[ I. Beyond The Beyond ][ II. The Doctor Is... In ]
[ III. Norman? Is That You? ][ IV. What About Bob? ]
[ V. About the DVD ]
[ One Last Digression: How Awful Was the US Release? ]
I. Beyond The Beyond
Few films better illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of Italian horror cinema than Lucio Fulci's House by the Cemetery. Typically for the best Italian horror films, the photography and lighting are excellent; the soundtrack is evocative and appropriate; and the gory special effects are nauseating (the way we like them). Equally typically, the script is full of clumsy dialog, badly dubbed; moments that leave the audience members scratching their heads in confusion; and plot threads that seem to be forgotten as soon as they are introduced. But unlike many other films of its time, House by the Cemetery holds up remarkably well to repeated viewing. What seems to be carelessness on the part of the film makers turns out in many instances to be deliberate ambiguity. Horror literature thrives on ambiguity, allusion and misdirection; unfortunately, these techniques aren't used as often in horror cinema, which tends to go for the spectacular, the overt and the easily-explained. I'm sure many of you aren't expecting me to begin a review of a Lucio Fulci film by praising it for its subtlety... but then again, I did say it was unique.
The House by the Cemetery was the third of five films Fulci made for the producer Fabrizio de Angelis. It was released in 1981, immediately after The Beyond, a movie that's widely regarded as Fulci's best. House by the Cemetery was helmed by the same team that was responsible for many of Fulci's previous films, including The Beyond: Fulci, screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti and cinematographer Sergio Salvati. Salvati in particular deserves special mention, since he did such a magnificent job in creating the look we tend to associate with "a Lucio Fulci film" -- yet his contribution is rarely acknowledged by genre fans.
By this point in their collaboration, Fulci, Sacchetti and Salvati had established a definite, easily recognizable style, in spite of the pressures and compromises imposed on them by limited budgets. This "Fulci style" included fluid camera work (which made good use of depth and wide-screen composition), unified color schemes, and bravura editing which tended to extend the shock scenes just past the point of acceptability. Unfortunately, it was the last time the three men would work together as a team. Salvati left first: for their last two films with de Angelis, Fulci and Sacchetti worked with cinematographers Luigi Küweiler (who had shot Argento's Deep Red) and Guglielmo Mancori (who had worked with Fulci on some of his early comedies). A few years after the partnership with de Angelis came to an end, Fulci and Sacchetti fought bitterly and ended their collaboration. By the end of the eighties, Fulci was directing mediocre films like Demonia and Ghosts of Sodom, Sacchetti was signing dreadful films like Lamberto Bava's Devil Fish or Dinner with the Vampire, and Salvati was working regularly for Charles Band (Crawlspace, Ghoulies II, Catacombs/Curse IV, Puppet Master and, unfortunately, several others). The House by the Cemetery represents a climax in the work of all three artists.
While The Beyond and House... are among Fulci's strongest movies, and certainly among the best Italian horror films, they are incredibly different from each other. The Beyond, though superficially concerned with the struggles of its two main characters, is actually about the end of the world; and as the boundary between Hell and earth begins to blur, the film's sense of time, space and reality bends with it. By contrast, House... gives us horror on a human scale, focusing on individuals and developing character to a certain degree1. Unlike its predecessor, it has a very straightforward narrative, which is not only surprisingly linear for a Fulci film, but is also more conventionally paced than many of his other movies.
The difference in pacing is significant, and is one of the major reasons that The House by the Cemetery has gained some grudging acceptance by people who dislike Fulci's other movies. Fulci's main strength as a horror film director (other than his unflinching use of graphic violence) is his ability to generate a sense of impending doom. This is not the same thing as creating suspense: with suspense, you know the danger is getting closer, and you hope the threatened characters will be able to get away on time; whereas in Fulci's films, the audience comes to realize early on that the danger is all around, and inescapable. We wait for the characters to realize what we've already guessed.
Suspense generally works through acceleration, while Fulci's approach is often to slow things down. Audiences expecting a traditional approach to generating tension sometimes find Fulci's approach too slow (and to be honest, it sometimes is). The gradual approach works very well in The Beyond, where it's impossible to tell where you are in the story because of the deliberately fragmented time-line. The finale of The Beyond packs an especially mean wallop because it comes so suddenly and unexpectedly, after a long and apparently aimless build-up. In The House by the Cemetery, though, Fulci shows that he could also handle suspense... when the material suggested it. The film builds to a harrowing climax, and because we've been given just the faintest bit of hope that escape is still possible, what actually happens seems all the more cruel.
House... is about a different kind of hell than The Beyond: it starts with a family on the verge of coming apart, and ends with most of the family in pieces. The cellar of the house by the cemetery doesn't lead to another dimension; it's just the lair of a hungry monster. But for the Boyle family, it is the end of the world, and the impact of House... on the viewer is likely to be every bit as strong as that of The Beyond, in spite of its relative restraint.
In a way, the two films complement each other very well. Just as Beethoven followed his colossal, uneven Ninth Symphony with the most intimate, expressive String Quartet he'd yet composed, so too did Sacchetti follow the apocalyptic excesses of The Beyond with one of the strongest, most character-driven scripts he's ever written2. Unlike the other Fulci/Sacchetti collaborations, or most of Fulci's other horror films or, to be frank, anybody else's Italian horror films), House... doesn't seem to owe very much to any obvious model (some critics, unwilling to give Fulci or Sacchetti any credit for originality, suggest The Amityville Horror as a source. This is ridiculous). While The Beyond had been derived from a mixture of other films including Inferno and The Sentinel, House... is surprisingly free of outside influences.
A major strength of House... is its refusal to explain itself to the viewer. As is the case with several of Fulci's other films of this period3, the script is intentionally vague. It forces the viewer to fill in details which are hinted at, but which are never fully explained. In a sense, it puts us in the same position as Lucy Boyle (Katriona McColl), who finds herself unable to tell the difference between reality and hallucination as she finds herself descending into the horror. The hints are much clearer in House... than they are in Fulci's other films, but they're subtle enough that they may be easily missed by inattentive viewers. Part of the film's reputation as a senseless gorefest comes from critics who are unwilling to look closely enough to read those hints; after all, it's "only a horror movie", and few critics expect a horror movie to trust the intelligence of its audience.
However, for all its strengths, House... is also full of the irritating lapses that seem to mar even the best of Italian horror films. Though the story reveals itself slowly and subtly, the shock scenes we're given along the way aren't as carefully judged. For example, in an early scene, the little girl Mae witnesses the decapitation of a mannequin in a store window. This is silly enough, but that's not the half of it: later, when we're introduced to the mysterious Ann (Ania Pieroni), who looks remarkably like the mannequin, we get to see the dummy-decapitation footage all over again... in case we didn't "get it".
Thinking of Mae, she's also given a pointless reaction shot at the film's climax, even though she's nowhere near. While I understand why Fulci and Sacchetti included the shot, I still think it was a serious mis-step.
Then, there's the inevitable bat attack scene. Attacks by string-propelled bats haven't been scary since the early 1930's, and yet directors keep including them in horror films. Even Dario Argento's masterful Suspiria has a ludicrous bat scene. In House..., the Boyle's first visit into the fateful cellar is interrupted by a very large bat puppet. Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco) wrests the creature from his wife's hair (stage bats, unlike real bats, love to nest in women's hair), then rushes upstairs and impales it on a kitchen knife. Bat blood splashes everywhere, including across the face and shirt of his young son Bob (Giovanni Frezza). Now, if the movie followed real life, we'd have quite a substantial interruption here, as the whole Boyle family started the long, painful duck-embryo rabies treatment. But this is not real life, so the bat attack is never mentioned again.
Another typically misjudged fright scene involves a pair of glowing eyes. Properly handled, as in Suspiria or even (to a lesser degree) in Fulci's Black Cat, the "glowing-eyes" gag can still be moderately effective. But in House by the Cemetery, the gag falls flat. First of all, the glowing eyes are completely unconvincing in themselves; but more importantly, when we finally get a good look at the film's monster, its eyes are completely different. In fact, it's difficult to tell that it even has functional eyes, let alone large, glowing orbs.
Worst of all, it seems as though Fulci and Sacchetti were unable to agree on what secrets they were guarding in their screenplay. For example, it's made very clear that Ann knows much more about what's really happening in the House than she should. How much she knows is never explained, and that's OK; however, she ends up doing the one thing that someone with her knowledge (or even suspicion) would never do: she goes into the monster's lair, just so she can end up like the mannequin in the earlier scene. Similarly, there is little justification for a trip that Norman takes late in the film: he already seems to know enough to make the trip unnecessary, and has been given enough clues to fill in what little he might not know... but he suddenly goes off on a wild goose chase anyway.
There are many other inconsistencies: for example, who boarded up the cellar door after the first on-screen murder? Why would the rental agency give Dr. Boyle and his family the same house his colleague had apparently gone crazy in? Where did all the blood go after Ann got killed? And on it goes. A little ambiguity is a good thing in a screenplay, but too much gives the impression that the film makers were inventing the rules as they went along.
II. The Doctor Is... In
NOTE: The review from here on contains Spoilers. I think most people's enjoyment of House by the Cemetery will be unaffected by knowing what's going to happen... but if you haven't seen the film, you may want to stop reading here and come back later.
The movie begins with an establishing shot that sets up the title perfectly: a view of the house from the cemetery (the beginning of the DVD brought tears to my eyes: after having seen the film in countless grainy, panned-and-scanned VHS prints, it was astonishing to see the film clearly, in its proper format). Ominous music plays, and we see a light moving slowly from room to room inside the house.
Inside, a young girl (regular Fulci victim Daniela Doria) is putting her clothes back on and waiting for her boyfriend to come back. It seems they've broken into the house for a little privacy, and now the boy has gone to, er, clean up. The girl hears some strange noises, and since her boyfriend doesn't answer her, she goes rather nervously to look for him. She follows the light moving slowly through the house... only to find her boyfriend's corpse nailed to a door by sharp objects4. She barely has time to open her mouth to scream when a shadowy figure behind her plunges a knife into her skull. It must be a very sharp knife5, because it manages to go all the way through her head until the tip protrudes from her mouth.
The girl falls to the floor, dead, and behind her the shadowy figure reaches down to grasp her legs. The killer's left hand, the hand that wielded the knife, is perfectly normal... but the right hand looks like a decomposing claw. The figure drags the girl's body across the floor; her hair, like a brush dipped in dark red paint, leaves a smeary trail of blood across the dusty floor. The killer and his leaking burden disappear behind a door, which swings slowly and firmly shut.
Next we have the opening credits, over an exterior shot of the house by day. Walter Rizzati's baroque-inspired title music has a melancholy feel to it, and though it's played with electronic instruments, it doesn't sound at all like a soundtrack by Goblin or Fabio Frizzi. After the credit sequence is over, the camera moves in slowly on the house. We see a small form at the front window. It's a little girl, who opens the curtain and makes a sort of warning gesture with her hand. The title music has been replaced by a theme which is even more evocative and melancholy (I'll call it "Mae's theme", since it seems to represent the little girl).
The girl in the window seems to freeze: the color leaches out of the picture, and the camera pulls back to reveal a black & white photograph of the house. The girl's warning gesture can just barely be seen in the tiny window. The camera pulls back still further to reveal a room, and a tow-headed boy who is staring intently at the picture.
The boy is Bob Boyle, and as he sits absorbed in the photograph his mother Lucy comes in. She asks him if he's finished packing for their trip, but he doesn't answer. The camera focuses first on Bob alone, symbolizing his absorption, and then switches back and forth between him and his exasperated mother. While the camera lingers on Bob, his mother's voice comes to him in an echo, as though from very far away. He is really listening to the girl in the photograph, the girl at the window of the house who is warning him to stay away.
Naturally, when Lucy looks at the photograph, there is no one at the window. With perfect child-logic, Bob figures that the girl had something else to do and went away. His concentration broken, he goes to help his mother pack... while in the photograph, the tiny figure reappears, again making a frantic gesture of warning.
(Meanwhile, in the small town of New Whitby, Boston [sic], the girl stands outside the house. Out of vision, her mother calls her to come away with her, but the girl doesn't want to go. She tells her mother there's something important she has to do.)
Next we meet Bob's father, Norman Boyle, as he leaves the "New-York [sic] Institute of Research" with his superior, Dr. Muller (played by Fulci). Norman is going to Massachusetts to finish a project begun by a colleague of his, Dr. Peterson. The project is never revealed, but it apparently had something to do with suicide statistics (like Mimsy Farmer's thesis in Armando Crispino's Macchie Solari / Autopsy). Before he could finish the project, Peterson became a statistic himself: he allegedly dismembered his mistress, and then hanged himself.
The research project has fallen to Boyle, who Muller points out was not only Peterson's colleague, but also his close friend. With the successful completion of the project, Norman will receive not only recognition in the scholarly community, but also a better-paying position at the Institute.
All this is still fresh in our minds as, for the first time, we see the Boyle family all together. Norman and Lucy are having a pointless squabble about nothing in particular -- a typical pastime for couples who have been married long enough -- when Lucy brings up the subject of Peterson. We get the first hint that something is seriously wrong in the Boyles' marriage when Norman lies to her about his acquaintance with Peterson. According to Muller, the two men had been very close (a statement Norman does nothing to dispute), but to his wife Norman insists he hadn't known Peterson very well at all.
The Boyles drive out of New York accompanied by some truly embarrassing music, really the only place where the soundtrack becomes disappointing. Fortunately the sequence doesn't last long, and soon the Boyles arrive in the quaint New England town of New Whitby ("Whitby", genre fans will recognize, is the town in England where Bram Stoker set the bulk of his novel "Dracula").
(As the Boyles arrive, the girl Mae is seen wandering the streets of the village. She pauses in front of a store window, where there are three mannequins: a mostly featureless woman and boy, and a more detailed figure of a girl. As Mae watches, aghast, the head of the girl mannequin tears off, and the dummy falls to the floor in a bloody heap.)
The Boyles leave Bob alone in the car (how naïve we were in the early 80's) as they go to speak with their realtor, Mrs. Laura Gittleson (Dagmar Lassander!). It seems that Lucy was unable to make up her mind about the choice of accommodations, so that by the time they were ready to come to New Whitby, the only convenient place for them was... (SURPRISE!) the House by the Cemetery, where Dr. Peterson had murdered his mistress. You'd think the realtor would have more sensitivity than to rent the place out to Peterson's replacement. You'd also think that Norman or his family would have serious problems with renting the house (actually, it turns out Norman has a good reason for wanting to stay at the house, but surely Lucy would have had some qualms...). As it happens, nobody seems to mind, which is convenient for the story if not terribly realistic.
Mrs. Gittleson attempts to make some small talk with the Boyles, asking them how they like what they've seen of the small town. But of course, she suddenly interjects, Norman has been here before, hasn't he? Lucy appears confused by this; Norman's look is unreadable as he denies ever having visited New Whitby. There must have been a mistake somewhere. Harold, the assistant realtor, goes to fetch "the Freudstein keys"; Mrs. Gittleson reminds him acidly that the name of the house is "Oak Manor".
Yes, you read that name right: Freudstein. Freud plus Frankenstein: a combination that can't possibly bode well. The name suggests mad science, but not just your ordinary mad science. Freud, after all, was a pioneer in the exploration of the hidden corners of the mind. He knew very well that there was a hungry monster in the basement of every family. Though these days scientists tend to consider Freud's methods little better than those of the alchemists that inspired Mary Shelley's "Modern Prometheus", his work still opened up new, often scary insights into the the way we think and act. We can assume that whatever this "Dr. Freudstein" was up to, it's going to be pretty damned disturbing.
And, of course, since Sigmund Freud came from a Jewish family, we pronounce "Freudstein" FROYD-steen. Add Young Frankenstein to the list of possible influences.
We'll leave any further implications of Freudstein's name until later. The Boyles leave the Real Estate office only to find that Bob has disappeared. The couple freeze anxiously, uncertain what to do. This scene has been singled out for criticism, since Lucy just stands there instead of springing directly into action, like a mother of today would do. I'm not sure that criticism is fair: regardless of whether parents' awareness of the dangers to unattended children was as clear as it is now, it will be shown as the movie progresses that Lucy is not particularly stable. At any rate, Bob hasn't gone far. He's been having a chat with Mae, who is able to speak to him comfortably from several blocks away. His parents think Mae is just an imaginary playmate... except that Mae has left her doll behind.
Mrs. Gittleson escorts the Boyles to their home away from home (by the cemetery). She drives away clumsily (over some of the graves), promising to send over a babysitter as soon as she finds one. Lucy gets her first look at the house, and is astonished to find it is the same house in the photograph at home. Norman tries to dismiss the coincidence, saying that the house is a typical example of the area's architecture.
The family begins settling in to their spacious but decrepit home. I have to give the set designers a lot of credit here for making the interior sets look very convincing. There are dark patches on the walls where paintings and photographs used to hang; the furniture all looks authentic; and there are even mold stains and water damage in some of the rooms. Though the interior scenes were clearly shot on Italian soundstages, they really give the feeling of an old, badly-repaired house.
Lucy has a mild panic attack, a delayed reaction over Bob's earlier disappearance. Norman attempts to calm her down, suggesting she resume her medication (another hint that something is wrong between the Boyles). Lucy is unsure about the medicine, since she's read it can have bizarre side effects, like hallucinations.
In the kitchen, the Boyles discover a door which has been boarded shut. Evidently it leads to the cellar. Before they can investigate, they are distracted by the arrival of a mysterious girl carrying a suitcase. The camera reveals her very gradually, as spooky chords on the soundtrack build an atmosphere of menace. When at last we see who she is -- and it's Ania Pieroni, who is probably best known for her cameo as Mater Lachrymarum in Argento's Inferno6 -- we're immediately reminded of the mannequin Mae saw in the shop window. As I mentioned before, in case we don't "get it", we are given a flashback of the beheading. Clearly, the girl is going to "get it", too.
The girl, who doesn't really seem much livelier than a mannequin herself, is Ann, the new babysitter. Her arrival is so abrupt, and her manner is so strange that nobody thinks to ask how she got there so quickly. Somehow, Mrs. Gittleson didn't seem the sort to arrange things so efficiently.
In the night, after Lucy has fallen sound asleep, stealthy footsteps approach the room. A long, menacing shadow falls over the bed... but it's only Norman, who sits down to look over some of Dr. Peterson's papers. Glancing nervously at Lucy's sleeping form (notice how Norman's presence suddenly doesn't seem like so much of a relief any more!), he pulls out a folder marked "FREUDSTEIN" and unties its fastener. The folder is empty.
Just at that moment, Norman hears a sound coming from somewhere inside the house. It sounds like a child crying -- no, not just crying: sobbing uncontrollably somewhere behind the walls. Slowly and quietly Norman makes his way down the hall to his son's room. Naturally, Bob is the only child in the house, so Norman's first thought is for him... and yet the voice is so different from Bob's that he seems to know it couldn't be his son. Sure enough, Bob is sleeping peacefully when Norman reaches his bedside. The sounds have subsided: perhaps Bob had had a nightmare... As he adjusts the boy's covers, he hears a new set of sounds coming from the kitchen. Norman tiptoes down to the kitchen. Opening the door he finds... Ann. The babysitter is busy removing the boards from the cellar door. Ann and Norman look at each other for a long moment. The words we expect from either of them do not come, and our feeling of unease about Norman deepens.
(Now I'd just like you to cast your mind back once more to the store window, where Mae saw three dummies: a mother and son figure, and a third doll which was obviously Ann. Now think of what's missing from this tableau. Remember: our mad doctor's name is Freudstein... )
The next day, Norman goes off to the local library, where Dr. Peterson had based his research. There he meets the town librarians, Whateley... excuse me, Wheatley (played by the ubiquitous Carlo de Mejo) and Douglas (Gianpaolo Saccarola, who played the idiot handyman in The Beyond), who offer him every assistance. Wheatley seems to remember Norman having visited Peterson in New Whitby... with his daughter... shortly before Peterson went mad. Norman once again denies that he's ever been to the town, pointing out that he doesn't have a daughter; only a son. Douglas then points out to Norman the stacks of papers and books which Peterson left after his death. Most of them apparently have no bearing on Peterson's main research. He'd become obsessed with a late 19th century medical doctor named Jacob Allan Freudstein, who had been banned from practicing medicine because of his gruesome experiments. Before leaving Norman to his work, Douglas also points out the very railing from which the distraught Peterson had hanged himself.
By this time the hints have become too persistent to ignore. Something is up with our Norman. Things only get worse when Mrs. Gittleson pretends not to notice Norman and Lucy on the streets of New Whitby. No explanation is ever given for her behavior, but I can think of a good one: she's remembered where she saw Norman before. He had indeed been to town to see Peterson, with a young woman assumed to be his "daughter". And that young woman had to be Ann. There's no other explanation for the silent glances that pass between Ann and Norman, or the way they both seem to take for granted strange events and coincidences. They know much more about Peterson's private research than they are willing to admit, though they are about to find out that they don't know quite enough.
Mrs. Gittleson no doubt found Ann waiting on her doorstep as soon as she got back from "Oak Manor". It was probably crucial to... umm... whatever plan Boyle has (not that we'll ever know what it is)... that Ann be living in the house as well. But at some point the penny has dropped for Mrs. Gittleson, who pretends she doesn't see the two Boyles together so she won't be tempted to say anything about Norman's duplicity. She probably thinks Norman and Ann are having an affair. Maybe they are, but there are deeper and darker secrets between them that Mrs. Gittleson can't possibly guess.
While all these hidden dramas are playing out just below the surface, Bob has been spending the day playing with Mae. Together they find an overgrown gravesite, where a large headstone bears the name "Mary Freudstein". "Only it's not true..." says Mae. "She's not buried there." Bob has no clue what she's talking about.
Lucy, for her part, has been tidying up the house. Much to her distress, she too finds a neglected grave, this one under a rug in the living room! Wiping away the dust from the slab, she reads the name: JACOB TESS FREUDSTEIN.
(One little interruption, before we get to the scene where Lucy hears the house seemingly come to life all around her. TESS? I thought they said his middle name was "Allan"! Unlike Joyce, Evelyn and Dana, "Tess" has never been a man's name, as far as I know. There is such a thing as carrying ambiguity and sexual subtext to a ridiculous extreme.)
Living next door to a graveyard is bad enough, but finding a tomb in her own house is too much for poor Lucy. Suddenly the empty house is full of strange noises, bangings and groanings and crashes, as though something were moving in the walls and behind the doors. We will never know whether these noises are real, or are the side-effects of Lucy's medications, but their effect on the poor woman are extreme. When Norman gets home (unconsciously echoing Ricky Ricardo with his calls of "Lucy? I'm home!"), he finds his wife huddled in a corner, distraught.
Norman once again tries to downplay the weirdness of the situation by explaining that indoor graves are very common in New England7. He says that because of the cold winters, the ground stays frozen several months out of the year, forcing people to make other arrangements (clearly, Lucy has never read H.P. Lovecraft's "In the Vault", which explains briefly what people did do with their dead in the hard New England winter). Norman tries to distract her by showing her the keys he's found, one of which he hopes will open the mysterious cellar.
Norman tries opening the door as Bob and Ann come back. Bob enthuses about his new friend Mae, but Ann says she didn't see anyone else around. Norman finds the cellar key, but the lock is old and badly maintained; the key doesn't turn. So Norman grabs a knife, which he puts through the head of the old-fashioned key to get more leverage...
The Boyles and Ann descend into the cellar. Before they can take too good a look around, Lucy is attacked by an enormous bat. I've already mentioned my impatience with this scene... Norman grabs the bat, which takes large chunks out of his hand. The whole family runs upstairs, where Norman grabs a scissors -- most likely the same pair that was used to kill the boy in the prologue, another phallic symbol used to punish someone who'd been waving his own falloV around -- and impales the bat. Blood squirts everywhere, even splashing into the face of little Bob.One more interruption: here we have Norman trying to open the cellar door -- the gateway to what lies hidden -- with both a key and a knife. How many more Freudian sexual symbols can we pack into this scene? Quite a few as it turns out, but before we get to them I need to point out some significant problems with the script. After the murders in the opening scene, somebody must have had to come back and clean up the place, as well as nail up the cellar door. Oh, eventually, we'll get some idea of who might have done this. But we don't know why the lock is so difficult to open. After all, Freudstein's been using it recently. Perhaps we're supposed to guess that Freudstein's psychic power is preventing the lock from turning, but that doesn't explain the cakes of dirt that fall from the disused lock as Norman turns the key. Thinking of dirt, in a few moments we'll be wondering how someone could drag bloody bodies down the cellar stairs without leaving tracks in the thick layers of dust.
OK, everybody, repeat after me:
Wow. This scene is fraught with Oedipal conflict. Here we see Norman wielding all sorts of symbols of male sexual maturity and power, while his wife and son look on as horrified spectators. Who cares that Freud's theory has been largely discredited: it's amazing to see a scene that is so effortlessly Freudian, especially in an Italian gore film. Did Sacchetti and his wife, Elisa Briganti, plan it this way consciously? I doubt it. It seems too fluent to have been planned that way, especially considering how Sacchetti tends to overstate when he has a clever idea in many of his other scripts. I get the feeling this is one of those moments where the writers' knowledge and instincts just took over. It's really pretty amazing. Of course, it's equally amazing that a scene can be both symbolically meaningful and completely silly at the same time.
Evidently Fulci and Sacchetti agree with me on this, because we cut immediately from the bat carnage to Harold the realtor's exaggerated yawning. The Boyles have come to demand a new place to live, but Harold finds their stories of supernatural noises and bloody bats too theatrical to take seriously. Still, he agrees that he and Mrs. Gittleson will help find them new lodgings. Mrs. Gittleson is out at the moment, but when she returns, says Harold, she'll do what she can.
Unbeknownst to Mrs. Gittleson, the Boyles decide to go out to dinner that evening. The realtor arrives to talk to them about their new place, but finds the house empty. Mrs. Gittleson creeps from room to room, calling out for the Boyles... and then to Ann. Perhaps she's looking forward to finding Ann alone, so she can ask a few choice questions. In the dark, she fails to see the newly-uncovered gravestone. When she steps on it, it breaks into two pieces, trapping her foot. The camera assumes the point of view of the shadowy figure from the prologue, who picks up a poker in his decayed hand and advances on the pinned Laura Gittleson. The realtor dies in a welter of gore, and once again the shape drags the bloody remains into the cellar.
Cut to the next morning. Ann is stolidly mopping up the blood on the floor. She seems to have been working at it for a long time, as she's nearly finished. Lucy comes in and sees her: "What are you doing?" she asks. Ann merely replies, "I made coffee," and goes on mopping. This is probably the scene that will cause less patient viewers to give up in disgust; but remember, most of the blood has already been cleaned up -- and poor fragile Lucy is probably telling herself, "I do not see what I think I'm seeing. I do not see..."
That morning, Norman tells Lucy that he needs to go back to New York to talk to Dr. Muller about something he's found in Peterson's notes. He plans to be gone all day. However, he does not go to New York: instead he goes to the library. It's Sunday, and he doesn't expect anyone to be there; so he's unpleasantly surprised to meet Douglas, who is making his rounds. In spite of his initially guilty expression, Norman manages to convince Douglas his business is legitimate. Left alone again, Norman discovers a cassette tape in a forgotten box. He pops it in a convenient cassette player, and listens to the last words of Dr. Peterson.
Peterson, already mad, suicidal and incoherent, has done little but blurt fragments of his recollections into the tape recorder. The camera lets us see through his eyes, though we can't tell if we are seeing a flashback or a hallucination. Peterson says it was Freudstein himself who committed the murders. He speaks of blood flowing up from the cellar; and of going down into the darkness, where he finds his mistress' body hacked to pieces. Stumbling on further, he finds his mistress' child, also dismembered. At this point Norman breaks off the reverie, remembering his own son.
Now maybe you're expecting Norman to go back home and save his family from whatever is living in the cellar. If you are, you haven't been paying the slightest bit of attention. Norman pops the evidence into an incinerator and goes off to take a little trip.
III. Norman? Is That You?
Here I'd like to to interrupt the synopsis one more time. Rather than ask why the police never searched the basement after the Peterson incident, or why anyone ever even found the bodies -- I thought the point of the killings was so that Freudstein could devour the corpses -- instead I'd like to talk for a moment about this movie's poster art.
There are two posters in particular I'd like to compare: the first is the one used on the cover of the Anchor Bay DVD. It shows the zombified Dr. Freudstein himself, as he appears at the very end of the film. As a promotional piece, it's a total failure, because it gives far too much away. Fulci is very good about keeping Freudstein's appearance hidden over the course of the movie, giving us only hints of how awful he really looks. He stays true to the cardinal rule of monster flicks: don't show too much of your monster prematurely! The poster undermines his efforts.
On the other hand, the European DVDs of House by the Cemetery use a different poster. Some show Katriona McColl being attacked by a long-haired shadowy shape in the foreground, others only the cemetery; in the middle ground is the house itself; and looming over it all, in the place where the sky ought to be, we see the face and hands of a knife-wielding maniac. But the maniac is not Dr. Freudstein: it's Paolo Malco, Dr. Norman Boyle. This is more than just misdirection, hiding the identity and appearance of the movie's monster. I think the poster is absolutely right: Norman is one of the monsters of the film. He has a very good idea from the beginning what's waiting in Freudstein's house, but he lets everyone -- including his accomplice, Ann -- walk into a trap. At the moment he puts all the pieces together and realizes that Dr. Freudstein is still alive and hungry in the house, he goes off to look for Freudstein's burial place in a cemetery several states away! He may tell himself he has to be sure he's right about his conclusions, but whether he realizes it or not, he's really just giving Freudstein more time to act.
But I'm getting way ahead of myself.
Back at the house, Bob has been playing with Mae in the cemetery. He confides to Mae that Ann thinks he's in his room asleep. Bob sneaks back into the house to establish his alibi a little better, before sneaking out again. Mae begs him not to go back into the house, but it's too late. Ann, in the meantime, hears the sound of a crying child coming from the basement. Fearing that Bob's somehow found his way to the basement, Ann goes down to look for him. We can only surmise that she's genuinely worried for the boy; otherwise there's no reason why she would want to go down there. She knows better than Norman what's lurking in the darkness. After all, she is the one who cleaned up the trail of blood to protect Norman's and Dr. Freudstein's secret. And yet she does go down...
And, predictably, once she gets to the bottom of the stairs, the door to the kitchen slams shut of its own accord. Ann races back up the stairs and beats her fists against the door, calling for help. Upstairs, Bob hears her screams. He grabs up his stuffed animal8 and a toy gun and goes to what he thinks will be the rescue. This is an incredibly vivid and poignant moment: the inadequacy of Bob's "protection" underscores how vulnerable he really is, and how unaware he is of the true meaning of danger. The dark side of this innocence will surface in the film's conclusion.
By the time Bob's mustered up his courage to creep downstairs and find out what's happened to Ann, the thing in the cellar has caught her. A few languid strokes of a knife, and Ann is decapitated (well, it's not as though we didn't see it coming). When Bob reaches the kitchen, the cellar door unlatches and swings back open (high praise to the photography and Foley work here, as the film pulls the audience down to the place we know we shouldn't go). Bob ventures tentatively down the stairs, but once he's reached the bottom he hears a dreadful thud -- thud -- thud... as Ann's head comes tumbling down the stairs.
Severed head effects are not easy to pull off in film, and I have to admit Gianetto de Rossi does as good a job with Ann's stunt-noggin as I've ever seen. But I remember how frightened I was even by less effective severed-head scenes in horror movies when I was a kid Bob's age. When Bob panics, I'm right there with him... seeing my babysitter's head bouncing down the steps would have made me a complete basket-case.
Bob runs up the stairs, where the cellar door is swinging shut. He leaps through the door, but it closes on his left hand (remember that: his left hand). Fortunately, he manages to pull free just as a decayed right hand reaches out for him.
Lucy comes back to the house shortly thereafter. It's getting on toward early evening, and Lucy has been rather surprised to see Norman's station wagon driving out of town, when he'd told her he would be in New York. Lucy's worries deepen when she finds Bob curled up behind his bed, hysterical, carrying on about how Ann has been killed. Lucy attempts to quiet him, but for a while he seems inconsolable. She takes him down to the cellar -- which is miraculously free of blood -- but there is no sign of Ann, nor of her head. Lucy tells Bob he must have imagined what he saw, and puts him to bed.
Twilight falls, and Norman still hasn't returned. In fact, he's gone off to a different state to look for the grave of Dr. Freudstein. Surely he must have known in his heart what the surly groundskeeper tells him when he gets there: no matter what the records say, there is no Jacob Freudstein -- Allan or Tess -- buried in that cemetery. Honestly: what did Norman think the tombstone in his living room meant?
Bob is unable to sleep. While his mother isn't looking, he grabs a flashlight and goes downstairs to the kitchen. Peering down into the cellar, he speaks the film's most memorable lines:
Bob: Ann? Mommy says you're not dead. Is that true?
Bob gets an answer in the form of a pair of glowing eyes that appear in the darkness. Once again, the cellar door slams shut, and something ponderous begins to stir in the far corner of the basement. Bob runs back up the stairs and pounds on the door.
Lucy follows the sound of Bob's cries to the cellar door. While he struggles to get out, Lucy tries to use all the phallic talismans Norman used to open the door: first the keys, wrong ones first -- but the right key won't turn in the lock. Next she tries the knife, but using the knife as a lever only succeeds in breaking the key off in the lock. Finally she tries using the knife to pry open the door, but the blade snaps.
While Lucy struggles fruitlessly with the lock, Bob says something which turns her blood to ice in her veins: "Mommy? There's somebody in here..." Once again, a menacing shadow falls across Lucy, who senses it and panics. Once again, the mystery figure turns out to be Norman. When Norman learns Bob is trapped in the cellar, he immediately goes for an ax. It's Freudstein, he tells Lucy. Freudstein is the one who killed Peterson's mistress. Peterson knew the truth, and that's why he killed himself. Freudstein has been living in the house for over a hundred years, sustaining himself on the living cells of his victims.DR. FREUDSTEIN'S EXTRA CREDIT ESSAY QUESTION: How does Lucy's inability to wield the totemic symbols of male sexual power link with Bob's castration anxiety as part of the Oedipal conflict? Discuss.
With hindsight, we realize that Norman has known this, or at least suspected it, since even before the movie started. He wants what Dr. Freudstein has discovered: like one of Lovecraft's tormented heroes, he has uncovered a hint of a secret that he needs to reveal at any cost. But the name "Freudstein" tells us we have to look deeper to find meanings in all of this. Norman, like many men, is chafing at the burden of adult responsibility -- which shows itself particularly in the form of his wife and child, with whom he is frequently annoyed -- and of his own approaching mortality. Freudstein's experiments seem to offer Norman a way to regress to some primitive state, untroubled by the idea of personal death, consuming everything he desires and ignoring the consequences. It's a state of pure id, of infantile gratification, and Norman seems to want to destroy everyone and everything that stands in the way of his achieving this state. The cellar invites him like a return to the womb, and indeed the half-human form of Freudstein does suggest something that is returning to an unfinished state.
Norman is about to look his darkest desires in the face. He's not going to like what he sees there. As usual in modern horror films, self-discovery comes at the cost of personal annihilation.
Norman tells Bob to stand away from the door, as he prepares to swing the ax. Just then, a hand emerges from the darkness and pins the boy's head to the door. The ax plunges through the thin wood only inches away from the boy's head. Unaware that he's in serious danger of killing Bob, Norman takes another swing, which again misses Bob's head by the barest margin. This scene manages to outdo the discomfort of the similar scene in City of the Living Dead, when Christopher George attempts to rescue Katriona McColl from a coffin using a pick... and nearly decapitates her.
By a freak chance, Norman's next swing plunges far through the door and chops off the lurking creature's hand (his left hand. The one that was reasonably human. I think there's a reason for this, and I'll get to it a little later). The dark figure, wounded, grabs Bob and retreats deep into the cellar.
While Norman splinters the door somewhere above, we get our first clear look at the hidden Dr. Freudstein. He is not an attractive sight. He sits on a filthy cot, nursing the stump of his arm. Now that the healthy arm is missing, there's little left of him that's recognizably human. His skin is yellowish-brown, like that of a mummy, and dried like leather across the bones of his face. His eyes appear to be tiny slits in sunken sockets; his withered ears and nose seem to be in the process of being re-absorbed into his body. We also learn that it is he who cries in the horrible child's voice.
Bob regains consciousness sprawled on the floor. He gets a good look at Freudstein at the same time we do, and he panics. He turns to run, but is confronted by Freudstein's collection of trophies: Mrs. Gittleson is hanging from the ceiling, soaked in her own gore; Ann's body hangs next to her, with her head on the floor; while on a table nearby lies the disemboweled remains of someone we haven't even met yet. Freudstein, in the meantime, looms behind him. Bob tries to get away, but trips over Ann's head. Just as Freudstein pins him to the wall, Norman and Lucy finally make their way into the Doctor's lair.
Norman attacks the zombie Doctor with his ax, but Freudstein turns out to be much stronger than he appears. Freudstein grabs Norman's wrist and forces him to drop the weapon. As Lucy goes to comfort Bob, Norman grabs one of Freudstein's own carving knives and rams it into the monster's stomach. A mess of worms, maggots and filth come pouring out of the wound.
This is all too much for Norman, who stands gibbering at the foul thing in front of him. Freudstein doesn't appear to be hurt at all by the knife. He is, however, very very angry. Suddenly the wasted cadaver seems unbelievably powerful: he reaches out and tears open Norman's throat with his bare hand.
Norman's return to the womb has always been impossible. He wanted an escape, but what he ended up confronting was not what he had expected at all. And his search for escape ended up in annihilation. To lean on the implications of "Dr. Freudstein" still further, we also have to bring up the myth of Oedipus again, but I'm saving that for the very end.
The zombie and her husband's corpse are now between Lucy and the cellar stairs. There seems to be only one way out: up a ladder to the broken tombstone in the living room. A shaft of blue light can just be seen through the crack in the stone. Lucy drags Bob up the ladder and begins pushing frantically at the stone. Freudstein, who walks slowly, looks up from Norman's body and sees the pair trying to escape. Slowly and deliberately, he mounts the ladder after them. The tombstone barely seems to have budged when Freudstein grabs Lucy by the foot and pulls her back down the ladder. Her head smacks each step on the way down with a horrible crash. Through her eyes, we see Bob's tear-stained face up the ladder, shrieking for her, as the light fades out.
That leaves one screaming victim to go.
IV. What About Bob?
Bob pushes at the unyielding stone as the heavy tread on the steps comes closer and closer. A gnarled yellow-green hand lunges out and grabs his waist. All at once from above, hands appear at the cracks in the stone, forcing the edges apart; while other hands reach in and grab Bob. Freudstein's claw scrabbles to catch hold of his leg, his shoe... but it's too late. Bob is lifted back into the living room, where the smiling Mae is waiting for him.
Behind him, under the tombstone, the awful sobbing begins again, and Mae's poignant theme swells on the soundtrack. Now we see the other person who has rescued Bob: it's Mae's mother, whom we see clearly for the first time. We have seen her face before, in the nearby cemetery, on a tombstone: she is Mary Freudstein, dead since 1915. Mary chides her daughter for her outburst: "Show [Bob] you can act like a Freudstein," she says.
Now it's time for them to go. There will be other tenants, other things that must be done... She leads the children out. Bob turns one last anguished glance back to the place where his mother and father lie dead -- where the hideous Dr. Freudstein sits in the darkness, crying in the voice of a child. And the wounded child-thing that cries in the cellar sobs in rage and frustration, and despair at a hunger that can never be assuaged.
Three dim figures, a woman and two children, disappear down a wooded lane into the twilight. The camera turns away from them, through a fluid edit, and back to the House by the Cemetery. Words appear as a postscript:
This is not, as some have said, a quote from "Turn of the Screw". In fact, I've never been able to trace it, if it actually is a quotation from James. Regardless of its authenticity, it gives me a good lead-in to the final Freudsteinian point I want to make about the movie. Some people have seen the figure of Freudstein as a representation of the dark side of Norman Boyle. I think that's a good supposition, but I also think that Freudstein is a lot closer to Bob.
Bob is a little boy who is just beginning to face the transition to manhood. He is (to oversimplify Freud's theory) intimidated by his father, whom he both loves and hates. Norman is married to the love of Bob's life, his mother; so again according to the theory, Bob's inmost desire is to be rid of his father, so he can live happily ever after with Lucy. Freudstein personifies this desire in as unromanticized a way as could be imagined.
I think it's interesting that in Freudstein attempts to trap Bob's left arm during Bob's first solo trip to the cellar. The left arm is the only "whole" part that Freudstein has. If he really does exist by replenishing himself from the flesh of others, then Freudstein's left arm is a freshly grown limb. Bob's father later cuts off his freshly grown limb: do I need to spell out the symbolism any more clearly? However, ultimately Freudstein triumphs: he does indeed kill Norman, after withstanding Norman's attacks with the phallic instruments (the ax, the knife) that have served him so well until that moment. As for Lucy, we don't know for certain that she is dead by the end of the movie. Freudstein may well be saving her alive and intact for whatever purpose he has in mind.
None of this may even be happening: Freudstein's cruelty may be a sort of revenge fantasy in Bob's mind. The typical stages of Oedipal crisis have undergone a sudden distortion, probably caused by the splitup of the Boyles. As his family is torn apart -- probably because his father slept with the babysitter -- Bob dreams of his family being literally torn apart. This re-imagines the entire movie as Bob's symbolic nightmare, basically an exaggerated look at Norman's mid-life crisis and its effects on his family.
Then what about the ending? Taken literally, it could be that the ghosts really have come and taken Bob away to an existence between life and death; that would be a perfectly satisfying ending9. It could also be that Bob didn't escape at all, that his rescue represents the moment of death and emergence into the world of the ghosts. Or perhaps there really are no ghosts: the last scenes could represent Bob's flight into a desperate fantasy of last-minute salvation at the moment of his death, à la Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".
Or (here we go again) it could be a symbol of Bob's retreat from both his Oedipal desires and the necessity of growing up... are you getting tired of all this fake Freudian stuff yet? Don't worry, we're almost done: a retreat into autism, perhaps, in the face of an insupportable future. Or it could be a symbol of the collapse of the personality once the Oedipal desires have actually been achieved. We're not supposed to succeed in fulfilling the desires of the child-mind. Perhaps, like Oedipus in the myth, Bob has been cast out for acting on his hidden desires, leaving misery behind him.
V. About the DVD
House by the Cemetery has had several different widescreen DVD releases. It came out first in an all-region, NTSC disc from Europe, complete with extras. Not long afterwards, the legendary Anchor Bay came out with their own Region 1 pressing, containing fewer extras, but remastered from the original vault materials. I didn't use either of these to prepare this review. I'm almost embarrassed to say I have the not-quite-legitimate release from Diamond Entertainment.
If you're a DVD fan, chances are you know Diamond. They're one of those cheapskate companies that put out "budget" discs. Diamond and its ilk have been known to put out travesties: "widescreen" editions of films that were simply full-frame versions with black bars matted in across the top and bottom; editions with blurry prints that would have been inadequate on budget VHS; dreadful packaging that's not only cheap-looking, but also suggests that nobody involved with the disc ever actually watched the film; and in several incidents, even going so far as to release the wrong movie10.
When I found out that someone had released widescreen DVDs of House by the Cemetery and Seven Doors of Death for under $10, I was skeptical. When I found out they were being released by the folks who put out the god-awful disc of Juan Piquer Simon's Pieces, I was doubly skeptical. Since they had chosen to use the title of the cut, re-scored American version of The Beyond, I assumed that both discs were taken from the US release prints, which are awful.
When I read the initial reviews of these inexpensive Fulci discs, I got the whole story: both DVDs were questionably legal copies of European laserdiscs, and both contained the uncut editions of the movies. I already had Anchor Bay's excellent pressing of The Beyond, and as I recall the AB House hadn't come out yet, so when I found a copy of the Diamond disc on sale for $5, I snapped it up.
The disc is not without problems. There are occasional scratches and blotches in the picture, and the color is just a little bit dull. The sound is just about adequate, though I have to confess my sound system is just about adequate, too. There are no extras to speak of, and in fact the disc falls short on essentials as well: the whole film is divided into only four chapters (the atmospherically-titled "Start Film", "Freudstein's House", "Freudstein's History" and "Freudstein's Finale", as I recall).
Other than these problems, the disc is very adequate. Compared to other Diamond products (and yes, I have blown $5 - $7 on a few), it's a miracle. Then again, it would have to be: they merely copied the laserdisc.
I know I've gone off and vilified video labels before for putting out what I thought was an inferior product, and in some cases I've later come to regret my testiness (sorry, VCI: you've come a long way). But I'm not just repeating a rumor: Diamond themselves have gone so far as to PROVE that they stole someone's laserdisc impression. If you allow the disc to play on past the end of the movie, you'll get several minutes of blank screen. Then, suddenly, you'll get a few seconds from the end of the movie's trailer. Next there's a gap of a few more seconds, and then: lo and behold, the Laser Disc: End Side B screen.
As a longtime fan of cult movies, I've learned to watch the ends of videotapes very carefully. I ordered a grey market film from one dealer, and got two-thirds of Fulci's comedy The Eroticist as an accidental bonus after the film. A dub of a Japanese monster movie concluded with a fuzzy, only-half-visible excerpt from some Japanese fantasy TV program. Another convention tape played all the way to the last 3 seconds of tape, and then gave me... of all things... 3 seconds of Swedish hard-core porn (at least I think is was Swedish... It's hard to tell from only 3 seconds, but the girls were moaning vowels like "Øøøøø!" and "Ååååå!"). Still, this is the first time I've caught an embarrassing lapse on a DVD.
Despite the reasonable quality of Diamond's disc, and the incredible low price, this sort of business practice isn't terribly ethical. I can't say that I recommend the Diamond DVD, though if you're a Fulci fan who's really and truly pressed for funds (as I was for many years), I wouldn't keep the ethics of the situation from dissuading you. Still, everyone shopping for House by the Cemetery on DVD must be very careful which version they're buying: I have seen the Diamond disc in retail stores -- even as a Used Disc! -- for as much money as the Anchor Bay pressing.
As for me, now that this review is winding down, I plan to go out and get a copy of the Anchor Bay disc myself.
And now that you've suffered through all this blather with me, I hope I've been able to give you some idea of how much this film means to me. There are very few films that I want to see again immediately once I've finished them, and this is one. That sort of judgment really has little to do with a movie's quality: there are far better films that I am perfectly happy to watch once a year, or even once a decade. But there's something peculiarly satisfying about The House by the Cemetery which brings me back to it time and again, and which brings a lump to my throat every time I reach the end. The strange thing is this: recently I've been catching myself fast-forwarding through some of the gore scenes. OK, I say to myself, I've seen this before. Let me get to the good parts. And this is a Fulci film. That's got to say something.
1. That is, the characters are "developed" by comparison to other Italian horror films. It doesn't take much.
2. Oh, boy, is that a strained comparison! I know I'm way out of line comparing House by the Cemetery to Opus 127, but... well, you get the idea, right?
3. Particularly Zombie 2, which was also scripted by Sacchetti from an idea by his wife, Elisa Briganti. Details which would be crucial to a typical, mainstream horror film -- for instance, where the zombies came from, or what the mad scientist has to do with it all -- are glossed over, leaving us as mystified as the film's main characters.
4. All right, I know, this is technically a crib from Halloween. When I said the film wasn't greatly influenced by other movies, I meant in its broader outlines. Hmph.
5. "In H.P. Lovecraft's Massachusetts, the hands can be used like a knife! Unfortunately, this method doesn't work with a live human head. That's why we use... the Ginthulhu! It slices! It dices! It even makes Julienne fries! (Poor Julienne...)"
6. There's no denying that Ms. Pieroni looked gorgeous in Argento's film, but anyone who is familiar with DeQuincey's essay "Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow" will find her hopelessly miscast.
Here's an excerpt to illustrate what I mean:
The eldest of the three is named Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady of Tears. She it is that night and day raves and moans, calling for vanished faces. She stood in Rama, where a voice was heard of lamentation, -- Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted...
Strong stuff, and nothing at all like Ania Pieroni made up in high fashion. Older than Elena Markos? Hmm. On the other hand, DeQuincey goes on to say:
Her eyes are sweet and subtle, wild and sleepy, by turns; oftentimes rising to the clouds, oftentimes challenging the heavens.
Sounds more like Pieroni's role in this movie. But I digress...
7. They aren't.
8. Throughout the film, Bob calls his stuffed Curious George doll "Yogi". As if his dubbed voice wasn't irritating enough...
9. Hint, hint.
10. In Diamond's case, this occurred with what they refer to as "Unberto Lenzi's Kiss Me, Kill Me". Although the box is covered with references to Lenzi in big bold print, and the disc contains a bio of the notorious director, the film that' actually presented is Corrado Farina's Baba Yaga, which Lenzi had nothing to do with.