[28 October 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For about four years—1979 to 1983—no one could touch Lucio Fulci. While fellow Italian filmmaker Dario Argento was yet to start his downward slide and son of Mario, Lamberto Bava, was rising in the ranks, the Mafioso of the Macabre was busy churning out a series of gore epics unmatched in the memory of horror. With Zombie, he reestablished his commercial chops. From then on, he crafted the masterful The Beyond, the nauseating City of the Living Dead, the splatter crime drama The New York Ripper, and the demonic ghost story Manhattan Baby. By the time of his tepid peplum, Conquest, he was already struggling to maintain his place in the pantheon of terror.
That doesn’t mean he was incapable of maintaining his then present position. Case in point, the blood spattered sensation The House by the Cemetery. A sincerely weird combination of slasher film and supernatural/science screed, it’s one of Fulci’s least famous, but oddly enough, most brutal. Knives are thrust through heads, while similar devices slice through the flesh of necks with repellent cruelty. The main mystery revolves around the identity of the killer, especially when you consider that nothing else will be explained. Indeed, Fulci obviously found the whole research subplot boring. He abandons it often, never concluding what everyone was investigating when the murders started up. Instead, we get a tiny tot whose as ingratiating as he is irritating, his invisible girl companion, and a whole lot of vile vein draining.
After learning of the death of his colleague, Dr. Peterson, Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco) and his wife Lucy (Catriona MacColl) decide to take up residence in his rented New England home, the better to continue the dead man’s secret research. They also bring along their precious blond son, Bob (Giovanni Frezzi) for the stay. Initially, our tyke is not too keen on being uprooted. He has visions of a small redheaded girl warning him against going to this secluded location. She claims he is in danger. Naturally, Bob’s pleas fall on deaf ears. Once in the rotting Victorian manse, Lucy starts to experience weird noises and odd sensations. The presence of a sinister babysitter (Ania Pieroni) doesn’t help matters. Of course, what no one knows is that a shadowy figure with an arm full of scar tissue is living in the cellar, and carving up victims with horrific abandon—and the Boyles appear to be next.
Part ghost story, part hulking horror with a thirst for blood, The House by the Cemetery is Fulci at his most fabulous. It’s a poetic pile of human offal, a gorgeous Gothic draped in the dreams of an insane cannibal. With its simple premise and complicated realization of same, unnerving atmosphere and rivers of grue, we get a forgotten jewel from the maestro of messy menace. As a director, Fulci doesn’t dawdle. He gives us a sensational opening, a few scenes of set-up, and then it’s straight into his unholy house of horrors. Riffing on the old dark mansion conceit, he creates a genuine atmosphere of dread while never letting up on the gore. Indeed, while the killings are scattered more irregularly throughout the film, their vibrant red impact—almost always realized in slow motion excess - are stunning.
But there is more to Fulci than ample arterial spray. He clearly understands the genre and its needs (at least, circa the early ‘80s) and adds enough post-modern tweaks to take advantage of such knowledge. Bob, for all his doe-eyed earnestness, is a clear audience substitute, a voice and pair of bright blue peepers that we get to see everything through. Several times, our tiny hero does things that would have the standard sitting audience screaming for some common sense. Luckily, we require such pre-adolescent derring-do in order to experience what Fulci has for us. Using a child as bait is taboo enough, but The House by the Cemetery makes it very clear that Bob and his family are doomed. How fate decides to take them will be the movie’s main reveal.
Simultaneously, Fulci must find a way to outdo his previous canon of carnage. He starts out with a butcher knife through the front (and back) of a pretty gal’s skull…and then he really goes gonzo. There’s a nasty bat attack, a gruesome neck bite, and perhaps the stellar set-piece of the lot, a carve up of a character’s neck that looks as painful and disgusting as it would be in real life. Fulci was always upfront about giving his F/X artists free reign. It may have cost him considerable commercial respect (Britain is still messing with his movies some 30-plus years later), but it fits perfectly into his world of pain. For this filmmaker, horror is synonymous with harm and cruel consequence. Victims don’t just suffer - they are tortured as part of the terror.
Of course, fans looking for logic simply need to step back and let the sadistic savant do his usual stuff. Fulci is famous for his cinematic non-sequitors and while not as bad as The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery can be a real brain buster. The research seems to center on a blood-based cure for mortality, or the man who discovered it, or a location that is haunted by a nasty presence from the past, which might still be connected to the experiments. Characters can die off with relative ease, and there’s always plenty of time for clean-up…and of course, no one ever witnesses anything. This is a world where houses become illogical mazes of danger, where no one ever turns on a light or calls the police before investigating the horrific screams coming from the cellar.
Not that anyone would respond to such a cry for outside help. Indeed, Fulci’s films work so well because they contain an insularity that few efforts can match. His worlds are recognizable and yet completely foreign to the ways of reality. Anything can happen, and when it does, death is always somewhere in the mix. We don’t really care what happens to the characters. Instead, our concern is over the amount of violence we will have to experience in order to see things set right. Toward the end of his life, Fulci relied more and more on gore to get his points across. It rendered his movies memorable if not wholly redeemable. But for those four years, nothing could compare to his cruel touch. The House by the Cemetery is an often overlooked example of his jaded genius.