by Jack Sommersby
Unlike most Fulci films, this one's actually watchable and halfway-involving -- that is, until the director regresses to his unreliable self.After having suffered through such brain-dead garbage fests as Zombie, Gates of Hell, and The New York Ripper (which, admittedly, provides a load of unintentional laughs), I feel it my duty to report that the director responsible for those atrocities, Lucio Fulci, is also the man responsible for a rare non-atrocity titled The House by the Cemetery -- even if, by the most lenient of standards, it still isn't very good. It is bearable for the most part, though -- that is, until its final-third, when whatever goodwill that's been worked up through Fulci's technical savvy is self-destructively canceled out by the moronic final passages. The film seems a genuine attempt by Fulci to tell an actual story through halfway-responsible means and abandon his usual bombastic storytelling sense where sequences are poorly shaped and even more poorly aligned into a wretched overall shape of incoherence. Mind you, there's plenty of gore sprinkled throughout The House by the Cemetery, but Fulci does his darndest to grip and guide us through reputable means of tactful manipulation and insinuation, rather than trotting out a barrage of sensationalistic, over-the-top sequences for the sole sake of shock value.
"A Lucio Fulci Film That Starts Well but Eventually Self-destructs"
While the story isn't all that hot to begin with, it's an intriguing one, all the same. Boston scientist Norman Boyle (played by Paolo Malco) moves his wife, Lucy (Catriona MacColl), and pre-teen son, Bob (Giovanni Frezza), out of the city and in to the upstate countryside for six months to follow up on some research by a colleague, who just recently committed suicide. As it happens, because Lucy took too long in approving the move, the house the Boyles were intending to stay in has been rented out, leaving them only one option: to stay in the "house by the cemetery" where the suicide took place. Of course, we already know from the double murder that occurs at the house at the beginning of the film that: one, an unspeakable horror is lurking inside of it; two, that horror is in the form of a human or human-like monstrosity being that the knife used to slay a couple of horny teens was grasped by a hand. Already, we've been joylessly tipped off for the sake of a cheap effect, but we're still willing to roll with things for a while.
While the parents suspect nothing, their son in fact was forewarned of the impending danger of the house before leaving Boston by a sweet little girl appearing in the window of a similar-looking house in a painting in their apartment. By the time he went and got his mother to show her, the girl's image had disappeared. Of course, upon the initial move-in, suspicions arise slightly upon discovery of the basement door being boarded-over; yet after Norman manages to open it, a brief preliminary sweep of the area below apparently sates his curiosity, finding nothing at all. Soon, a babysitter by the name of Ann (Ania Pieroni) sent over by the realtor turns up, and, while beautiful, obviously isn't much for small talk and (courtesy of Fulci's insistent zeroing in on her eyes in extreme close-ups) exudes a slightly menacing air of uncertainty. Added to this, we're soon informed through Norman that the house used to belong to a turn-of-the-century surgeon named Dr. Freudstein (subtle!) who was charged with performing illegal human experiments, and whose gravestone, by the way, just happens to be located not in the cemetery, but in the floor on the first story of the house!
Taking into account the knife-wielding hand at the beginning and the location of the headstone, one needn't be employed by NASA to surmise that the killer is in fact Dr. Freustein, or, to keep things in the right perspective, a zombie-like monstrosity of him being that he's been dead for quite a while -- which, if it's true (and it most likely is), is quite the letdown due to the plain and simple fact that a sadistic zombie is far from a novel film villain anymore. A crushing feeling of "been-there, done-that" familiarity sets in and dilutes a good deal of the mystery surrounding the story. Again, we're willing to give Fulci the benefit of the doubt because most of the sequences thus far have been satisfyingly staged and executed. Not a whole lot of intriguing information is conveyed, but the film works on a fairly effective subjective level where the mere hints of danger, where what isn't being said or presented right before us, helps sustain interest, enabling us to feed off this by using our imaginations to fill in the gaps, where our dreadful suspicions can be turned loose to grow alarmingly in our minds, which, compared to blatant presentation, gives off a much more scary impression.
Other scenes are more visceral in content but just as cannily milked. A standout scene finds the young girl in the picture from before staring into a storefront window at a mannequin, which is silently "speaking" to her. It doesn't burst from the enclosure to attack her or anything like that; rather, the head separates from the neck, leaving a gory mess behind, and the girl runs like hell. Because Fulci bothered to take his time to acknowledge the grueling horror of this by letting the girl's innocent eyes act as our own, with the camera positioned at just a low enough angle to bring us within her line of sight, the effect is both lurid yet mesmerizing. Also, the slaughter of the female realtor a few scenes after isn't bad, either. Walking through the house by her lonesome, her foot falls right through Freudstein's headstone, as bad luck would have it, and the cutting back and forth between her attempts to pry herself loose and the monster slowly closing in on her is perfectly timed. Her terror effortlessly becomes our own, because Fulci puts the camera exactly where need be and backs up the imagery with an astute editing rhythm in-sync with the intensity of the scene.
These are the positives, and, truth be told, so are the performances, which are surprisingly solid for a Fulci film considering his puppet-like use of actors in general. But tedium soon sets in, as I indicated before, and The House by the Cemetery goes all to hell during the home stretches. Where nothing all that fascinating has been communicated to us throughout, we've seen fit to attribute the lack of spelled-out information to Fulci's intent to wallop us near the end with rather grand (or, hell, even semi-grand or functional) revelations, which never arrive. Fulci was one of three credited with the screenplay, and you'd think that three artistic heads (and one, at least, who's been in the business for so long) could've devised something more inspired than a monster-in-the-basement story schema. (The ending is so bad, in fact, that it brings back memories of 1978's otherwise-splendid The Evil, where Satan was finally revealed as personified by a second-rate actor wearing a tuxedo.) Yet it's not the familiarity of this that's crushing but the familiar way it's played out, as if we, the audience, were licking our lips in juicy anticipation to be allowed to lay eyes on an upteenth re-telling of a zombie wrecking merciless havoc on humans. At least in Zombie Fulci made clear right away what the humans were up against; here, he teases and taunts like a proud chef waiting to unveil a delectable chicken dish, only to wheel out a cart of Shake 'N Bake instead.
Even on a mediocre level of zombie violence, Fulci drops the ball. I won't even question why Norman, the smart and supposedly intelligent scientist husband, never fully explored the damn basement after unlocking the door that first time, for he surely (and inconveniently, for the sake of the story's longevity) would have noticed the unorthodox sight of several dead bodies strung up from the ceiling. And even if he didn't, wouldn't he, as well as wife and child, have been overpowered by the sure-as-hell stench from the corpses? When young Bob spies a set of yellow eyes peeking at him from a darkened corner in the basement, and he takes up those stairs like there's no tomorrow, for the sole sake of intercutting between Bob and his mother trying to get the door back open, Fulci flubs things by prolonging Freudstein's initial pursuit of him, which is totally inconsistent considering the assurity with which it dispatched the realtor, who, like Bob, had nowhere to go. And, I swear I'm not making this up, in a truly bone-headed decision, in another scene where terrified Bob runs up those stairs, Fulci has him screaming and screaming like he can't open the door all the way to get out because his arm's caught in it, when, quite simply, all he had to do was (duh!) pull the damn door backward and free his appendage. (And, please, don't even try defending this by claiming the kid was so scared he couldn't think straight. Save it for Idiots 'R Us.)
Fulci fails to understand that, while audiences do not necessarily require airtight plotting and a complete absence of logic loopholes in all horror genre entries, we generally respond to a film better, are able to get more involved with the characters and their plights, when a fair amount of common sense is employed. After all, if the heroes exhibit hardly an iota of valid concern for their own lives, why should we have a stake in or root for them? Of course, this is the kind of film where a supposedly caring mother walks into her kitchen where the babysitter is wiping up a huge batch of blood off the kitchen floor, asks what she's doing, and leaves the room without getting a clear explanation! And speaking of the babysitter, Anna, Fulci dedicates all those close-up shots of her, suggesting she's in on the terrifying goings-on in the house -- something the wiping off of the blood clearly indicates -- just to drop this altogether to serve up another corpse for Freudstein. In the film's former scenes, you take solace in the impression that Fulci cares enough about his audience to take the time to set things up properly, so the payoffs later on are logical extensions of the events from the previous scenes; yet in the latter ones, Fulci abandons any sense of tact, as if he were mentally straight-jacketed during these "respectful" passages, and just couldn't wait any longer to pile on the blood-and-guts carnage. What other reason, then, to include a totally irrelevant scene involving a vicious bat making a bloody mess out of Norman, and it being made a bloody mess out of in return?
The House by the Cemetery isn't terrible for a horror film, but in the end it makes for a pretty disgraceful one. It simply doesn't deliver the goods -- at least not the goods promised. Sure, with Fulci we get the blood, which is to be expected from a reputable gore master like himself, yet for a good while there, he pretends to carry on as if he were interested in something other than cheap effects; and even if he weren't, at least some redemption could have been had with either an improvement in the staging of the ending scenes or, at the very least, some textured, menacing atmospherics surrounding the physical horror, as fellow Italiano Damiano Damiani superbly elicited in the underrated Amityville II: The Possession. I know supporters of Fulci readily attest that linear storytelling and three-dimensional characters are blase, unnecessary ingredients in the Italian horror genre (referred to as the giallo), and I myself do not always jump on a horror film for lacking those qualities. I do, however, enjoy being frightened, so I can never figure out why fans of Fulci let him off the hook so easily in terms of putting on an effective show. His films don't scare, they create little suspense, and their only reason for existence seems to be to showcase gore -- which is perfectly fine when it's done right, and it isn't here. The House by the Cemetery showcases its share of violent scenes, all right, but I'd be hard pressed to say that the eighty minutes or so of padding in between are even remotely worth the effort of sitting through.Rent 1978's "The Evil" instead.
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originally posted: 03/04/03 12:45:02