The House by the Cemetery 4K Ultra HD Review: ‘Damn Tombstones!’

It’s probably not accurate to say Lucio Fulci is an acquired taste. It’s more accurate to say, of all the directors of weird Italian horror movie genre, save perhaps Dario Argento, Fulci was the one most likely to create something you might remember after watching. His films have generally simplistic, and barely coherent plots – in fact, The House by the Cemetery with its bare thread of coherent narrative is one of his more complex stories. The power of Fulci’s cinema is not in the overall effect but in the moment to moment. The House by The Cemetery has plenty of creepy moments. It even makes a little bit of sense – which it does its best to hide by withholding almost all of its expository information until the last 10 minutes of the film. It’s not a great movie. It’s not a great story. But it has its moments, and Italian horror is about these moments. The parts are the point, not the sum.

Here’s the basic story: Dr. Norman Boyle is taking over the research of his colleague, who apparently murdered his wife and killed himself while engaging in a study about suicide. Norman apparently thinks the best way to safely complete this study is to move into the creepy old house that his colleague murdered his wife in, and bring his own wife and child along. What’s the worst that could happen?

His son Bob, apparently incidentally, has been having visions of a young, red-haired and befreckled girl telling him he shouldn’t go into the house. He sees her in a photograph on the wall of his dad’s office (I guess? Locations are not well defined in a Fulci movie) but his mom can’t see what he does, and dismisses it as an imaginary friend.

The family moves into the odd house, and Bob begins to see this “imaginary friend” on the grounds, which are right next to a cemetery. Dad continues the colleague’s research in the library where he hanged himself, and Bob and his mother Lucy spend their time in the house, despite the proximity to the cemetery and the weird noises inside that disturb them all through the day.

Apparently, Fulci’s intent with The House by the Cemetery was to be a tribute to H.P. Lovecraft – not, evidently, his cosmic horror stories invoking the Cthulhu mythos, but his more grounded stories about ancient evils and the horrors of hereditary madness. For those familiar with Lovecraft, this story has more in common with “The Picture in the House” or “The Lurking Fear” than “Call of Cthulhu” or “The Dunwich Horror.” But in the bare outline the story owes more to Stephen King’s The Shining than any Lovecraft. And even more so, it owes its story to randomness: vague plot ideas thrown out with little set-up, and less pay-off.

For instance, there’s the babysitter, Ann. She has some connection with Norman – there are several close-up shots of them meeting eye to eye to establish this. We have a scene where the imaginary friend sees a mannequin who looks just like Ann get beheaded. There’s no earthly reason we should have any scenes from this girl’s POV, and she has no connection to Ann whatsoever but it’s weird. So it goes into the movie.

The film opens with a woman in the house, post-coitally looking for her boyfriend and getting stabbed from the back of her head, the knife coming out her mouth. There’s an extended scene where a bat from the basement attacks husband and wife, and needs to be stabbed repeatedly. The grand finale in the basement is a horrific tour de force, as long as one is patient with its slow-paced dream logic and doesn’t mind that not a single character involved acts with anything approaching rationality.

Rationality does not apply here, it can only spoil the experience, like turning on the lights on a haunted house set. There’s several plot threads that go absolutely nowhere. The finale is set up with exposition by the husband that has nearly no foreshadowing. The characters involved don’t have anything like actual character. Bob likes playing with a race car. His mother worries about him. Norman researches things. That’s it.

It’s an Italian film set in the United States and it never for one second feels native. All of the English dialogue is dubbed, of course – it was typical for Italian movies of the era to dub all of their dialogue, so the actors would speak their native language on set and it would be recorded over afterwards. But the children are all obviously dubbed by adult women, and they never look like Americans. This foreignness adds to the oddity of the film. My favorite moment is when the realtor is driving her Jeep off the house lot, backs into the cemetery and says, like it were an everyday annoyance, “Damn tombstones!”

Coherence or plot or sense aren’t the attraction of a Fulci horror movie – it’s the gore scenes. And they are approached in this, comparatively atmospheric and non-gory film, relentlessly. The aforementioned scene with the bat, the murder of the real estate agent, the scene where Norman nearly kills his child with an axe trying to rescue him, they have a grim, grinding, horrific relentlessness that pushes them beyond normal, “respectable” horror. There is not the simple shock of murder, and the cutting away of the camera. There’s shocking brutality, and then the camera lingers. And waits, while the knife is plunged into the body again and again, or the monster’s hand tears at the throat, rips it open, and keeps tearing. That’s the quality of Fulci horror: the sense that, even if you look away for a few seconds, when you look back, the ugly awful stuff is still happening. With this 4K UItra HD release, the ugliness has never looked so good at home. It’s based on a restored transfer done from the film negative, the 1080p Blu-ray edition of which was released last year.

The House by the Cemetery has a greater sense of atmosphere than in many of Fulci’s other films. There’s a sense of growing tension that makes the disconnected scenes feel like they may be going somewhere. At the risk of spoiling the film, they are not. They do not. It’s a complete mess. But it’s a mess that can string you along, and shows you things you haven’t seen in other movies. It would be nice if they all connected in something like a story, but one cannot have everything.

The House by The Cemetery has been released on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray plus a special features Blu-ray by Blue Underground. On the 4K disc there is a commentary track by Fulci expert Troy Howarth, and a brief deleted scene, without audio. On the second special features disc there is more than two hours of video extras: “Meet the Boyles – Interviews with Stars Catriona MacColl and Paolo Malco” (14 min), “Children of the Night – Interviews with Stars Giovanni Frezza and Silvia Collatina” (12 min), “Tales of Laura Gittleson – Interview with Star Dagmar Lassander” (9 min), “My Time With Terror – Interview with Star Carlo De Mejo” (9 min), “A Haunted House Story – Interviews with Co-Writers Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Briganti” (14 min), “To Build a Better Death Trap – Interviews with Cinematographer Sergio Salvati, Special Make-Up Effects Artist Maurizio Trani, Special Effects Artist Gino De Rossi, and Actor Giovanni De Nava” (22 min), and three extras that are new to this release: “House Quake – Interview with Co-Writer Giorgio Mariuzzo” (15 min), “Catriona MacColl Q&A” from the 2014 Spaghetti Cinema Festival (30 min), and “Calling Dr. Freudstein – Interview with Stephen Thrower, Author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci” (20 min).

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Kent Conrad

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