Blue Underground bake some fresh bread and have coffee on the boil to help entice us into a viewing of The House By The Cemetery. An AVC encode shows little sign of age-related wear and tear, the image clean and crisp and its 2.35:1 frame steady and reliable. Right from the word go, it is clear that this is best the film has ever looked on home-screens. It is immediately punchier, more detailed and more three-dimensional. There is no worrisome edge enhancement, no banding or smearing, and very little in the way of aliasing.
But, before we go any further ...
The frozen grain is worse on this than it is on Zombie. This may well be down to the closer, more atmospheric and subdued, shadowy aesthetic, but the image is often stippled with the gleaming, crystalline digital noise-smear that has blanketed many other Italian BD releases from Blue Underground. I’ve stated a few times before that I don’t completely understand how this has come about – poor processing in a lower-rent lab has been put forward by some people supposedly in the know, or the old favourite of this being the result of an attempt to place grain back onto a DNR-scrubbed print – and I am still none the wiser. There are certainly worse examples of this out there. City of the Living and Django from BU, for instance, and Tenebrae from Arrow, infuriate much more, but this is still a little unsightly at times. You can see the picture sparkle and glimmer, giving the impression of being sharper than it really is. We all know what film grain looks like and, despite a few cries that this is correct for a 2-perf Technicolour 35mm, it just doesn't look right.
And yet I feel I should also defend this transfer as it is, when all said and done, taken from a dedicated restoration of the original camera negative and supervised, like Zombie, by its cinematographer, Sergio Salvati.
Colours seem fine and faithful to me. House does not suffer from the same re-timing issues that Zombie does. The image has not been boosted and warmed and there are no scenes which appear to have taken on an entirely new colour cast. Two amazing scenes in Zombie have had their impact lessened quite considerably by such a practice, but that is not the case with House, which has a predominantly darker and more shadowy appearance. Much of the film is set in-doors and in traditionally spooky low-light. Even the blood is a darker, much deeper and more burgundy-red. But it always has been, so this transfer has not meddled with the haemoglobin. Skin tones look better and more natural than ever before – everyone is sickly pale, but this is also precisely how Fulci wants it. The colour of eyes and hair is spot-on. The stained-glass windows are suffused with just the right amount of lustre.
There are shadows and murk aplenty, and the transfer handles the contrast extremely well. Many of Salvati’s shots are text-book examples of how to light a traditionally effective spooky scene, and this disc allows you to admire his rich and redolent compositions frequently. Blacks are deep and very satisfying. There may be some slight crushing going on down in the cellar, but the shadow play is tremendous and splendidly atmospheric at all times. Inky blacks provide a wonderfully nightmarish texture to the image. Blues and purples benefit from such stable and well-saturated fidelity and the keen demarcation of contrast. Visually speaking, House is a tour de force of the gothic form.
Detail is also at a premium. This was never going to be the sharpest image around, but the level of finite inspection is rewarding, be it of faces, eyes (particularly in Bob’s case), hair (look at Ania Pieroni’s eyebrows!), freckles (Mae), clothing material, woodgrain in the furnishing of the house, leaves and twigs in the surrounding area, and naturally of all the graphic wounds. Although such impressively revealing detail is welcome, it does increase our perception of the fakery of the latex effects, which now appear far too obvious. The gore spurting out of the poker-stabbed throat is truly icky, but the repeated slashing of the babysitter’s neck, as horrible as it may be, is just too bogus to be disturbing. And that severed head – oh dear. However, the filth of gunge and maggots that spills from Freudstein's injured torso is almost too well rendered. Background resolution is also established with clarity. We can clearly discern details and clean edges on trees, cars and buildings at the back of the frame. Even little things such as the clasp and emblem on Norman's briefcase as he leaves the library and strides to his car have a keener definition.
The frosting of digital grain aside, this is a very healthy looking transfer. I can't imagine fans of the film finding too much to moan about.
I am less impressed with this than I thought I would be.
Whilst Zombie gained extra channels of surround sound, it did not have a mix or an original design that could make effective use of them. House, whilst still stemming from a mono source, has a sound design that could benefit much more from discrete effects being thrown out to catch you off-guard. This is, after all, a story set in the proverbial haunted house, and the multitude of groans, thumps, sudden crunches and raspy, dragging noises could have been engineered into something quite exciting. However, that would be tampering for the sake of tampering, and we should probably applaud the fact that Blue Underground has stuck with a very faithful-sounding presentation, in DTS-HD MA 2.0, of the film's original mix.
I don’t think we should entirely blame the transfer for the muddiness of the audio mix, it can only do so much with the original source, but there are times when the dialogue is severely trounced by the effects and the score. The sense of vocal dislocation is acute, and not all of this is down to the often atrocious dubbing. The problems obviously arise from the original mix, which appears to be quite wayward and haphazard, but the fresh audio restoration does little to rectify any discrete separation, detail or depth. This sounds much cleaner, clearer and more powerful than ever before, but it also enhances the bugaboo discrepancies that the genre is justly renowned for, making for a slightly uncomfortable time whenever things get a touch loud and crowded. Some effects are preposterously exaggerated, such as the movement of bed sheets, but this is all part of the Italian Splatter Experience and not something that the mix has done wrong. When voices are raised into conventional screaming and shouting, they are always clear, if understandably shrill and unconvincing. Impacts can be reasonably bellicose, like axe-swinging and poker-plunging. But wait until you hear the overcooked sound effect of a certain character's face smacking onto each stair as they are dragged down to their doom. It's hysterically over-the-top, as is the horrendous rasping and wheezing of the good doctor. Many other effects are hilariously over-egged too. The original mix bolstered them quite considerably, so this transfer cannot be blamed for their priority in the overall design now.
Walter Rizzati’s unorthodox and unsettling score pulls few punches with its presentation on disc and, once again, it is the music that shines brightest on the track, although there are times when it is a touch too strained. The lossless interpretation provides his warped and jangling motifs with plenty of breadth to shimmer and pulsate. The sequence when the belligerent bat makes his (mechanical) attack is actually quite irritating. The relentless screaming and screeching is apt to provoke a visit from the local constabulary. It goes on for some time and comes through with alarming vigour and intensity, offering the most aggressive elements of the mix an opportunity to go overboard.
Blue Underground also provide an Italian DD mono track, but this doesn't sound anywhere near as good as the English mix. It is muddier and less forthright, lacking much in the way of vigour and atmosphere.
Blue Underground certainly have the contacts in place now to get all those involved, and who still admit to it – those that are still alive, that is – gathered together for candid retro interviews. By now, it should be clear to us all that these little vignettes have been chopped out of much larger sessions that have covered all the films they participated in, and slotted on to their appropriate releases as and when they arrive.
No commentary this time out, which is a shame. It would have been great to have heard some feature-length reminiscences and reaction from MacColl and Frezza, fronting the English speakers, or from critic Kim Newman, for example, to provide some nostalgic adoration and amusing opinion about Fulci’s last “recognised” undead caper. Nobody is counting Zombie 3, which Fulci barely had a hand in directing. We get a Deleted Scene that extends the bat-attack sequence with an aftermath, some Theatrical Trailers and a TV Spot, and a Poster & Stills Gallery.
Then the copious interviews kick off with Meet the Boyles, in which Catriona MacColl and Paolo Malco discuss their time with little Lucio. Of course, MacColl knew him very well by this stage, and she recollects this third encounter with blood and maggots quite fondly. I always thought that she seemed tired and anxious with this role, but she tries to make it clear that this was all part of the character that she was playing. Malco does not speak any English here, but he laughs a great deal as he recalls his experiences. MacColl has embraced the fan-circuit quite warmly and appears regularly upon BD releases of Fulci films. To be blunt, however, there seems little left for her to say now on the matter.
In Children of the Night, Fulci’s two brats – Giovanni Frezza (Bob) and Silvia Collatina (Mae) – cheerfully describe their on-set memories of making such a bloodcurdling film. Frezza apologises profusely for the atrocious dubbing that his character received around the world, but seems in good spirits about his time with the temperamental Fulci. Likewise, Collatina says how much she enjoyed her time with the blood ‘n’ guts. She reveals that it is actually her hand that threatens Bob with the knife as he tries to open the cellar door, and Bob confesses that although he liked his director, the chest-beating filmmaker also made him cry with his belligerent attitude. Both speak English and are in fine, jovial spirits. Both still seem incredibly young! Which makes me feel incredibly old!
Tales of Laura Gittleson allows actress Dagmar Lassander to talk about her career and her time spent working for Lucio Fulci. After appearing in the cult classic giallo Hatchet for a Honeymoon, which is brilliant, she worked on Fulci’s bonkers adaptation of The Black Cat, and then she rolled over on the floor of The House by The Cemetery and allowed Dr. Freudstein to perforate her with a fire-poker. She tells an amusing anecdote about getting caught at UK Customs with prop bodyparts and a fake Black Cat!
My Time With Terror finds Carlo De Mejo recalling his gory days with Fulci on this and City Of The Living Dead.
A Haunted House Story lets us in on the secrets of the screenplay that was originated by co-writers Dardano Saccheti and his wife Elisa Briganti. Both of these two always seem to claim more significant roles than I think is strictly accurate. Fulci had a lot of input in the scripts of his main collection of pivotal horrors, and the films remain indelibly his brand of cinematic nightmare.
To Build A Better Death Trap is probably the best feature on the disc. Here we get the lowdown on the special effects that enlivened the movie and the evocative cinematography that lent it so much gothic atmosphere. FX-gurus (or gore-ru’s) Gino De Rossi and Maurizio Trani talk about the various grisly gags and appliances that the film called for. De Rossi shows us the little dental-contraption that helped a blade pop out of Daniela Doria’s delectable mouth, and we are told about the lost moment of eye-gouging that the mutilated estate agent was supposed to suffer. DOP Sergio Salvati talks about light and shadow and the splendid techniques he used to give the house an infernal life of its own, and we even hear from Giovanni De Nava who donned to frock-coat and latex to play Dr. Freudstein.
This is all good stuff. The participants are all clearly fond of the experience and are keen to reminisce about their dealings with the sinister Dr. Freudstein … and the even scarier Lucio Fulci. But I would still have loved to have heard a proper full-on commentary and seen a more in-depth making-of documentary that contained the interviews in one emphatic hit.
The House by the Cemetery may be the last of Lucio Fulci’s classic zombie canon, but it is also an attempt to recall the atmosphere of the old dark house genre. The Italian gnome wanted to have his cake and eat it though. When a young family move into an isolated mansion to escape the rat-race of the big city, they confront the fiendish former resident in a bloodthirsty tale of zombies, insane surgery and ghostly premonitions. A dozen tremendous ideas of the afterlife jostle with the offal but, at the close of play, come up frustratingly short due a screenplay that forgets to tie-up all the loose ends. And, yet, what remains of this gruesome-cum-ghostly yarn is still highly imaginative. Nods to The Shining, The Amityville Horror, The Innocents and Don't Look Now are most welcome, and there is enough originality here – what with the odd SF angle of dead cell-replenishment and necromantic surgery – to steer Fulci's gothic bloodbath into wacky and wild new territory.
The editing is choppier than most of his cult-regarded classics and the narrative quite wayward and arbitrary, but there is a mood here that is quite unique and resolutely haunting. The ambition of the piece should not be overlooked and even if it doesn't all come together – in fact, the film's flow comes to resemble the hodgepodge, thrown-together appearance of mouldy old Dr. Freudstein, himself – there are more ideas and novelties here than in most of the high-sheen dreck that studios churn out these days in the name of Horror, and infinitely more style and passion than can be found in a multitude of modern torture-porn purveying.
Blue Underground present the film with a transfer culled from the original camera negative and supervised by its cinematographer. It looks the best it ever has on home video, but the curse of the weird Italian frozen grain still continues to afflict the label. But the audio is unmolested by the remixers and sounds very faithful. The line-up of extras seems extensive, but this is merely a collection of interviews. A commentary and a proper making-of would have added a great deal, I feel.
The House By The Cemetery is either top of peoples' Fulci hit-list, or bottom. It does seem to divide the crowd. I cannot claim that it is his best. Zombie and The Beyond are way superior to this in terms of sheer horror and directorial verve. But House is like the most outrageous Hammer gothic potboiler and this is a very welcome attribute indeed. Gleefully gruesome and steeped with darkly demented atmosphere, this is still a great old Video Nasty that has been dragged from the cellar and given a new lease of infernal life on Blu-ray.
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