Quella villa accanto al cimitero Review
The doctor is in The House … By The Cemetery.
“Are children monsters, or would monsters be children?”
After dissecting Lucio Fulci’s triumphant splatter-classic Zombie Flesh Eaters, it is only fair that we take a tour around his House By The Cemetery, which is released by Blue Underground on region-free US BD.
Hitting the market in 1981, with only one admittedly appalling previous owner, this spacious colonial abode in New Whitby, Boston, would be ideally suited for a young family looking for peace and solitude to settle into. The location is superb for Dad's reclusive research and offers fine countryside to explore for Mum and the kids, provided they are partial to the odd bit of grave-rubbing. The neighbourhood is charming and quiet. Dead quiet. The plumbing is old and the structure charmingly rustic, so be prepared for strange thumps, clatters and groans and a cellar door that opens and closes seemingly at will. Situated close to desolate woodland, the house also plays host to some of nature's most beautiful creatures … such as bats. And maggots.
The house in question appeals to historical/medical researcher Norman Boyle (hardly a hero's name, is it?), who thinks it would make for a terrific rural retreat from the hustle and bustle of New York City. Thus, together with wife Lucy (Catriona MacColl) and son Bob (Giovanni Frezza), he heads off to the countryside to indulge in some, erm, dedicated historical/medical research into the place and its former tenant.
There’s obviously a snag.
I mean when the real estate agents who are renting this place out can’t quite agree on the name of the joint – Oak House, as Dagmar Lassander's Mrs.Gittleson puts it, and “that creepy Freudstein place,” as her less guarded colleague refers to it – you should be smelling rats. Large ones. Plus, there's Bob's rather curious insistence that some spectral young girl that he has seen in an old photograph has been warning him not to go. Oh, and Lucy notices that the house, itself, is identical to the one that's in that picture, yet none of them has ever seen the place before. Perhaps we should have told them that a young couple were brutally murdered there in the grim pre-credits sequence. And, come to think of it, maybe it would have been prudent to mention that the previous occupant, a decidedly unsavoury doctor, was as mad as a box of frogs and had a habit of performing experimental surgeries on people who didn't actually need them. Including his own family. Ahhh well, that's all in the past … and the Boyles are bound to settle in, aren't they?
Dr. Frankenstein, I presume?
No … it’s pronounced Freud-stein.
Well, the name may have changed, but the obsession with bodyparts and nefarious malpractices are pretty much cut from the same bloody cloth as the old grave-robbing Baron. The dastardly surgeon was struck off a long, long time ago for dirty dabblings with the flesh, and his lonely old corpse now seeks to prolong its wretched existence by patching-up whatever bits drop off with replacements torn from the unwitting and reluctant donors he can find in the house above his charnel basement. But the pus-filled maggot-man has the ability to come and go with almost supernatural ease, his lair looking cobwebbed and empty one minute, and like a packed morgue that's been hurled through a cyclone the next. One thing is for certain, when he's busy, he certainly doesn't mind getting his hands dirty … even if they aren't strictly his hands. With all manner of unexplained nastiness going on, including a savage bat-attack and a ghostly girl stalking Bob, and a cellar that is rapidly filling up with bodies, the Boyles are going to have to fight if they want to make the creepy mansion a home, sweet home.
House always seems to split the camp. On the one hand, it was the Fulci film that actually pleased the critics and the genre cognoscenti at the time of its release (and still does, for that matter). They found a definite power and direction to his bravura style and were impressed with how he was able to combine the quintessential “old dark house” theme a la The Amityville Horror with heady concepts of the metaphysical, bound-over-by fate tropes that were prevalent in lots of the artier European genre flicks, or even Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Kubrick’s The Shining, to both the film owes a debt of gratitude. It even seemed to give him a sort of respectability with the more snobbish of commentators. The journalist of The Times even praised the film for its remarkable “restraint” (I don’t think he actually saw the film, do you?) and there was talk in the genre publications of the period of him actually finding a sort of critical redemption after being vilified for years. And on the other hand, it was the fans, themselves, who were more apt to rally against it, because of Fulci’s adherence to the more traditional and old-fashioned mood of small-scale terror.
I can see what the frustrated fans mean, although I am certainly more inclined to agree with the critics on this particular occasion.
After a succession of apocalyptic chillers that turned the world into a hell of the living dead, opened-up the Gates to Hell, or, at the every least, dragged their heroes into Hell, House reins the scope right back in until it becomes little more than an intimate chronicle of one family’s encounter with madness, death and horrors from beyond the grave. Mind you, for them, moving into the old Freudstein house makes their lives a living hell … so I suppose we’re still venturing into pretty much the same territory, when it all comes down to it. But this is relatively low-key and insular, no matter how you carve it up. It is like Fulci has made an episode for The Hammer House of Horror TV show. The mood, the music and the story all tie-in with such a one-stop-shock style and concept. There are less hangers-on, less supporting fodder for the fiends to rip up and, on the face of it, a more linear narrative. In some ways, this is Fulci at his most focussed. We have only one prime location in which one small set of characters suffer, and he does not feel the need to bounce about from one set to another. As a result, House should have been less ramshackle and disjointed than his previous outings. But, typically for Fulci, he stuffed so many ideas in through the front door that the roof was eventually forced off and they all ended-up getting scattered to the four winds.
But this was certainly Fulci's time. A veritable epoch for the Godfather of Gore. And he celebrated by pushing his productions further from the cottage-industry assembly-line that his contemporaries were slavishly imprisoned by. America had been good to him too … and he was now able to add New England to his filmmaker's map. This said, he was no less able to film freely on the streets of New York than he was in the days of Zombie, and there is still a sense of covert, snatched-on-the-hoof guerilla shooting with the hasty footage of the family leaving the city, but his use of the colonial house in rural Concord was astute and confident. The footage in the Big Apple was unnecessary, of course. A couple of street scenes that, for the Italian home market, lent the film an exotic quality – “Ooh, New York!” – only seem out of place with the rest of the movie. This was exactly the same with City of the Living Dead which could easily have gotten away with just the set-bound stuff filmed in Rome’s De Paolis Studios and the location work shot in Georgia, and ditched the New York material, which just looks self-conscious and opportunistically indulgent. Having his trademark cameo occur of the city streets only seems to endorse this opinion. But his use of this New England hamlet is both splendidly assured and atmospheric. Once Fulci gets to his prime locale, his confidence shines through. Seen alongside the jungle setting of Zombie, Savannah in City and Louisiana in The Beyond, and even rural England in 1980's The Black Cat, this makes Fulci one of the better tacticians of location work in the genre during this period.
Despite the so-called “restraint” that he shows, Fulci still finds the time to have a knife rammed all the way through a girl's skull (his gorgeous but ever-suffering favourite victim Daniela Doria), a very graphic and protracted beheading, a nasty multiple stabbing with a fire-poker, a savage throat-ripping, a viciously splashy bat-attack and then offers us the chance to view a basement full of mutilated corpses in various decorative positions and states of colourful evisceration. Certain minor cuts were made to the film when it was released theatrically in the UK and, perhaps unsurprisingly, this trimmed-down version still ended-up on the DPP’s official banned list when the great Vampix label first put it out on home video. The gruelling poker-murder was the main recipient of the censor's scissors, with giallo star Lassander playing host to the unwelcome pokings. The two De Rossi’s, Giannetto and Gino, handle the gory stuff again after delivering the gruel in Zombie, City and The Beyond. The great Giannetto gains the main credit on the film, although he was more of a supervisor this time out. But his trademarks are all here. We can thank him for the stringy latex throats that tear away with much spouting of claret, though little else. Gino was the one responsible for the loopy, gloopy bat attack that fills the film with truly molar-irritating screams and screeches, and also the technician behind the sequence in which one poor unfortunate, her foot already trapped by the crack in a conniving crypt-lid, gets repeatedly perforated by the aforementioned poker. Although extremely nasty, this gag features a neat hole drilled into the victim's throat that then spews out blood in a slow-motion geyser that is a marked contrast to the “usual” type of arterial spraying that the master Giannetto delivers. Plus, you have only to compare the slashed throat of the babysitter and the neck gouging down in the basement in the final act to see that these effects are not up to the standard that we plainly saw in 1979's Zombie. And look at that severed head lying on the floor. It's terrible. Even as far back as 1970's The Vampire Lovers, courtesy of Hammer and make-up wizz, Roy Ashton, fabulously accurate head-casts were being fabricated. This is an extremely poor, wooden looking travesty that wouldn't even cause offence if it was seen on CeeBeebies.
The famous knife through the skull effect is also pretty amateur when you look at it. The little tip of the blade that comes through the victim's mouth actually wobbles. I've discussed the differences in style and talent between the two De Rossi's before, and this film, perhaps more than any other, exemplifies what I mean. Although the solid and dependable Maurizio Trani was on-hand to assist in all of this mayhem, the make-up effects in House are actually quite sub-par. Dr. Freudstein may be kitted-out in a rather cool 18th Century frock-coat, which gives him a very distinctive vogue, almost like a zombified Josey Wales, but his dessicated noggin makes him look like a peanut wearing a gas mask. Fulci was the master of depicting the living dead as truly horrible and scary, but this cantankerous cadaver is a little disappointing.
However, bloody brownie points must go to the disturbing shot of the wounded Freudstein sitting on his bed in the shadows and rocking in misery to the accompaniment of a child's sobbing. For a second, Fulci captures the horrific pathos of the morbid situation, evoking memories of Leatherface suffering a lonely panic attack in Texas Chainsaw and the grief-stricken cannibal mourning his dead family in Gary Sherman's wonderful London Underground shocker, Deathline.
Fulci recruits his luminous regular scream-queen in British actress and glutton-for-punishment Catriona MacColl. Here, she marks her third outing with the ratty little Italian. By now, she knew what she was letting herself in for. She’d endured the claustrophobia of a suffocating coffin in City and maggots and gore-aplenty in both City and The Beyond. Fulci held no terrors for her any more, and she was, by now, highly accustomed to his tantrums. Mind you, he had respect for MacColl – a regal and educated English actress who could easily have gone into much more mainstream and critically lauded fare than anything he was able to offer, yet kept returning to his bizarre production family for more of the grisly stuff. MacColl acquits herself well, as you would expect, but there is an unhappiness to her performance that seems to hail from somewhere outside the anxieties of the character she is playing. Although she got along well with Fulci, and with the rest of the cast, it is almost as though she is only going through the motions this time out. That perhaps the messy Grand Guignol was finally getting to her. It was consistent work, for a spell, but it was hardly career-boosting and I can't help thinking that, when she was shooting this, she believed that she would be wading through intestines forever-more and that dramatic high art would never be within her reach.
The inclusion of little Giovanni Frezza as the Boyles' annoying brat, Bob, is one of the major downsides of the movie. Now, it is not so much that Frezza is a bad actor – he isn’t, actually – but the voice that dubs him into English is so damn aggravating that practically every scene he is in is brutally compromised. This could certainly work against the film for a lot of people. In fact, a good friend of mine loves to berate this film purely because of the whiny woman's voice that he has been forced to deal with. In a great in-yer-face from Blue Underground, there is even a featurette on the still alarmingly fresh-faced Frezza that addresses this very element whilst chronicling his career in Euro Grindhouse. Frezza is notorious in the annals of Italian genre movies with turns in Fulci's Manhattan Baby and Castellari's The New Barbarians as well as this. His ageless yet strangely mature face and typically bogus dubbing when coupled with his on-screen confidence can't fail to make him grate on the nerves. Sadly, far too many sequences depend on people merely shouting his name as they search for him … so that even when he isn't on the screen, he runs the risk of irritating you. His young friend and potential saviour, Mae, is played with startling conviction by freckle-faced Silvia Collatina, who brings a fatalistic affection to the tale. Although their dialogue together isn't very good, there is a queer and unnatural chemistry that exists between the two, which provides the film with its soul.
Fans adore Ania Pieroni, who plays the spooky babysitter. She is clearly supposed to be the hot stuff in the film, but if I'm honest I find her quite freakish to behold, which is something that Salvati’s photography actually seems at pains to demand. We’d seen her before in Dario Argento’s Inferno, playing a mysterious figure who could well be the true Mother of Tears, as opposed to Moran Atias in that best-forgotten claptrap that came as the disappointing final entry Argento's occult trilogy in 2007, and she was sporting simply horrible, and unwanted, facial hair in that. Here, she is literally “brow”-beaten by a pair of the most sinister and unpleasant eyebrows that a wannabe starlet has ever fielded in the genre – other than Kim Hunter in Planet Of The Apes. There is definitely something of a Caroline Munro look about her – but it is not enough to gain her the allure that is wanted. Munro was a goddess. Pieroni is a poor substitute. More pertinently, her character is very badly shoehorned into the plot … she just arrives out of the blue, and seems to move into the house for no real reason, and with no questions asked. And she is simply left there like a character that has fallen in from another film to be merely regarded with vague suspicion by the other cast members, who seem to flutter about her intrusion as though their director has just ordered them to get on with the scene and try their best to ignore her … and maybe she'll go away. Fulci wants her to be some mysterious and possibly threatening figure, but he really doesn't know quite what to do with her once she has been introduced – other than to despatch her as horrifically as possible in one of the movie’s elaborately nasty show-piece slayings. Arguably, she is a red herring. She arrives like some kind of Mrs. Baylock from The Omen, but is pretty much left to her own devices until she goes snooping down in the cellar. Of course, this quasi mystery may be completely intentional. It still feels clumsy to me.
For his part in the abattoir, Fulci does some fine stuff. A tense scene has poor Bob, who has been foolishly wandering around down in the cellar, winding-up as a human barricade against the door as his father swings an incredibly small axe against it from the other side. This recalls Christopher George using a pickaxe to hack open the coffin that Catriona MacColl is trapped inside in City of the Living Dead. It is tempting to claim that Fulci is aping Argento, and this may well be the case. A much earlier scene, when Norman first attempts to gain entry into the cellar, features a particularly elaborate internal shot of the vintage key slowly turning the mechanism of the rusty lock. This is exactly the type of needlessly complex, but visually arresting shot that Argento would love to toy with. And a head smacking against a series of steps as a victim is dragged down a wooden staircase is pure Argento, albeit with Fulci's absurdly over-the-top panache. He gains a huge amount of suspense from the door-axing sequence as well as from a desperate escape attempt through the crack in crypt which, again, recalls his necropolyptic infatuation from City. He even wrestles with literary aspirations by pretending to quote Henry James, and his film is actually a deliberate, if gore-soaked, re-interpretation of James' celebrated story, The Turn of the Screw, which was most successfully brought to the screen by Jack Clayton with The Innocents. There is a terrific opening shot that shows a mysterious little girl looking out of the window of the house and screaming, which then morphs into a big sepia-tinted photograph on the wall, from which she simply vanishes. The film is often serenaded by the mournful voices of children and the sound of them weeping, when Freudstein is on the move, for instance. Fulci always insisted that the adults were superfluous to the story, and that the two children were the most important characters. The threat from the zombie in the basement was directed more at their “innocence” than at anything else. Well, we'll just have to take Fulci's word for that.
The filmmaker was actually a helluva lot more articulate and philosophical than many people think. With most recollections about him coming over as somewhat cagey and tongue-in-cheek, almost as though the commentator is trying to defend a wild-card member of their family, it is surprising to read old interviews with him where he is incredibly profound and erudite and possessed of a very thorough knowledge of his art and the influences that shaped it. This learned attitude does not always translate too well to his films, though, and the impression I get is that in overstretching his narrative ambitions he tended to forget to forge the basics, assuming that the audience was already in league with him and making all the right connections for themselves. Critics always call him a hack, but they are actually very far from the truth in that horridly glib assumption. It was never budget or passion that held him back, it was the writing and the shaping of his stories. Fulci was far more of a visionary than Argento, but the scripts always let him down. It would be really something to have heard him commentate upon his films and, sadly, interviews with the man are extremely rare. But it is worth repeating that, as difficult and as troubled as the filmmaker was, he was also one of the genre's great unsung champions of the imagination. Given the right amount of creative freedom and backed by someone who could remain unintimidated by him for long enough to help him steer his story with proper care and consideration, there is every indication that Lucio Fulci could have become one of the most dangerous, challenging and downright astonishing filmmakers of the 80's. He was a true lover of the fantastique … and there weren't so many of them working in the industry at that time.
Unpacking and redecorating.
The problems with House are numerous. You’re not going to find me denouncing it on the grounds of it not making sense. We expect that from a Fulci film. By now, we kind of know and love his bizarre embracing of the surreal and the illogical. Both City and The Beyond positively thrived upon this. Here, we find that his storytelling is nothing if not ambitious, but unavoidably ham-fisted in its delivery. Thus, the major shortcomings of House stem, rather ironically, from Fulci’s attempts to have the film actually make some semblance of sense. He wants to imbue the film with a shivery caress of dislocation and fractured time along the lines of Last Year At Marianbad. He wants to create a milieu of doomed melodrama overlapped and consumed by the supernatural. He wants us to understand that the events we are witnessing are somehow preordained. But he neglects to follow-through enough of these enigmatically wayward strands to satisfy our natural commitment to the narrative. For one thing, we never learn why Norman is recognised by various people in the town, who all claim that he has been there before. He has said that he intended for us to wonder whether or not the whole scenario is merely conjured up in the wild imagination of Bob, but this is not how the situation plays out for us at all. The theme of history repeating itself in some form of macabre time-loop isn’t given enough of a pay-off. Of course we don’t need everything to be explained to us – and it’s far better that it isn’t – but the narrative mischief, in this case, just doesn’t work well enough to maintain the eeriness and the mystery of such an avant-garde premise. The trick is to throw up questions and enigmas and to supply just enough information to tease and tantalise us, and to provoke our own imaginations into coming up with possible solutions. Fulci and his regular screenwriting team of Dardano Saccheti and Elisa Briganti perhaps set their sights too high, so it is not surprising that they fall quite short of effectively contorting the story.
Where little tricks such as the blind girl's house being gaily furnished and alive by night, but decayed, disused and dead by day in The Beyond was a frisson of the fantastic that didn't need explanation, the balance between the supernatural and the formulaic in House is often fudged. The ever-changing appearance of the cellar – full of squalid death at one glance, and just an empty husk on the second visit – confuses. Is Freudstein corporeal, or is he a ghost? He needs fresh meat and blood for his DIY health-fix, and he tends to lumber slowly around the joint, yet he can also magically materialise in other locations when he wants to, such as when he teleports around Bob, trapping him. And is it just me … or is there a completely unexplained corpse down there during the finale? Yeah, that guy on the table with his guts playing peek-a-boo. Where did he come from?
But, script-oddities and failings notwithstanding, House By The Cemetery creates a truly nasty ambience as it goes along. We don’t really need the library sequences at all, in which Norman conducts some of his research aided by City’s appropriately bookish Carlo De Mejo and his assistant, Daniel, who looks like a cross between an adolescent Peter Lorre and Dirty Harry’s Andy Robinson, but the events in the new home benefit from a wonderful set design, a prowling, sinister camera and a terrific sense of space and shadow. The rooms all have a great dimensionality. We really feel as though we are moving through a vast and labyrinthine place that belongs in some lost and limbo-locked, out-of-whack dimension. Shooting the film in the Fall also enables the scene to be appropriately bleak, the sparsely covered trees lending the location the same sort of dessicated appearance as the shambling dead-head downstairs. And another great visual element is the stained-glass windows, which throw striking illumination upon some of the more evocative compositions and creating an otherworldly ambience. Salvati seems to revel in the more intimate aesthetic of the film, managing to be both vividly exciting and fluidly mobile and immersive. Check out the great compositions that he creates, from telepathic meetings conducted across the street to intense close-ups of a character's face on one side of the frame and something visually interesting taking place in the distance over on the other. Depth of field is crucially maintained throughout, the feeling large and expansive despite the limited setting. It is about time that Fulci's films were recognised on such technical terms.
Fulci's bloody bedside manner.
Given his propensity for on-set tirades and vicious bullying, Fulci’s handling of the scenes involving the children is quite tender. He wants to capture them as innocents swept-up in a maelstrom of violence, so he has to be very careful that he doesn't lapse into patent cliché and contrivance. But such is the level of horror that Bob, especially, is exposed to, that I think he manages to skirt successfully around the usual devices to obtain sympathy. His mean-spirited nature, something that he couldn't camouflage even if he wanted to, helps to guarantee that we are often stunned by how intense he allows things to get. The sequences when the two kids are together are also surprisingly touching in spite of the odd and disquieting appearance of the pair. Neither child could actually be described as being appealing, yet we do care about them when the bad stuff happens. Mae's anguish whenever she senses that her new friend is in danger is genuinely jolting, one scream that she issues really making the heart stop. But poor Bob gets the roughest wedge, of course. He witnesses some terrible murders, gets overtly menaced by Freudstein and is even splashed with gore by his own father as Norman struggles to kill the big, bad bat. Fulci had placed kids in dire jeopardy before in both City and The Beyond, even outdoing John Carpenter's notorious wasting of Kim Richards in Assault on Precinct 13 when he had David Warbeck blow a little girl's redhead apart with his trusty Magnum, but this pushes the limits even further. The thing is that most viewers are probably hoping that Bob comes to some serious harm just to shut him up!
A little mood-music in the Waiting Room.
Walter Rizzati provided the bulk of the score for Fulci this time, with some additional cues composed by Alessandro Blonksteiner, and he did a bang-up job of giving the story an atmosphere that was distinctly separate from the other three undeadsters in the oeuvre (or urghhh-vre, if you like). There was something of a weird Euro-medieval flavour to his main theme that was soaked in fate-locked tragedy, and a severely jolting and thoroughly unnerving “guttural” quality to his killer cues. The music wobbles and lurches much like the decrepit, maggot-filled Dr. Freudstein, Rizzati using vibraphone, electric guitar and echo effects to dislocate us all the more. There are electronics here, but they are subdued and used only to augment the highly stylised orchestration of the more conventional instruments, such as a piano with its strings being hammered as opposed to the keys being depressed. The resulting score doesn’t have the lasting cult-appeal of Zombie, but it possesses a wildly drunken, suspenseful identity of its own that seems to deliberately recall those TV Hammers all the more.
Out of Fulci’s offal-filled canon, House sits behind Zombie and The Beyond but, in a charitable mood, manages to slot itself neatly just in front of City of the Living Dead. Its supernatural elements don’t sit well with the ghastly deeds committed by a zombified mad surgeon, but the story is packed with incident and benefits from a cold, clammy and decidedly unsettling aura of pure dread. The gore is extreme, although there are less scenes with it splashing about than usual. The acting is certainly good enough, with MacColl and Malco lending weight to the disturbing antics, and very effective performances from the children, even if Bob's dubbing threatens to ruin his good work. The setting of an old and sinister house is tremendous and both Fulci and Salvati utilise it way better than many more expensive Hollywood chillers. Ultimately, this is still a little disappointing though, as by now Fulci's fans expected great things from him, and even if House packs a ghoulish punch, it does seem a tad too low-key, sedate (comparatively speaking) and illogical for its own good.
But if you're looking for a deliciously gruesome evening, then I can certainly recommend knocking on the door of The House By The Cemetery.