“Spook Show 2019 – 04: House by the Cemetery (1981)” by Richard F. Yates
My last Spook Show review was more comedy / satire based---and not really very scary, so THIS time, I thought I’d dive right in to the truly HORRIFIC. Let me introduce you to my friend, Lucio Fulci, and his lovely little house in Boston…
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual DVD that I watched. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Lucio Fulci is one of the more famous Italian directors (along with folks like Mario Bava and Dario Argento) whose films, particularly from the 1960s and ‘70s, helped define the genre known as “giallo.” (There are also literary works in the giallo style, but I can’t read Italian, so I’m not familiar with any of these.) Giallo films incorporated murder, mystery, crime, sometimes supernatural elements, and LOTS AND LOTS of BLOOD, like a noir-gone-red! (This style also PRECEDES American slasher films, like Halloween and Friday the 13th by a solid decade and probably inspired some of those later films… Brandon Tenold’s Cult Movie Reviews has done of great job of pointing out how films, like Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971) and Sergio Martino’s Torso (1973), lead more or less directly to slasher movies, like Friday the 13th (1980).)
Regardless, House by the Cemetery fits nicely into the giallo mold (Ha! Get it!), even though it’s a weird mash-up of a film, incorporating slasher / old-dark-house / ghost story / and Frankenstein elements into the mix, along with a dose (perhaps unintentional) of melodrama cheese. The film is strange---even MYSTIFYING at times---and pretty disgusting in several scenes, but overall, I think it’s a fun movie.
The movie opens with a young lady---we assume post-coitus---in the basement of an old house calling for her boyfriend, Steve. With no context, not a single establishing conceit, the young couple are almost instantly dispatched (Steve off camera, although we do get to see his corpse hanging from a door…), and then, once the young lovers are sufficiently perforated, and with only the opening credits as a transition, we’re off to New York! (It says that's were we are now on the bottom of the screen.)
Once in the Big Apple, we meet Bob, the annoying, extremely poorly dubbed, little blond kid (who is essentially the star of the film.) Bob tells his mom, Lucy, that some little girl in an old photograph they have on their wall has been talking to him, and she said that they shouldn’t go to Boston, where Lucy, Bob, and Lucy’s husband, Dr. Norman Boyle, are heading so that Norman can take over the psychological research that his colleague, Dr. Peterson, was conducting---before Dr. Peterson went crazy, murdered his mistress, and then hung himself! (Sounds like a fun excuse for a road trip, right!?)
The little girl from the photograph who Bob keeps seeing, Mae, is revealed early on to be some kind of ghost or spirit, who has the power to see the future and speak telepathically and stuff. She’s creepy as HELL, to tell the truth, but in a fun, cutesy kind of way. In particular, she warns Bob not to enter the Fruedstein House---which is, naturally, where the family is in the process of moving---although Mae doesn’t say why Bob should stay away. Once the family arrives at the house, all kinds of weird, inexplicable, never fully explained things start to happen---including the arrival of an extremely creepy “babysitter,” Ann, who I STILL don’t quite have a handle on… (Is she EVIL? Is she just weird? Is she hypnotized or working for somebody besides the Boyle family? Why does she do the weird things she does in this movie? There are a TON of odd, unanswerable questions that come up when watching this film---and I’ve seen it a bunch of times, so if the answers where THERE, I should have caught them by now!)
Without giving too much away (if you like horror films, this is an entertaining movie, so I don’t want to SPOIL anything), the story creeps along, piling up weird MYSTERY elements, one on top of the other, and occasionally punctuating the strange, soap-opera-inflected mood with some gruesome, blood-splattered scene of carnage and/or murder---about one every ten minutes or so. (Just so viewers don’t have a chance to get bored, I guess.) The splatter-gore scenes are well done---they are about the only truly exceptional element of this film---it’s just that they’re…weird. The timing and the character motives and the weird rubber bat (in that ONE scene) and the inexplicable things that people do, during and after these scenes… I don’t know. It’s all so mystifying! Every character, every setting, every sound…all creepy and nightmarish.
Speaking of the sound, the music for the movie is primarily made by a very thin sounding synthesizer, which was popular in a lot of B-Movies in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Remember that fantastic John Carpenter score for Halloween, or, probably even closer, the theme music in a television show, like Ray Bradbury Theater??? Actually, this whole movie has a sort of “low budget,” made-for-TV feel to it, like it might have been a bad horror soap-opera or a weird, melodramatic Outer Limits remake, but without the television sensors telling the creators they can't throw buckets of blood on everything!
And, did I mention the soap-opera / melodramatic feel? There’s one great scene that utilizes a classic soap-opera trope, where Norman goes to look at the research papers that Dr. Peterson was working on before his death, and the librarian says to him, in his weird, ghoulish voice, “Do you know where he hung himself? Right from that railing!” And there’s this brilliant, annoying synth-organ screech, just like in an old soap, as the camera pans to a close-up of the railing… It’s corny and ridiculous and hilarious, and any clever film watcher is going to think, “They made such a big deal about that particular railing, I’m CERTAIN it’s going to be a major plot point later in this film!” Nope. It’s just a weird, goofy red herring---one of about a THOUSAND in this movie.
So, to sum up… This movie is pretty badly acted, melodramatic, horribly dubbed, gross and gory, has a terrible, shrill synth score, and is non-sensical almost to the point of madness. In other words, it’s WONDERFUL! It’s a bad movie---make no mistake---but if you like creepy little kid characters, and ghostly, supernatural tinged horror, or slasher movies (with some very good, gruesome special effects---and one TERRIBLE rubbery bat) and a plot that is very strange and makes almost no sense, then Fulci’s got you covered. The overall atmosphere of this film is unsettling and creepy, which is nice, but there’s also enough cheese to make it a fun movie to watch with a few drunk friends. It’s not Hitchcock (or even Mario Bava, who was a brilliant director, particularly for his visuals), but it’s probably going to appeal to folks who like weirder horror, stuff like A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 or Nightbreed or Killer Shrews or Slumber Party Massacre 2, or (maybe) Evil Dead 2---although House by the Cemetery isn’t as DELIBERATELY silly as Sam Rami’s films sometimes are. I also can’t help but wonder if the character, Dr. Freudstein, from this movie, was an influence on Rob Zombie’s Dr. Satan in House of a Thousand Corpses. (There are definitely similarities, but I can’t find any corroborating evidence that Mr. Zombie modeled his character on Fulci’s.)
House by the Cemetery is a gross, funny (perhaps accidentally), creepy, bad horror film. And it's great stuff, especially if you know what you're getting before you dive in! (But, if it’s not obvious, this movie is absolutely not for young folks, or people with weak stomachs, or movie watchers hoping for a lot of character development or a clever, well plotted story.) I found my copy for cheap, less than five bucks NEW, so if you’re looking for some entertaining horror trash, this might be the film for you!
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
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