Lucio Fulci’s 1981 masterpiece, The House By The Cemetery, begins as so many slasher movies have begun.
A teenage couple fools around in the basement of the deserted Oak Mansion. Just from listening to them talk, we can surmise that the mansion has a reputation for strange events. Suddenly, the boy vanishes. The girl looks for him, telling him that whatever he’s doing stopped being funny a long time ago. Suddenly, a knife is driven through the back of her head, the blade eventually exiting through the girl’s mouth. Fans of Italian horror and Fulci films in particular will not be shocked by this grisly turn of events, mostly because the girl was played by Daniela Doria. Doria appeared in several Fulci films and, in each film, her character was brutally murdered. The House By The Cemetery was her third Fulci film. She would later appear and get killed in Fulci’s The New York Ripper.
From that rather conventional horror movie opening, The House By The Cemetery goes on to become progressively more bizarre and surreal.
The Boyles — Lucy (Catriona MacColl), Norman (Paolo Malco), and their young son, Bob (Giovanni Frezza) — are to spend the next six months living in a mansion in New England. It’s all so Norman can work on a research project. His colleague, Peterson, previously stayed at the house and basically went crazy, killing his family, his mistress, and himself. This doesn’t seem to particularly disturb Norman. Before they leave New York, Bob stares at a picture in his father’s office. It’s a black-and-white picture of a dilapidated house. There’s a young girl staring out the window of the house.
Suddenly, we can see and hear the girl (Silvia Collatina) as she yells at Bob to stay away from the house.
In the small town of New Whitby, the girl — who is named Mae — stands on a sidewalk. She’s clutching a doll and it doesn’t appear that anyone else can see her. Mae stares into the window of tailor’s shop. One of the mannequins has fallen over and its head has become detached. Mae watches a dark blood oozes out of the plastic head.
Sitting in the back seat of his parent’s car, Bob watches Mae. Mae turns to stare at him. Despite the fact that there’s a road in between them, Mae and Bob are able to calmly speak to each other. Again, Mae tells Bob that he shouldn’t have come.
When the family arrives at their new home, Lucy says that the Oak Mansion looks a lot like the house in the picture in Norman’s office. Norman shrugs it off as a coincidence. As for the house itself, it turns out to be a bit of a dump. Yes, it’s big but the inside of the house is covered in dust and cobwebs and there’s a particularly nasty bat living in the basement. However, what really upsets Lucy is the fact that there’s a tombstone in the middle of the front hallway. Norman dismisses her concerns, saying that it used to be very common for people to be buried in their homes.
Much as how Jack Torrance was “always the caretaker,” everyone in town seems to be convinced that they’ve met Norman before. Norman swears that he’s never been to New Whitby before. Meanwhile, Lucy grows more and more anxious inside the house. Sometimes, she thinks she can hear noises in the walls. Are they alone or is there someone else living in the house? Bob spends his time playing with his new friend Mae, who shows him a nearby headstone for someone named Mary Fruedstein. “She’s not really buried there,” Mae tells him.
Things get stranger. A mysterious young woman named Ann (Ania Pieroni, who has previously played The Mother of Tears in Dario Argento’s Inferno) shows up and says that she’s the new babysitter. A real estate agent (played by Dagmar Lassander) comes by the house while the Boyles are out and is promptly murdered. Lucy wakes up one morning to discover Ann scrubbing a huge blood stain and says nothing about it.
Norman’s research reveals that the house once belonged to a Dr. Jacob Freudstein, a Victorian-era scientist who conducted illegal experiments. Could that have something to do with all of the strange things that have happened in the house? Norman goes to New York to do further research and once again, he finds himself dealing with people who are convinced that they’ve seen him before….
In an interview, Lucio Fulci once described The House By The Cemetery as being his answer to Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining and there are some obvious similarities, from the ghostly girl to the little boy who appears to have psychic powers. Fulci said that he didn’t feel The Shining was dark enough and make no mistake about it, The House By The Cemetery is a very dark film. Even by the standards of Lucio Fulci, there is very little hope to be found in The House By The Cemetery.
As a follow-up to both The City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, it’s also the concluding chapter of Fulci’s Beyond trilogy. When Mae offers Bob a chance to escape to a safe place, those who have viewed The Beyond will immediately realize that she’s talking about the same dimension that was visited by David Warbeck and Catriona MacColl at the end of Fulci’s previous film. And while Mae may be offering Bob an escape from what’s happening the House, those who have seen the entire trilogy know that the Beyond is just as dangerous as our world. The end of the film seems to suggest that there is no escape from the horrors of the world. At best, there’s just a temporary delay to the inevitability of doom.
The House By The Cemetary is Fulci at his most atmospheric as he combines the gothic visual style of City of the Living Dead with the aggressive dream logic of The Beyond. In much the same way that the The Beyond indicated that the price for discovering the truth about the world was blindness, The House By The Cemetery indicates that the longer the Boyles remains in the house, the more incapable they are of seeing the horror right in front of their faces.
And what horror! When Dr. Freudstein does make his appearance, he’s a monster straight out of Lovecraft, a mix of Frankenstein, Freud, and the Great Old Ones. And yet, the film’s real horror is not to be found in the monster but in the disintegration of the family living in the house. In the end, Bob is stalked not only by the monster in the basement but also by his parent’s increasingly unhappy marriage.
Giovanni Frezza actually does a pretty good job in the role of Bob, though you might not notice because he’s been so atrociously dubbed. (Far too often, in Italian horror films, children were dubbed by adults speaking in squeaky voices and that seems to be what happened here.) Frezza would later appear in Fulci’s perplexing Manhattan Baby while Paolo Malco would play another arrogant academic in The New York Ripper. And then there’s Catriona MacColl, appearing in her third and final Fulci film. Fulci was often criticized for the way women were portrayed in his films but MacColl gave strong lead performances in The City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and The House By The Cemetery and, most importantly, her instantly relatable presence helped to provide some grounding for Fulci’s surreal vision. Even if the films didn’t always make perfect logical sense, audiences would continue to watch because they wanted things to turn out well for whichever character MacColl was playing. (Of course, they rarely did.)
The House By The Cemetery was the third and final part of Fulci’s Beyond trilogy and one of his strongest films. Lucio Fulci passed away in 1996 but, like the inhabitants of the Beyond, his films live forever.