boyle family then surely the ghosts and psychotics would have done the job instead. Fulci’s world is not only a world that is full of horror; it is also a world that is full of recognisable horror tropes.

For example, the house and haunted basement are reminiscent of Stuart Rosenberg’s adaptation of The Amityville Horror (1979), while Bob, his ghostly companion and the insanity of Norman’s predecessor all bring to mind Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining (1980). Even the film’s monster shows the influences of previous works of horror as he combines elements of the zombies from George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, with elements from Frankenstein’s monster before projecting both of them against mainstream intellectual culture to create the weird-sounding portmanteau name of Freudstein.

Much like J.G. Ballard’s experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), The House By The Cemetery is both too serious to be a postmodern commentary and too imbued with genre imagery to be a straight work of genre. It exists in a strange ontological hinterland where everything seems possible because the universe has been stripped of any internal logic. This is where the film’s dream-like quality comes from and it is undeniably one reason for tracking down this DVD.

The House By The Cemetery comes with a decent selection of extras including some trailers and a short documentary featuring the editor of Fangoria as well as directors Joe Dante (Gremlins, Toy Soldiers) and Lloyd Kaufman (Toxic Avenger) talking rather unconvincingly about how awesome Fulci’s films are.