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The House by the Cemetery

The House by the Cemetery

1981, Dir. Lucio Fulci

Katriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Giovanni Frezza, Ania Pieroni

As you're aware of by now, me and Will Braineater are tag-teaming this flick. There's so much going on in this film that it's definitely a task for at least two reviewers; hopefully between the two of us we've covered it all. So before or after your time here, go here for a review that'll totally knock you on your ass.

"No one will ever know whether children are monsters or monsters are children."
- Henry James, quoted in the final frame of House by the Cemetery

"Here I am trying to put sense to it when I know there isnít any."
- "Mad" Max Rockatansky

Nine out of ten people who could be bothered to have an opinion on the subject would tell you that The Beyond is Lucio Fulciís best film. I agree with them, but Iíd have to say that the sense of cinematic what-the-fuck that Fulci was striving for finds its fullest expression in his subsequent film, The House by the Cemetery. The Beyond, despite having its share of mind boggling elements, is fairly straight-forward when you really look at it. Trying to sort out the events of HbtC on the other hand, is bound to give you at the very least a serious headache. The screenplay is credited to three people: Fulci, his frequent collaborator Dardano Sachetti, and Sachettiís wife Elisa Brigante. Together they thicken the plot and resolve absolutely nothing, leaving the viewer with a myriad of questions and theories. Instead of being maddening, itís actually quite rewarding. At least thatís what I keep telling myself. In all seriousness, the thought provoking nature of HbtC is worthwhile, as is the pursuit of what exactly itís all about. There are many questions raised in the film, too many to simply list questions and answers, so Iíll just go about it in my usual rambling manner and maybe itíll make sense at the end. That mustíve been exactly what Fulci, Sachetti, and Brigante said.

Fulci starts things off explosively. In the first five minutes we have exposed breasts, exposed brains, and a knife through the back of the head and out the mouth. The film is much more restrained (relatively of course) than this intro would lead us to believe. The crux of the story is the Boyle family moving from New York to the quaint New England town of New Whitby. Norman Boyle is going to take over the research of a Dr. Petersen, and his wife Lucy and son Bob are coming along for a little R and R. Even before they leave, itís clear that whatís going on is not as innocent as it appears. Doctor Petersen needs someone to carry on his research because one day he up and killed his mistress and himself. Bob sees a little girl in a picture (no one else can, of course) who keeps warning him not to come to New Whitby. And thereís just something not right about Norman.

They arrive in New Whitby, where a real estate agent sets them up in the house of the prologue. The agent also sets them up with Ann, a babysitter who has a wicked come hither stare. Once theyíre settled, Norman starts going about his research, Bob hangs out with May, the girl from the picture, and Lucy does house stuff. When they decide to take the boards off the cellar door, thatís when the weirdness kicks in. Thereís a monster in the cellar, a monster named Dr. Freudstein, who has been keeping himself alive for decades by killing and using the body parts and blood. The family inevitably meets the creature face to face and only one family member will make it out alive. In the meantime, Fulci and friends do their damndest to keep the viewer in the dark.

The first way that the writers deepen the mysteries of HbtC is through the dialogue. While some of it is goofy, much of the dialogue actually serves a purpose. For instance, everybody is lying to each other. Norman lies to Lucy about his relationship with Dr. Petersen, and Dr. Petersen had apparently lied to the librarians about the nature of his research. Therefore, you never know who knows what and if anyoneís on the level with anyone else. After a certain point itís evident that Norman knows more than he wants to let on about Dr. Freudstein and is keeping the real research of Dr. Petersen and himself a secret. Perhaps what they are studying is the Freudstein creature itself, how itís been keeping itself alive all these years. This succession of scientists involved in secret, dangerous research recalls the doomed doctors of the Frankenstein films and may account for the latter half of this creatureís name.

Another effective dialogue device is that half of the scenes feature someone calling out repeatedly for someone else. Nobody ever seems to know where anyone else is, which makes you wonder whether or not anybody is on the same level. The character of May and the world she inhabits indicates that the film is playing with different planes of existence. The Beyond deals with simply the land of the living and the land of the dead, separated by a very clear doorway. In HbtC the lines are not so clear and characters seem to move freely between reality and otherwise. Furthering this conceit is Lucyís interaction, or lack thereof, with the rest of the world. When she goes into the town of New Whitby no one acknowledges her. Ann wonít talk to her, even when presented with direct questions. In one scene, Lucy somehow doesnít notice Ann mopping blood and guts up off of the floor even while in close proximity with her.

Maybe the most pertinent question about HbtC is who the movie is about. Is Bob the focal point? Or perhaps is it Norman? If we are to believe that the Henry James quote superimposed over the final shot ("No one will ever know whether children are monsters or monsters are children") is the guiding force behind the story, then a connection between Bob and Freudstein would be implicit. In a way they are peers: Freudstein is made to seem somewhat like a child, depicted most disturbingly in his murder of Mrs. Gittleson the real estate agent. The way he stabs her with the fireplace poker is childlike in nature, he seems almost curious about what will happen. His grunting seems more like laughing, revealing a childlike sense of glee. Stop me if Iím forcing it, but Iím going to invoke Frankenstein again and say that the relationship between Freudstein and Bob is parallel to that between the Creature and the little girl. In the infamous scene involving Bobís head, the cellar door, and an ax, perhaps Freudsteinís motives arenít to kill Bob. He may just be trying to help reunite child and parents, going about it in the same confused way that Frankensteinís Creature tried to get the little girl to float. When the townspeople go after the Creature it runs and hides; when Freudstein gets his hand cut off for his troubles he literally runs off and cries.

Even if that half baked theory does in fact exist, I donít think itís enough to fuel the narrative. Norman Boyle is the catalyst for most of the action in the movie, and his motives and doings are cloaked in the most mystery. Repeat viewings confirm the suspicion that Norman is the bad guy here, but what exactly is he out to do? Heís clearly sick and tired of Lucy, but is he hoping to drive her away / crazy? Would he rather she die? And if so is he willing to force her into an encounter with Freudstein or does he hope it will happen without his intervention? Complicating these ideas is the possibility that Norman doesnít actually know that Freudstein is in the house. He does go to a cemetery looking for the manís grave, but then he sneaks back into the house when the sounds of Bob and Lucyís struggle are clearly audible. Only when Lucy notices him does he leap into action spouting off a quick explanation of whatís been going on all along. This forced act of bravado is something that he clearly wanted to avoid, given his half-assed way of going up against Freudstein.

As Will said in one of our numerous emails about this film, naming your monster Freudstein is just an invitation to go looking for deeper meanings. Iíve dealt with the "stein" of this creature, so what of the "Freud"? To be honest, I donít know a goddamn thing about psychology (on the other hand, Will has a degree in Freudsteinian analysis). Maybe Freudstein is acting out Bobís hidden Oedipal complex by killing his father and dragging off his mother for who knows what ends (I donít think he killed her). The ending attempts some very obvious womb / tomb imagery but is hardly a rebirth. Much like The Beyond, the remaining protagonist(s) wander off into their new environment leaving the unsolved problems behind them. The terror isnít over, just waiting for its next victims.

Wow, almost 1,500 words and hardly any talk about the technical merits of the movie. Well, letís see. As with any Italian horror movie, we have to deal with atrocious dubbing. Much of the dubbing here is passable, except for whoever is trying to do a childís voice for Bob. This poor kidís voice is one hundred times worse than anything that ever happened in a Godzilla movie. The acting isnít overwhelmingly good or bad. Paolo Malco as Norman does a good job at keeping his characters feelings and motives from being overt, and Fulciís favorite leading lady Catriona MacColl basically reprises her role from The Beyond. Everyone else pretty much does what theyíre told. The main musical themes by Walter Rizzati are quite atmospheric and actually donít sound like Goblin ripoffs.

An aspect of the film that doesnít pop up often in the Fulci body of work is cleverness. The relationship between Bob and May is brilliant in that for all itís complexity it can be explained away by a simple fact of life. When very young children are dislocated from their homes, they find ways to deal with the change. If theyíre in a place where playmates are scarce, as Bob certainly is, an imaginary friend is bound to be invented at some point. Therefore this mysterious girl who brings warnings from beyond the grave could be no more than a figment of Bobís imagination. Of course, itís up to the viewer to decide.

Gore is used more sparingly here than in other Fulci films. Itís also presented more matter-of-factly, making it seem more visceral and brutal than his other films. The maestro doesnít give you any Argento-ish suspense filled tracking shots, he just hauls off and puts a knife through someoneís skull. Speaking of Argento, that once again brings up Fulciís maddening habit of cribbing details from other peopleís films, sometimes for no particular reason. The eyes that are borrowed from Suspiria add nothing to the story, particularly when we discover that Freudstein doesnít really have any eyes. Much like Fulciís other "dream New England" movie City of the Living Dead, the climactic scene is borrowed, this time from an escape scene in Jorge Grauís Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. Despite the shortcomings, the atmosphere of this film is undeniable. People will tell you that there are many things that Fulci couldnít do, but he was capable of creating mood with the best of them. HbtC is chock full of uneasiness, dread, and the feeling that no one is safe. Combine that with its challenging narrative and you have a type of horror film that they just donít make any more.

The DVD Iím working from is the Anchor Bay release, which will surely bring tears to the eyes of those used to crapola VHS copies and the cheapo disc from good olí Diamond. The picture quality makes it seem like the film was shot yesterday and the widescreen presents the shot compositions brilliantly. The extras are the usual trailers and talent bios, and there is an easter egg. Moving to the left on the extras menu highlights a spatter of blood on the wall which reveals a bit of lost footage. Thereís no sound and itís not exactly the missing piece of the puzzle, so donít get too worked up.

Iím still not sure if I solved anything here. There are plenty of nuances and questions that I havenít even addressed, let alone answered. Much like the Freudstein zombie still totters around the house by the cemetery, questions still linger in my brain. Thereís one thing I know for sure though: an analogy like that means itís time to quit. So go check out House by the Cemetery, and see what you think about it.