Thursday, October 23, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: The House By the Cemetery

This review originally appeared in 2010.

The House by the Cemetery is an exercise in futility: the film, made by Lucio Fulci (The Psychic, The New York Ripper) should be a gorehound's delight, with it's quasi-Lovecraftian connection (it forms the "Death" Trilogy with The Beyond and City of the Living Dead / Gates of Hell), brutal kills, and atmospheric setting (just north of Boston, Mass). Instead, the film is a disaster; an unnecessarily convoluted narrative that contradicts itself whenever possible, leaving plot points that go nowhere, characters that serve no purpose, and an ending that raises more "what?"s than anything else.

I don't know how much of this to blame on the fact that the DVD is dubbed and offered no alternate language / subtitle options (IMDB indicates it was filmed in Italian) but I doubt that many of the erratic plot jumps could be saved simply by Fulci's native tongue. From the opening sequence, which spatially misrepresents the Freudstein house, to the final scene and its fabricated Henry James quote, not a whole lot of The House by the Cemetery makes a lot of sense.

Following the strange death of his mentor, Dr. Peterson, Norman Boyle (Paolo Marco) moves his wife Lucy (Katherine MacColl) and son Bob (Giovanni Frezza) from New York to the small town of New Whitby, where Peterson murdered his mistress and hung himself. Staying in the "Freudstein" house - redubbed Oak Mansion by the real estate agent (Dagmar Lassander) - with Ann (Ania Perioni), Bob's babysitter, the Boyle's are beset with strange occurrences, mysterious indoor tombs, and a locked cellar that hides a terrible secret. Will Norman discover the secret of Dr. Freudstein before it's too late? Why did Peterson kill himself? Is Lucy really going insane, or is someone else in the house? And who is Bob's new friend Mae (Silvia Collatina), a girl only he can see who warns him of grave dangers?

Honestly, don't expect any of those questions to be answered. Well, not exactly. By the time anyone figures out what's going on at any point in the film, it's too late for them. Across the board, the plot of The House by the Cemetery makes no effort to address any of the many questions it raises, instead compounding on "twist" after another to the point that none of them mean anything at all. Every single character in the film exists to react to something that happens, and no one (including Dr. Freudstein) actually does anything to set events in place.

The criminal mistake that Fulci makes in The House by the Cemetery is to assume that just because the film is "inspired" by H.P. Lovecraft that he (and co-screenwriters Giorgio Mariuzzo and Dardano Sacchetti) frequently set up plot points that disappear mid-movie, or abruptly change characters in order to suit a "kill" scene. Norman is the subject of an entire subplot that goes nowhere: while following up on Dr. Peterson's research, more than one character mentions that Boyle has been to New Whitby before, has a daughter (not a son), and seem very surprised when he refutes their claims. Even Lucy asks him why it is he has a picture of the Freudstein house (which he makes dubious excuses about).

Ann, the babysitter, also seems to be involved in some conspiratorial pact with Norman, considering the frequency of close-up of Normans eyes, Ann's eyes, and sometimes Lucy, who has no idea what's going on. Ann, after all, goes out of her way to remove the board covering the cellar door, cleans up the blood after Freudstein kills the real estate agent, and seems to have a particular interest in Bob. That is, until she goes down into the cellar and is killed by Freudstein (decapitated, as per a vision Mae has with mannequins). Ann seems so surprised that Freudstein is down in the cellar that it totally undermines the suspicious behavior earlier.

Of course, almost everything is undone. To spoil a great deal for you (if such a thing is possible in a film that goes out of its way not to make sense), Norman doesn't have any connection to the Freudstein house that's ever mentioned, the couple in the beginning aren't Peterson and his mistress, and Mary Freudstein might be Dr. Freudstein and the monster we assumed was Dr. Freudstein is her son Jacob (at least, that is, if the ghost Mary and ghost Mae that take Bob away have anything to do with the quote Fulci made up and attributed to Henry James have anything to do with the story). We also never learn why the Boyles didn't leave the house after the "bat" incident (more on that below), even though they clearly stated they weren't staying.

The cheap and easy solution the trio of screenwriters thought they could get away with was a Lovecraft-esque series of revelations by Peterson that hinted at an increasing madness, leading him to suicide. Unfortunately, within the frame of a slasher narrative - with giallo-inspired murder set-pieces - creeping madness and dread become irrelevant. The two subgenres unfortunately fail to intersect: one demands a protagonist that encounters evil and goes insane, the other requires all characters but one to be killed and for the hero to kill the monster. The House by the Cemetery manages to do neither, instead settling more a muddled "ghost story" ending that just barely closes things out.

Does The House by the Cemetery have anything going for it? Well, as this is a Lucio Fulci film, the blood flows freely and the gore is at least worth some of your time*. While there's nothing as inventive or disturbing as Zombi 2, The New York Ripper, or Cat in the Brain, the Freudstein makeup is pretty cool, if entirely spoiled by the DVD cover. The kills alternate between simple giallo-esque stabbings (the real estate agent, the girl at the beginning) to full on exposed brains and heads decapitated slowly with a kitchen knife.

In particular, there's a sequence where the Boyle family goes into the basement for the first time and are attacked by a bat that starts unintentionally funny and grows increasingly violent, especially when Norman stabs the bat and it begins bleeding profusely, but doesn't die. Also of note: Mae's hallucination (vision?) of a mannequin that looks like Ann losing its head - complete with very real looking tendons and blood - adds a nightmarish quality early in the film. Alas, it promises more than The House by the Cemetery can deliver, so enjoy it while you can. The movie itself isn't really worth the time it takes to watch, especially when Fulci has so many better films to offer.

* How much of your time? Certainly not the 87 minutes it takes to watch the film, but I'm sure there's some "gore" compilation from the film on YouTube that'll save you wondering what you missed.

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