I can’t always write about lesser known films. I mean I can, but I think it’s important to look at films known but not necessarily loved within their specific sub-genre. Case in point: Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery (1981), the last film in his loose “Gates of Hell” trilogy, and usually considered the least of the three. It certainly was by me - until my latest viewing, that is; while not epic in scope like The Beyond (‘80) or as atmospheric as City of the Living Dead (also ‘80, and also better titled The Gates of Hell), it has a straightforwardness that I find refreshing. As straightforward as Fulci can get, I suppose, in all his Fulci-ness.
For those unaware of the late director and the level of his import, we will need to consult with Cushing’s Ghoulish Glossary, which states:
Thought for many years by individuals with their heads firmly ensconced up their own rectum to be a second class Argento, Lucio Fulci’s body of work has proven to be at times satirical, socially relevant, gruesome, with a keen eye towards translating the fantastical as only he could. Suck it, haters.
Not released in North America until June of ‘84, House was met with the same sort of shoulder shrugging indifference afforded most horror releases by the press (especially Italian horror). Fulci was given the same kind of treatment the previous year when The Gates of Hell was finally screened (I remember reading a less than favorable review in People magazine at the time, which made me want to see it even more), but this was par for the course for a filmmaker constantly disparaged at the time - even from some horror fans. Those days are over however, as he is now seen as the surreal master he truly was.
My favorite part of any Fulci writeup is the plot description, and House’s offers no fewer pleasures. To whit: Let’s head to NYC and meet the Boyle family, shall we? First we have mom Lucy (Katherine MacColl - The Beyond), professor dad Norman (Paolo Malco - The New York Ripper), and last but not least, little blonde moppet Bob (Giovanni Frezza - Manhattan Baby). They’re on their way to New England, as Norm is researching his former professor, who killed his wife and then himself in a house once owned by a Dr....Freudstein. (Oh, you Italians.)
Freudstein had a habit of eating people in his basement to extend his life; and the family gets an eerie glimpse of their fate when Bob comes across an old picture of the house while still in New York and notices a little girl in the window. When they arrive in New England, Bob sees the same girl playing outside. (By the cemetery. You know, the one by the house.) It isn’t long before the family discovers that Freudstein is still alive - or at least, still working - and is none too keen on his new upstairs neighbors…
We’re dealing with a more subdued Fulci in The House by the Cemetery, at least in terms of story; there are no portals to the unknown nor priests hanging themselves in a cemetery (no not that cemetery; a different one), and the performances are pitched towards the human end of the emotive spectrum - until they aren’t. The story itself is fairly clear (but not the details, and don’t worry, we’ll get there) and linear, especially in light of his immediate preceding films. A problem for some, methinks.
I believe House is seen by many as “lesser than” because of its simplicity; horror fans were so used to dealing with not only zombies in his films, but otherworldly dimensions, global annihilation, and general no-goodness on much broader canvases. House feels small, and truncated. With purpose, I say.
Fulci goes for intimacy here; between the family, and with the audience. He’s shooting for straight up gothic, even more so than his previous two films, which were steeped in Victorian atmosphere yet little else. House has a ghost story running throughout; one that actually resolves the plot - as much as Fulci will allow, anyway. And really, there’s only the ghost story and Freudstein in the basement, so one needs to calibrate to a slightly different Fulci vibe to fully enjoy House.
Have no fear though, because while the story plays it linear, Fulci splays the audience with all of his trademarks. The gore is lovingly gruesome, the film is beautifully shot by Sergo Salvati (Fulci’s Cundey from The Psychic through this one), and all the confusion is saved for the minutia - Lucy sees the babysitter cleaning up blood and doesn’t bat an eye, the locals believe Norm has been to the town before - with his daughter, and Freudstein has quite the appetite for an undead doc with no mouth.
In other words, the normal Fulci madness is on display, it’s just muted in a story that dwells on a family by default; this is perhaps one of his most humane compositions in a filmography that mostly wallows in nihilism. Don’t get me wrong - it still ends poorly for most of the cast, but there is more intimacy created when it’s a nuclear family in peril. Even if most people in the audience would gladly see Bob devoured by Dr. Freudstein.
Personally, I’m fine with Bob; he’s certainly no more annoying to me than other kids in Italian films - after all, it’s not his fault that his voice is dubbed by a whistling tea kettle, or that his blonde locks look like they’re ready to devour his face. (Okay, that one is his parents’ fault.)
As I’ve stated, I was one of the naysayers of The House by the Cemetery until my most recent revisit; a few attempts to meet on its quieter wavelength were met with that same shoulder shrugging indifference. And that’s okay; films are meant to be rediscovered, reperused, reappraised. As we change and grow, so can our outlook on the art we ingest. At the very least, the film finds Fulci playing with a few different colours from his palette. There’s still plenty of red though, I promise.
The House by the Cemetery is available on Blu-ray in a 3-Disc Limited Edition from Blue Underground.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: MACABRE (1980)