‘How many have wandered innocently
into the waiting spiderweb? How many more
are doomed to follow?’
1981 was a big year for Lucio Fulci. Only four months after the release of The Beyond comes The House By The Cemetery (has there ever been a cooler title than that?), and while it doesn’t quite measure up to that masterpiece, at times it comes pretty close.
It’s a more conventional tale than The Beyond, with less surrealism and more focus on the usual haunted house tropes of creaking doors and strange noises in the night. Clearly influenced by the success of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, it’s about a couple and their son who go to spend six months in an old house and discover the dark secrets of the previous tenants, one Dr Freudstein (who’s more Frankenstein than Freud) and his family. There are little ghost girls, blood appearing from unlikely places and an axe being used to smash open a door. So yeah, maybe influenced by The Shining is not quite right. Ripping off The Shining is more appropriate. But this being peak period Fulci, he rips it off and does his own crazy thing.
We begin in standard slasher movie territory with a post-coital couple being murdered in a basement. Unlike most slashers of the time though, it is beautifully shot and lit, perhaps even more so than The Beyond. The scene ends with a classic Fulci gag of the girl being stabbed in the back of the head, the knife exiting through her open mouth. And then BANG! The opening credits roll over a gorgeous Autumnal shot of the titular house, scored by Walter Rizatti rather than the absent Fabio Frizzi. His work is not quite up to the standard set by Frizzi for The Beyond and City Of The Living Dead, but it’s atmospheric and creepy so I’m not going to complain too much.
Next we meet our doomed family, played by the returning Catriona MacColl (still in a trance-like daze from The Beyond apparently) and Paulo Malco, who’s wearing a turtleneck just like Jack Nicholson in that one film, oooh, what’s it called, I can’t remember, OH YEAH IT’S THE SHINING ISN’T IT. Unfortunately they also have a son called Bob who has premonitions (kinda like, oh forget it, you get the picture). Bob is played by Giovanni Frezza, who nearly derails the entire movie. The first time I ever saw this movie I spent the whole film laughing at Bob and he became a running joke for years to come with my friends. The problem isn’t his horrible blond mop of hair, or his piggy nose – it’s the fact that a nine year old has been dubbed by a middle aged woman. Every line of dialogue is delivered in a hideous, screeching falsetto that sounds like one of the Chipmunks. There’s no way round it and it never gets any better – it’s just something you’re going to have to deal with.
Throughout the movie, people keep referencing the fact that Malco has been to the house before, even though he denies it. It’s probably just another Shining reference (‘You’ve always been the caretaker here, Mr Torrance’) but it works at adding an extra layer of mystery to the film. As the film progresses we get more and more of the classic Fulci touches. MacColl discovers a tomb in the hallway, and Malco brushes it off saying, ‘Most of the houses in the area have tombs in them.’ Pal, I’m not sure I believe you, you shifty eyed motherfucker. And just why do you keep exchanging those knowing glances with the babysitter?
Soon the bodies start to pile up, including the death of an estate agent that seems to go on forever as she is repeatedly though very slowly stabbed with a poker. This leads to a crazy scene the next day when MacColl walks in on the babysitter cleaning up a pool of blood on the hallway tomb and doesn’t seem at all shocked or surprised. It’s a typical Fulci moment guaranteed to please his fans and infuriate non-believers.
The ending replays one of the best scenes from City Of The Living Dead, with an attempted axe rescue bringing the blade perilously close to Bob’s face (just an inch to the left guys, you almost got him!) followed by a visit to a subterranean charnel house and the appearance of Dr Freudstein, who is still alive but has really let himself go. It’s an exciting climax followed by an expectedly downbeat conclusion that paves the way for the savage nihilism of his next film, the rampantly misogynistic The New York Ripper. After that film, Fulci would never be the same again. But we’ll always have The House By The Cemetery, guys.
And we’ll always have Dr Freudstein.
I love when MacColl asks the babysitter what she’s doing mopping up blood on the floor, all the babysitter has to do is say “I made coffee” and MacColl forgets all about the bloodied mop!