THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY
Italy | 1981
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Starring
Catriona MacColl
Paolo Malco
Ania Pieroni
Color
| 86 Minutes | Not Rated
Format: DVD (R0 - NTSC)
Blue Underground
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Also available on Blu-ray
 
 
Review by
Brian Lindsey

Film:4
DVD:10
Replaces EC's review of the 2000 Diamond edition
Even after all these years I'm still trying to fathom just why Italian director Lucio Fulci has garnered such an unapologetically devoted following. He made a few topnotch giallo thrillers in the 1970s, and his best-known film, 1979's Zombie, remains a minor classic of that particular horror subgenre, warts and all. But his early '80s output — the splatterific gore films his diehard fans seem to particularly adore — have always left me cold at best, and more often disappointed. Instead of 'classic' I see them as nonsensical, disjointed and (sometimes) sloppy. Zombie aside, it seems that the Fulci was simply incapable of making a first-class monster movie. A shame, too, because The House By the Cemetery has all the necessary ingredients.
    New York-based psychiatric researcher Dr. Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco) has been assigned to follow up on the work of one Dr. Peterson, a colleague who took a sabbatical to the small town of New Whitby, Massachusetts to study the history of suicides in the area. In the midst of his research Peterson wigged out and slaughtered his mistress Sheila (Daniela Doria, who gets a knife through the head in the film's prologue) before hanging himself. Boyle, far from resigned to what could be a grim task, prefers to look at his impending stay in New England as a family vacation in the country. He's taking his wife Lucy (Fulci regular Catriona MacColl) and 6-year old son Bob (Giovanni Frezza) with him. Weird things, however, are occurring even before the Boyles set out. In a photograph of an old house adorning the family's apartment, Bob sees a young girl in the window whom he claims talks to him, telling him "not to go". No one else can see the girl's image in the photo, chalking it up to Bob's fertile imagination. When the family arrives in New Whitby, Bob sees the same girl standing across the street as his parents talk with the real estate agent. Telepathically the two children communicate, with the girl explaining that her name is Mae and again warning Bob to stay out of the house.
    As 'luck' would have it, the Boyles end up renting the same rambling, ramshackle house outside of town that Peterson leased during his ill-fated stay. It also happens to be the same house as the one in the photo, located right next to an abandoned cemetery. Though she can't pinpoint exactly why, Lucy immediately begins to feel uneasy about it. A boarded-up cellar door, strange noises within the house and its creepy environs only heighten her discomfort, which Norman mostly dismisses. The family settles in, hiring an odd-behaving babysitter, Ann (Inferno's Ania Pieroni, looking quite frumpy here — amazing what a little eyebrow tweezing can do!), to help look after Bob. The boy, in the meantime, has found a playmate in Mae, the little girl who mysteriously appears from time to time and no else has seen.
    Following up Peterson's notes, Norman learns that his predecessor had abruptly dropped his line of inquiry to focus solely on a Dr. Freudstein, a local physician who died over a century earlier. Freudstein lost his medical license and was questioned by police for conducting illegal experiments. Norman can't fathom why Peterson would abandon his research to focus on this unrelated case. Later it's discovered that the house Peterson rented — the very house they're staying in now — was owned by Freudstein in the 19th Century. After Ann (for some unexplained reason) removes the boards from the cellar door and the key is found, Norman explores the basement only to be attacked by a bat, which he kills in extremely bloody fashion after being bitten on the hand. With that little incident the Boyles decide they need a change of environment ASAP. They go to the real estate office in town to arrange for a different rental but their agent, Mrs. Gittleson (Dagmar Lassander of Black Emanuelle 2), isn't around. (She's dead, in fact, brutally killed with a fireplace poker — in the flick's best murder sequence — when she went to the Freudstein house while the Boyle's were out.) Norman picks the worst time possible to return to New York to follow up on Peterson's notes and report to his superior. Lucy, Bob, and Ann are left alone in the house. And there's something in the cellar...
    In House By the Cemetery director Fulci would seem to have a reliably solid spook show premise to work from. There are some nicely helmed, eerily atmospheric tracking shots of the house — both within and without — which ably set the mood. (Blatantly ripping off the "glowing eyes" bit from Argento's Suspiria at one point.) Dr. Freudstein, the film's monster, is sufficiently grotesque and pretty darn creepy in his shamblingly slow but inexorable assaults. (True, he's even more lethargic than most mummies, but the ability to teleport is a definite advantage.) And yet Fulci throws it all away with nonsensical story elements, continuity problems and a fetish for cheesy makeup effects:
    • The tale is clearly steeped in the supernatural (the storyline involving the ghost child Mae), yet a half-assed scientific explanation for the monster is hastily included, almost as an afterthought. Huh?
    • What was the deal with Ann the nanny? She behaves bizarrely, leading the viewer to believe she's somehow in league with evil forces within the Freudstein house. Is she possessed? If so, by what? It's also hinted that she shares a secret with Norman, possibly an affair. These plot threads are never explained or explored.
    • When Norman talks with the town librarian (Carlo De Mejo) about Peterson, the man recalls Norman from a prior meeting, when the researcher visited New Whitby the previous year with his daughter. Norman explains that this is impossible as he's never been to New Whitby before and has a son, not a little girl. This cryptic bit of dialog is never followed up on.
    • Ann is killed in a particularly nasty way — her throat is slowly and repeatedly slashed with a knife until she's decapitated. What starts as a horrifically shocking and effective scene is utterly ruined when Fulci's camera closes in to lovingly document every little slice of the blade. Shown too close, with too much lighting, one can also see every little seam and ripple in the fake neck appliance worn by the actress. This badly botched scene is emblematic of the chief shortcoming inherent in Fulci's horror films: More is not always better.
    • Ann's gruesome slaying occurs at the top of the cellar stairs. A lot of blood is spilled. Only moments later not a drop of it remains, so that the other characters don't realize Ann has been killed. (I know the ads claim Bounty is the "quicker picker-upper", but this is ridiculous!)
    • Characters make the same stupid mistake of getting accidentally locked in the cellar... over and over again.
    To these blunders add one of the most gratingly annoying child actors to ever appear on screen: towheaded Frezza as little Bob. It's not really the kid’s fault, though; it's the dubbed voice used for his character that's like nails on a chalkboard — you’ll hope against hope that Bob will be one of the first to get whacked. And hope in vain. (The kid sticks around to the film's conclusion and has lots of dialog.)

With its topnotch A/V quality and bargain price, this new release — simultaneously issued on Blu-ray — is unquestionably the definitive home video version of House By the Cemetery to date.
    This 2011 "special edition" marks the second time Blue Underground has released House; the first was in 2007, after the Anchor Bay version went OOP (and using the latter's old transfer). A brand new HD master is the basis for the special edition transfer, giving the film a truly excellent presentation in anamorphic 2.35 widescreen. Image quality is virtually flawless, displaying deep blacks and rich, juicy reds, while grain looks naturally filmic. Audio is available in both English (Dolby Surround 2.0) and Italian (mono); these are solid if not particularly impressive, although certainly a cut above what one typically expects with a 30-year old low budget Italian film. Optional English, French and Spanish subtitles are on hand if so desired.
    Along with a short deleted scene ("Bat Attack Aftermath"), an image gallery, the international/U.S. theatrical trailers and a TV spot, four brief featurettes are offered. These are all nicely put together interview pieces with members of the film's cast, recalling their work on House, memories of Fulci and other tidbits of interest for Eurohorror fans. Meet the Boyles (14 min.) sits down with the film's leads, Catriona MacColl and Paolo Malco; Children of the Night (12 min.) catches up with the two child actors from the film, Giovanni Frezza and Sylvia Collatina, now 30 years older; Tales of Laura Gittleson (9 min.) are recounted by House's ill-fated real estate agent, Dagmar Lassander, during a recent horror convention in Indiana; and in My Time With Terror (9 min.), Carlo De Mejo talks about his small role as the town librarian, his much larger one in Fulci's City of the Living Dead, and the director's fondness for slathering his actors in worms, blood and other assorted goop. (NOTE: The Blu-ray edition contains two additional featurettes, which focus on the script, cinematography and makeup FX.) 10/25/11
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