The House by the Cemetery (1981)

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*. If there are a Big Three of Italian art-house directors (Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti) is there also a demonic trilogy of Italian horror masters consisting of Bava, Argento, and Fulci?
*. If so, my own ranking of Fulci would place him well below his peers. The most memorable moments in any Fulci movie are usually those those created by his special effects wizards, the kind of thing often referred to as “good kills.” The House by the Cemetery begins with one such demise as a nameless girl gets a pair of scissors through the back of her head. Good kill. Stupid, and utterly gratutitous, but then what did you expect?

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*. These badly-dubbed Eurotrash films have an odd effect, as though we’ve travelled to a place where language has somehow become alienated and arbitrary. Are the often-cited holes in the plot here really holes, or just the result of material being lost in translation? And this movie was apparently even shot in English!
*. You get the feeling you could substitute the soundtrack of a Bergman film and it wouldn’t make any difference to your understanding of what is going on. At times the exchanges are downright surreal. My favourite is when Lucy comes in to the kitchen where Ann is toweling up a massive bloodstain smeared right across the floor. Lucy asks “What are you doing?” Ann replies, “I made some coffee.” What planet are we on?
*. Another surreal soundtrack offering is the repetition of unaccountable whimpering/crying noises. Where are these coming from? Clearly not from Bobby. I’ve heard it suggested that this is a noise Dr. Freudstein makes, perhaps as a way of luring victims. But . . . no. Think about it.
*. Making things even worse is the awful voice used to dub Bobby. It’s painful every time he opens his mouth. It sounds like they got an adult actor to do his lines in an a little boy voice, and it doesn’t work at all.
*. Now this movie does actually have a script with some potential, prefiguring The Shining in some interesting ways, but it’s totally let down by the execution. In this it is like a lot of Fulci’s work: you can see a really good, possibly great horror movie hiding just beneath the surface. It’s the sort of thing that leaves you pining for a re-make, at least of certain scenes. The promise is there, if only they’d got it right!
*. Examples abound, most of them relating to the appearance of the little girl, Mae. The business of Bobby seeing her in the photo of the house, her vision of the decapitated mannequins, and the way Bobby sees Mae across the street, are all moments that just miss working. And they are the best parts of the movie.
*. The mad doctor’s name really is “Freudstein”? Wow.
*. This is usually considered part of Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” or “Gates of Death” trilogy, but I think this is one of those after-the-fact, manufactured constructions. The three movies don’t have much in common aside from the usual genre bits.
*. OK, the bat scene is hilarious. I was laughing out loud. Talk about one determined bat! It wasn’t letting go for anything!
*. Does Lucy get dragged down three sets of basement steps? Because that’s what it looks like. It’s moments like this (and Fulci has a lot of them) where one has to question his basic competence. And yet they also contribute to the surreal charm I mentioned earlier. It’s like we’ve entered a new dimension of time and space.
*. How far out of town is the house? It seems kind of harsh to make Lucy carry her groceries the whole way.
*. Just how relevant is it that “the house” is “by the cemetery”? It’s where Mrs. Freudstein is buried, but I’m not sure why since her husband is supposed to be buried in town. And what’s with the burial slab on the floor of the front parlour? The basement isn’t a tomb, it’s just a normal basement. So many questions, so few answers.
*. “He needs human victims, to renew his cells. That’s how he stays alive.” Do tell. And no doubt stuffing his body full of maggots helps as well.
*. What is it with Fulci and worms/maggots? They are definitely a signature ingredient, but I wonder if they had any personal significance or if he just thinks they look gross.
*. Another signature Fulci move is the insane ending. Is Bobby dead? What is that epigraph supposed to mean? That somehow this was all Bobby’s or Mae’s fault?
*. I also liked how the epigraph is attributed to Henry James (Fulci actually made it up). In one early printing of James’s The Ambassadors the chapters were published out of order, and nobody caught on to the mistake because the story was so hard to follow anyway. Trivia: In a VHS video release of this movie several reels were put out of order. I wonder if anyone noticed.

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