Italian Horror Showcase: The House By The Cemetery (dir by Lucio Fulci)


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.

 

Italian Horror Showcase: City of the Living Dead (dir by Lucio Fulci)


In New York City, a group of people sit around a table, holding a seance.  One of them, a woman named Mary (Catriona MacColl) has a vision.  She sees a sickly, hollow-cheeked priest walking through a cemetery.  She watches as he hangs himself and, as the priest dangles from a tree branch, Mary lets out a piercing scream and collapses to the floor.  The police are called and they promptly declare that Mary has died.  Later, while a hard-boiled reporter named Peter Bell (Christopher George) watches as two grave-diggers walk away from her half-buried coffin, he hears something coming from the grave.  From insider her coffin, Mary is screaming and struggling to get out!

Peter grabs a pickax and smashes it down into the coffin.  Peter may be trying to free her but what he doesn’t realize is that, with each blow of the pickax, he comes dangerously close to hitting Mary in the face.  Somehow, Peter manages to avoid killing Mary.  Once he gets her out of the coffin, Peter and Mary go and see a medium to try to figure out the meaning behind Mary’s previous vision.

What they don’t discuss is why or, for that matter, how everyone was convinced that Mary was dead for at least a day or two.  Mary doesn’t mention that Peter nearly killed her with the pickax.  In fact, for two people who have just met under the strangest and most disturbing of circumstances, Peter and Mary seem to be getting along famously.  For that matter, they don’t appear to be too surprised when the medium informs them Mary’s vision indicated that the dead will soon be entering the world of the living.

And so begins Lucio Fulci’s wonderfully odd and surreal City of the Living Dead.  Reading the paragraphs above, you might think that I was criticizing City of the Living Dead but nothing could be further from the truth.  From the start, Fulci establishes that City of the Living Dead is going to fully embrace its own unique aesthetic.

The majority of City of the Living Dead takes place in a small town with the name of Dunwich, a name that immediately (and, I believe, intentionally) brings to mind the writing of H.P. Lovecraft.  Dunwich is a town that always seems to be covered in fog.  At the local bar, men talk about the recent suicide of Father Thomas and they discuss what to do about Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), who the majority of them believe to be a a pervert.  Meanwhile, Bob comes across an inflatable sex doll in a deserted warehouse and, for the most part, just tries to stay out of everyone’s way.

(Bob was one of Radice’s first roles and, along with his turn as David Hess’s sidekick in The House On The Edge of the Park, the one that many fans of Italian horror continue to associate him with.  It’s a testament to Radice’s talent that he could make even a creepy character like Bob sympathetic.)

Even without the presence of the living dead, Dunwich doesn’t seem like the ideal place to live.  A greedy morgue attendant attempts to steal a dead woman’s jewelry.  A psychiatrist named Gerry (Carlo de Mejo) struggles to calm the nerves of his patient, Sandra (Janet Agren).  At one point, one man gets so angry with another that he drills a hole in his head.  That’s Dunwich, for you.  Who needs the dead when you’re surrounded by the worst of the living?

Speaking of the dead, that dead priest is still wandering around town.  When he comes across two teenagers making out in a jeep, he rips open the boy’s head while the girl bleeds from her eyes and proceeds to vomit up her intestines.  (Somewhat inevitably, the boy is played by Michele Soavi who, before launching his own acclaimed directing career, always seemed to die in films like this.  Even more inevitably, the girl is played Daniela Doria, who appeared in four Fulci films and suffered a terrible fate in every single one of them.)

By the time that Peter and Mary actually reach the town, the dead are already moving through the fog while storms of maggots crash through windows.  Even the sight of a seemingly innocent child running towards the camera leads to the sound of people screaming off-screen….

Even though it’s actually one of Fulci’s more straight-forward films (i.e., a character says that Dunwich is going to be overrun by zombies and then Dunwich actually is overrun by zombies), it still plays out like a particularly intense dream.  From the fog-shrouded visuals to the often odd dialogue, City of the Living Dead is a film that plays out according to its own unique logic.  The film’s surreal atmosphere may have partially been the result of a rushed production schedule but it also serves to suggest that, as a result of the priest’s suicide, the nature of reality itself has changed.

City of the Living Dead is not a film for everyone.  If I was introducing someone to Fulci for the first time, I would probably have them watch Zombi 2The Black Cat and Lizard In A Woman’s Skin long before I even suggested they take a look at City of the Living Dead.  That City of the Living Dead is a gory film should come as no surprise.  That was one of Fulci’s trademarks, after all.  Instead, what makes City of the Living Dead a difficult viewing experience for some is just how bleak the film truly is.  Even before the living dead arrive, Dunwich is a town the seems to epitomize the worst instincts of humanity.  There’s a darkness at the heart of the City of the Living Dead and it has nothing to do with zombies.

First released in 1980, City of the Living Dead is generally considered to be the first part of Fulci’s Beyond trilogy.  Catriona MacColl, who gives such a good performance here, appeared in the film’s two follow-ups, The Beyond and The House By The Cemetery.  (MacColl played a different character in each film.)  With each film, Fulci’s vision grew more and more surreal until eventually, he seemed fully prepared to reject the idea of narrative coherence all together.

Though initially dismissed by critics, The Beyond trilogy is today celebrated as one of the greatest achievements in the history of Italian horror.  City of the Living Dead is probably the most narratively coherent film in the trilogy, even if its ending raises more questions than it answers.  Personally, I love the ending of City of the Living Dead, even though it was apparently a last-minute decision.  (According to Wikipedia — so take this with a grain of salt — someone spilled coffee on the original work print of the ending, which led to Fulci having to improvise.)  It’s an ending that suggests that not only has the film broken apart but that the world is shattering right along with it.  In the end, the world falls apart not with a bang but with one long scream.

 

The TSL Daily Sci-Fi Grindhouse: Contamination (dir by Luigi Cozzi)


contamination-02

See those green things in the picture above?  You’re probably looking at them and you’re thinking to yourself, “Those are the biggest avocados that I’ve ever seen!”

Well, they’re not avocados.

No, instead they are green eggs from Mars.  They may look harmless but if they start glowing, pulsating, and making an eerie womping noise, you might want to get away from them.  When those eggs explodes, they spray out a green goo.  Any living creatures that is so much as even splashed by this goo will then explode in a mass of blood and guts.  It’s messy.  I would not want to clean up after anyone is sprayed with green goo.

Those eggs are at the center of this week’s daily sci-fi grindhouse, the 1980 Italian film, Contamination.  How much you enjoy Contamination will largely depend on how much you like old school Italian exploitation films in general.  If you’re the type who rolls your eyes at bad dubbing and who demands that a film follow some sort of narrative logic, you are not the ideal audience for this movie.  However, if you’re like me and you enjoy the pure shamelessness of Italian exploitation, you’ll probably have an easier time enjoying Contamination.

It won’t come as a surprise to any student of Italian or grindhouse cinema to learn that Contamination was ripped off from several films that were popular in the late 70s.  The eggs are largely lifted from Alien and, whenever the goo-sprayed bodies explode, it’s reminiscent of that ugly little thing bursting out of John Hurt’s chest.  The second half of the film feels like a secondhand James Bond film, complete with a sinister conspiracy, a mysterious mastermind who earlier faked his own death, and a femme fatale.  The conspiracy is headquartered on a coffee plantation in South America.  It’s not difficult to imagine Baron Samedi or some other villain from Live and Let Die showing up and laughing before throwing an exploding egg at someone.

Contamination opens with a seemingly deserted ship floating into New York harbor.  Fans of Italian cinema will immediately think about the opening of Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2.  Just as Zombi 2 opened with the New York City police investigating an abandoned boat and getting attacked by a zombie, Contamination features the New York City police investigating an abandoned boat and getting sprayed with green goo.  The only cop who doesn’t explode, a tough New Yawker named Tony (Marino Mase), works with Col. Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau) to figure out why those eggs were on that boat.

Helping them out is an alcoholic former astronaut named Commander Ian Hubbard (Ian McCulloch).  Somewhat appropriately, McCulloch was also in Zombi 2.  (And let’s not forget about his role in Zomie Holocaust…)  I once read an interview with McCulloch (in Jay Slater’s overview of Italian zombie cinema, Eaten Alive) in which he said that he didn’t feel he did a very good job in Contamination but I think he’s being too hard on himself.  Is the very British and slightly uptight Ian McCulloch miscast as a cynical, alcoholic, American astronaut who can’t even walk to his front door without stumbling over discarded beer cans?  Sure, he is.  But he’s so miscast that it actually becomes rather fascinating to watch him in the role.  He may be miscast but you can tell he’s really trying and he’s just so damn likable that you almost feel like it would be a disservice to him not to watch the film.

Anyway, Stella, Tony, and Hubbard have to discover out why the green eggs are on Earth and they eventually do figure out what’s going on.  I’ve watched the film multiple times and I have to admit that I’m still not sure what they figured out.  It’s a confusing movie and I doubt that there’s really any way that it could have ever made any sort of coherent sense but then again, that’s part of the film’s charm.

So, here’s what does work about Contamination.  The exploding green eggs are both scary and wonderfully ludicrous.  Ian McCulloch is a lot of fun as drunk Commander Hubbard.  Goblin provides an excellent and propulsive score.  And finally, there’s an alien monster who simply has to be seen to be believed.  To his credit, director Luigi Cozzi realized that the monster looked cheap and he uses all sorts of creative editing and employed an arsenal of jump cuts to try to keep you from noticing.  Much as with McCulloch’s performance, you can’t help but appreciate Cozzi’s effort.

As I said before, you’re enjoyment of Contamination will probably be determined by how much you enjoy Italian exploitation films in general.  If you’re not familiar with the Italian grindhouse, Contamination is not the film to use for an introduction.  However, if you are already a fan, you might appreciate Contamination.

Contamination is in the public domain and, as such, very easy to track down.