31 May 2004 | Kurwa-Monger
Could easily be described as a slasher movie as much as a zombie horror
Lucio Fulci had been working steadily in Italian cinema since the late fifties, and he achieved critical acclaim for genre efforts like Four Gunmen of the Apocalypse and The Psychic, but he still hadn't found his own personnel film-making forte. Sometime after being briefly blacklisted in Italy for strongly expressing his politically controversial views in movies like Don't Torture a Duckling, the cult classic appeal of Zombi 2 gave him his signature trademark as a competent horror craftsman. During the years that followed, he quite proudly carried an association with no holds barred gore that resulted in a string of notable horror films. These included the brutal giallo New York Ripper and the splatter drenched Seven Doors of Death. If Zombi 2 was Fulci's Dawn of the Dead, then House by the Cemetery could quite easily have been his Friday the 13th. Despite popular belief, it somewhat surprisingly plays more like a slasher flick than the return to the world of the living dead that the hyperbole so vividly promised. There are no flesh eaters munching on claret spurting throats to be found anywhere here. Instead Fulci makes good use of the traditional slasher trappings and marries them off with his own flair for graphic visual violence. I find it to be somewhat strange that so many critics continue to misleadingly label this as regular zombie horror, when it looks strikingly clear from the first knife through the cranium murder that Fulci's inspirations for the feature owed more to the other leading horror sub-genre of the period.
That's not to say that the zombie classifications are completely unfounded. I mean, what exactly was Dr. Freudstein if not a psychotic re-animated corpse? But the fact of the matter is that a list of alias titles including the likes of Zombie Hell House - sound as if they would've felt closer suited positioned above one of his more prominent living dead attempts, than this noticeably traditional maniac flick. The fact that it shares a great deal with the masterpiece that gave Fulci his career reinvigoration completely raised my overall expectations towards the feature. It re-teamed the director with Fabrizio De Angelis as producer and the special effects genius of Gianetto De Rossi, whose work on Zombi 2 is some of the best ever filmed. With such a great crew at his disposal and a genuinely creepy location to create some gore drenched set pieces, House by the Cemetery looked set to be the greatest slasher movie ever filmed
It opens inside a spacious dilapidated house that bares a striking resemblance to Amityville. We see a young female calling for her boyfriend who seems to have sodded off and left her alone to the devices of any psychotic killers that might be hanging around the area (charming!). She hears ominous footsteps echoing throughout the location as she searches for her fella, and just as the sounds begin getting closer, she finds her beau nailed to a door with his throat gorily sliced. The unseen psycho prevents her from screaming by a handy kitchen knife through the skull, which is pushed with such force, that it protrudes out of her mouth! The killer then drags her corpse through an open door, into the basement, leaving a conspicuous trail of blood splashed across the floor.
Next up we meet a family that are moving to New Whitby, to live in none other than the mansion we just saw has the added bonus of a resident maniac. Professor Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco), his wife Lucy (Katherine MacColl) and son Bob (Giovanni Frezza) are unsure about the move, but in order for the professor to continue his work, he must relocate to the house where his predecessor murdered his lover and committed suicide. (Well at least they must've got it on the cheap!) They say that you should never dismiss an omen and on that assumption I must agree. But it's obvious these guys didn't believe in that philosophy, and they're not put off in the slightest by the fact their new home has a previous death count that's higher than a secluded isle in the depths of New Guinea. Upon arrival, Lucy has a tantrum after finding (a pretty normal looking) dolly and meeting the suspiciously behaved babysitter Anne, who is played creepily by the beautiful Ania Pieroni. Later that night, Norman is awoken by the strange sounds of a child crying and the heavy breathing of the yet to surface psycho, who has taken refuge in the basement and barricaded the door beyond the families explorations. He finds Anne trying to break the boards from the entrance, and astoundingly enough, doesn't stop to ask her why she's doing it in the middle of the night?
During the day while her husband's at work, Lucy is distressed once again by more inexplicable occurrences, which makes me wonder how many more signals she needs to come to the conclusion: I should leave this house, NOW! If it were me that moved to a house by a CEMETERY that was plagued with sounds emulating from underneath a TOMB in the hallway, I think I'd have a few 'words' with the estate agent. Then I'd make sure to check into a hotel until they'd found me somewhere a little less haunted to call home, and I certainly wouldn't be going back there in a hurry. But these guys seem content to live with creepy children's crying during the night, puddles of blood in the morning and a babysitter that makes Elvira - mistress of the dark look like an ordinary woman. Anyway, after a few more gory shenanigans, including a psychotic bat and Anne violently loosing her head, the family realize that they're not alone in the mansion, and finally they try to escape
Sadly, House by the Cemetery is one of Fulci's least credible creations, which pales remarkably in comparison with his efforts like the giallo Don't Torture a Duckling. Much like Kenji Fukasaku's classic Samurai Reincarnation, it was unfortunate enough to be dubbed by a group of talent-less butt munches, which pretty much ruined the chance for anyone outside the Italian speaking world to truly enjoy watching it. Take young Bob's voice-over for example, who succeeded in turning the child into the most vocally infuriating character ever set to celluloid. Perhaps due to the majority of the English voice cast's failure to give any kind of credible performances, the movie becomes pretty slow and long-winded in places. It's a shame, because that was a sin that Fulci himself considered totally unforgivable. After the stylishly bloody intro, it took a mind numbing forty-five minutes for the maniac to show up for a second taster, and it drastically fails to keep interests raised between his far too sporadic appearances. Much like Umberto Lenzi's Ghosthouse, this suffers because it can't quite work out what it wants to be. Fulci tries wildly to throw in absolutely everything, from (arguable) references to Kubrick's The Shinning to a dose of The Amityville Horror and the obvious slasher trappings. The only problem is that there are just too many ideas left begging for acknowledgement, which ends up making the whole thing a little too rough around the edges to satisfactorily digest.
There's also a shockingly large number of scenes that end without explanation, which was possibly an attempt by the director to make the film a conversational topic point and give it a longer life expectancy over the years that followed. One strong example is the much-discussed final sequence, which has been described by some as Bob's journey to the afterlife or the 'beyond' as the director himself would've put it, guided by the angel of his sub-conscious. Others choose to simply believe that he was lucky enough to survive Freudstein's wraith; but both opinions raise as many questions as they could ever possibly answer. Fulci himself said that the children entered another dimension, their own personnel torment for eternity. A nice way of putting it indeed, but it's a shame that he failed to give us that impression by what he showed us on screen. It may well have been his ambition to keep viewers searching for their own conclusion to the mystery, much like the ongoing 'who is Keyser Soze' debate. However, he leads the lack of explanations into the extreme, by chucking in far too many for one single feature. This resulted in the movie looking like it was inadequately written - with a poor sense of continuity, which left one too many gaping plot holes that should have been filled before the film's completion. Yet further proof is the extreme lack of resolution for Anne's mysterious character. I mean, who the hell was she? She spent the first half of the movie looking as if she was the Doctor's two-faced accomplice, - mopping up puddles of blood as if they were cranberry sauce and generally looking suspiciously creepy. Then just when you've got settled with the fact that she's a definite wrong-un, up pops Freudstein and kills her! I mean, Come on give us a break? Fulci started too many erratic sub-plots without ever bothering to follow them up, which left viewers scratching their heads in confusion. There's the possibility of an affair between Anne and Norman that isn't followed up, and we never get to understand why everyone incorrectly believes that they've met the professor somewhere before?
Of course, that's not too say the House by the Cemetery is completely devoid of any charms. When Freudstein eventually does come out of his hiding place, the murders are nice and gooey, and Fulci's flair for setting a Gothic tone runs rampantly throughout the feature. Walter Razzatis music sets the right mood in places, even if it could never have matched Zombi 2's superb use of memorable accompaniment. There's also a lot more to the movie than first inspections immediately reveal, but the hidden meanings are a little too 'hidden', making them inconspicuous for critics to acknowledge. The use of a Henry James quote for the film's finish wasn't just plucked from a bookshelf either. Fulci, a great fan of James, said the movie was based on his story 'turn the screw', although aside from the references to children I fail to see the similarities.
Over the years, many of Fulci's critics have labelled him as a hack - that hid his lack of skill behind the talent of his special effects team. House by the Cemetery's absence of any truly redeeming qualities certainly make it not so impossible to see where such strong criticisms arose. However, one miss-calculation does not amount to a bad director, and I challenge those with mocking opinions to re-view the masterpiece that was Zombi 2 with a more optimistic approach. If you still find it hard to appreciate his unparalleled skill for building an atmosphere, then it's you that needs to be questioning your own critical judgement.