Wednesday, 6 February 2008

House by the Cemetery (1981)

You will learn to hate this child.

Along with City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, House by Cemetery completed a trilogy of horror films that defined Fulci's style as a horror director. His films' lack of narrative cohesion, elaborately staged set-pieces and bizarre lingering shots give them a surreality, a dreamlike atmosphere where anything could happen. Which is a fancy way of saying that they make no damn sense. Lucio Fulci is a style-over-substance director, and while his films very much fit the exploitation mold, there is enough attention to visual detail and genuinely memorable shots to make his films worth watching. It's still trash, but when it works, it's glorious.

House by the Cemetery opens with a couple of teens who thought the titular house would be a good place for some sweet, sweet lovin'. The guy gets his head split open and his torso pinned to a door with a pair of scissors, while the girl gets a knife through the back of her head and out her mouth. Her body is dragged away by a strange creature.

Meanwhile in New York, Dr Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco, bearded and in tweed and a turtleneck) has agreed to travel up to his colleague Professor Peterson's New England house for six months, in order to complete Peterson's research. Peterson had been conducting research into suicide, but unfortunately he got a little too into his work and killed his mistress and then himself. Accompanying Dr Boyle is his wife Lucy (Catriona MacColl) and their son Bob (Giovanni Frezza). Bob is a blonde, frog-faced urchin who is having visitations from the ghost of a young girl, warning them away from the house. Bob's atrocious and annoying dubbing sinks any chance of the film being taken seriously.

On their arrival both the real estate agent and the library archivist mention Dr Boyle having visited the town before with a little girl, but he has no recollection of doing so. Don't get attached to this plot point because it is henceforth abandoned entirely.

The house has a boarded up cellar (bad sign!) but comes complete with a caterpillar-eyebrowed, live-in babysitter, Ann (Ania Pieroni). Soon after they move in Dr Boyle finds her prying the boards from the basement door in the middle of the night. Rather than ask her what the hell she's doing he gets into a staring competition with her, wins, and goes back to bed.

It's not long before Dr Boyle discovers that the previous owner of the house, Dr Freudstein (heh) was suspended from the Medical Association for "illegal experiments", and Mrs Boyle finds his tomb in the middle of the lounge room floor. Lucy is understandably upset, but Norman claims that there are a lot of indoor tombs in the area because the ground freezes up in winter. This would be a fine excuse if the house wasn't by a cemetery!

Soon after unlocking the cellar door they suffer a protracted attack from a fake-looking bat. After what seems like a good ten minutes, Dr Boyle stabs it to death, spilling far more blood than you would expect to find in a 2 pound mammal. That's the last straw for the Boyles, and they decide to see the real estate agent about finding a new home. Her apathetic assistant promises he will send her by that evening, but I guess they forgot because when she drops by later no-one is home. She gets her leg caught in the newly uncovered tomb and is brutally stabbed to death.

The next morning Ann is cleaning up bloodstains and acting in her typically suspicious manner. I don't know if the blood is from the bat or the real estate agent, but either way Lucy doesn't seem perturbed by it. All of Ann's sinister behaviour, however, amounts to sod all, because later that day she gets herself locked in the basement and her throat slashed not once, not twice, but thrice. Bob almost bites it too, but unfortunately he escapes. When he heads down there with his mother there is no sign of Ann nor the copious amount of blood spilled mere moments ago. This is stupid.

Meanwhile Dr Boyle is trying to find the tomb of Dr Freudstein in the cemetery. The caretaker informs him that it isn't there. Gee, you don't suppose it could have anything to do with the tomb in your living room floor. The one marked Freudstein?!

Anyway, some time later Bob gets trapped in the basement again (stop toying with me, Lucio!) This time, he finds the undead Freudstein and the bodies of the victims he uses to keep himself alive. During the rescue attempt, his parents get themselves locked in the basement too (this happens all the time in this film, have you noticed?) Dr Boyle stabs Freudstein and maggots pour from the wound. Unaffected, Freudstein tears this throat out. The remaining two attempt to escape but Mrs Boyle gets dragged down the stairs, her head audibly thumping on each step. Bob manages to escape just in time (damn it!!) thanks to the help of the little girl. Suddenly the house is back as it was a hundred years ago and Bob and the little girl are led away by Mrs Freudstein to an unknown fate.

After this head-scratcher of an ending, the film finishes with a title card of a barely relevant Henry James quote, but at least it's spelled correctly.

Fulci's films often seem like they were edited by throwing darts at a wall, and this one is no exception. The pacing seems off kilter, and subplots are built up and then never mentioned again. Undiscriminating gorehounds, however, will definitely enjoy this film. The special effects (from Gianetti De Rossi, working previously with Fulci on Zombi 2) are fantastic, but the shots linger just a bit too long, exposing their fakery. Also, Fulci's obsession with eyes reaches a ridiculous height in this film. The characters frequently engage in bizarre staring contests. This film is tolerable when taken as a gory stylistic exercise, but thinking about the plot for more than a few seconds will make your brain hurt.

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