Shudder UK film review: The House by the Cemetery
Anton Bitel | On 03, Apr 2020
Director: Lucio Fulci
Cast: Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Ane Pieroni, Giovanni Frezza
Watch The House By The Cemetery online in the UK: Shudder UK
Every other weekend, our resident horror obsessive Anton Bitel delves into Shudder’s selection of horrors to handpick a Friday night fright.
Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery (Quella Villa Accanto al Cimitero) is often cited as the third in the director’s so-called Gates of Hell trilogy, following City of the Living Dead (Paura Nella Città dei Morti Viventi, 1980) and The Beyond (E Tu Vivrai Nel Terrore! L’aldilà, 1981). All three films feature Catriona MacColl in a (respectively different) leading role, hideous zombie-like creatures, and a certain loosening of narrative logic. Still, this last film represented the odd one out, not least because its creepy, cobwebbed basement is not really one of the gateways to hell that figure so prominently in the other two films. Working out just what lies behind that boarded-up cellar door is half the fun of this messy haunted house movie, which seems to be delivering a straightforward story until you look past all the sensational thrills and kills for long enough to think about just how exactly the narrative got from A to B to C, and how all its little, often gratuitous-seeming details fit – or otherwise – into the grander scheme.
The old, dark house of the title is in New Whitby, Boston – a fictive place named as an American renovation of a key setting from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). The house itself is now known as Oak Mansion, although this new name is mere window dressing. “Give the bad product a new label,” an estate agent comments. “Call it what you will, but it’s always been Freudstein’s house.” That name, Freudstein, suggests another gothic classic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), here being taken for a Freudian spin. Meanwhile a text quote at the end of the film – “No one will ever know whether children are monsters or monsters are children” – is (falsely) attributed to Henry James, whose novella The Turn of the Screw (1898) is clearly another influence.
Sure enough, like Frankenstein’s monster himself, The House by the Cemetery is stitched together from a number of sources – not just the ones cited above, in a film where (something like) vampirism, ghosts and surgical monstrosities all co-exist, as well as the obvious inspiration of The Shining from the previous year. After all, here, as in Kubrick’s film, a young boy has clairvoyant powers that warn him away from a haunted house – and a family of three meets its terrible destiny far from home.
That boy is Bob Boyle (a very weirdly dubbed Giovanni Frezza), who is moving with his parents Lucy (MacColl) and Norman (Paolo Malco) from their New York Apartment into Oak Mansion. The previous occupant, Norman’s colleague Dr Peterson, had apparently murdered his mistress Sheila there before killing himself – although, confusingly, the couple we see being bloodily killed in the film’s prologue are yet another two characters – and now Norman is hoping to pick up Peterson’s unfinished historical research. Bob chats and plays with Mae (Silvia Collatina), a strange girl roughly his own age whom he had initially seen in a painting of the house and whom nobody else ever sees.
Meanwhile, his parents settle into Oak Mansion, with its shadowy, creaky, leaden atmosphere and strange sounds of childish whimpering that can be heard issuing from the locked-off basement. As Norman starts pursuing his predecessor’s work (which digressed onto local missing persons cases) with increasing alarm, the basement door will be opened, leading to horror, decay and death.
We will eventually find out what lies hidden beneath the house, and how the mysterious Mae is connected to it – but once all the bizarre bat attacks, grisly murder set-pieces and last-reel reveals have played themselves out, a remainder of loose ends will continue to nag at the unconscious. Why do several people – such as estate agent Laura Gittleson (Dagmar Lassander) and librarian My Wheatley (Carlo De Mejo) – claim, despite Norman’s denials, that they have seen him in New Whitby before? Why does the babysitter Ann (Ania Pieroni) try to open the cellar door at night, and clean up a huge bloodstain on the floor as if there is nothing strange about such a thing? That none of these things, even in retrospect, makes any sense, only adds to the film’s uncanny sense of insidious entrapment.
“I’ve lost all critical perspective,” Peterson is heard to say amid his recorded rantings on a tape cassette. The more you try to piece together the events in Fulci’s nightmarish vision, the more you find yourself agreeing with Peterson’s sentiment. The House by the Cemetery is a truly unsettling experience whose different parts never quite add up to a coherent whole, and linger in the darkest passageways of the mind.
The House by the Cemetery is available to stream online on Shudder UK, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, or £49.99 yearly membership.