Sometimes I’ll buy a random film by one of my favourite cult directors purely because it’s one of the odd ones I haven’t seen yet. After attending the London Film and Queuing Con I got inside a building that was selling all sorts of film and comic related stuff and picked up a few classics from the Arrow Films booth. Amongst them was one of them films I just mentioned, The House By The Cemetery by Lucio Fulci. Last week, after seeing Guardians of the Galaxy, myself and my friend Paul decided to sit and watch this film for the first time each. We’re not entirely sure we followed the whole thing. After the link below is my review. If that’s what you could call my ramblings.
So what is the plot of The House By The Cemetery? What is a plot? If nothing more than a miserable collection of scenes strung together in a cohesive manner, the goal of which is, commonly, to lead an protagonist toward a certain goal or a lesson that needs to be learned. The House By The Cemetery, as is, honestly, the fashion of much Italian horror cinema of its era, eschews the conventions of plot, often in favour of mood, feeling, tension and gore. There is the loose resemblance of a story here that is pretty much The Shining. A family head to stay in an abandoned house in New England, their son is having vision of a creepy girl, presumably because Fulci didn’t have the budget for twins. The father is going to complete some research for a book or something. The mother is generally there to try to keep the family together. Turns out there’s an undead murderous doctor in their basement.
OK, so the last bit may not be from The Shining. Although undead doctor is far more interesting than psychic furnace. In typical Fulci style the film is crammed with non sequiturs, random events that don’t appear quite tied to the plot. For example, the father, Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco), is told that his predecessor hung himself from a railing in the library. He sees the railing and the camera stays on it whilst tense music plays. In that scene it makes sense. The next few times it happens, often accompanied with a dramatic movement, and often after some inane discovery has been made, this railing stops being the device by which a professor killed himself and starts seeming to become an antagonist to Dr Norman. An antagonist we never see defeated. In fact, nothing comes of this at all. There’s no ironic symmetry tying to being hung later in the film. The unassuming railing doesn’t break free of it’s bonds to skewer Norman in the head, which, let’s face it, wouldn’t be unusual in a Fulci film. It’s just a thing he keeps looking at.
The weirdness continues later as the family’s au pair/babysitter/maybe stalker Ann (Ania Pieroni) is mopping up the bloody trail left by last nights victim. The mother, Lucy (Catriona MacColl), enters the scene, discusses some random stuff with Ann and the scene ends. No mention of the large amount of blood Ann is mopping up at all. Lucy should be quite disturbed by the amount of blood too. She isn’t a conspirator in the evil goings on. She’s actually pretty afraid of the house ever since she discovered a full blown grave in the hallway. Also, no-one mentioned the large crack in the grave made by the victim the night before despite it becoming central to the film’s finale. That said, this isn’t unusual for a Fulci film.
If you’ve never been introduced to the wonders of Lucio Fulci I honestly suggest seeing Zombi 2 and City of the Living Dead, mostly just for the batshit crazy zombie action those films provide. I mean, one of them has a zombie fighting a shark underwater. His films are often incoherent, nonsensical and filled with bizarre twists and turns. But it is elements such as those that lead you to realise that this is a director who does whatever the hell he wants. He is not interested in logic and/or reason. He wants you to feel something, be it fear, elation or pure terror. And he is exceptionally good at pulling those feelings off. For all of House by the Cemetery’s numerous plot and coherence flaws the tension is ramped slowly, the family’s safety is gradually chipped away. Sequences of horror are crafted in a manner that continually build upon the previous moments. To add to that, there’s a bleakness to the film’s final 20 minutes that will have you genuinely unsure where the film will end up. This is the work of a true auteur. An insane one. But an auteur non-the-less.
There really isn’t much out there like a Fulci horror. Or any other genre he’s taken on to be honest. He’ll likely always be known for his zombie work but it’s worth noting that he was quite well known for his work in Giallo cinema too. House by the Cemetery is a prime example of his particular brand of crazy, for sure, unfortunately it isn’t his best. The lack of coherence and rambling first 40 or so minutes really doesn’t help grip you. The tension building works quite well but those scene are often interspersed with scenes that fail to move any aspect of the plot in any direction other than sideways. There’s an attempt to twist the haunted house theme here but it’s held back by a boring subplot involving Norman’s attempt to finish a book and one too many scenes of the son playing with imaginary/ghost girl. It has its charms, for sure, it just isn’t as fun as many other similar films.
If you’re coming for the gore the film’s second half will deliver in many ways. Although you may wonder about a continuity breaking injury on a victim’s face. After all, if you’re a gore fan you don’t wanna feel cheated out of a good face stabbing. If the gore is enough to sustain your interest, and you can cope with the moments between the genuinely effective tension building, then you’ll probably find a film that you’ll enjoy and cherish. For me, it’s just not Fulci’s greatest work and he does live within a realm of film making that always straddles the line between quality and disaster. The House by the Cemetery wobbles a little to far over to the side of disaster for my liking, but not fully. This really is a film that will largely boil down to your particular tastes. For me, it’s not quite there.