DVD Review – The House by the Cemetery (1981)

The House by the Cemetery, 1981.

Written and Directed by Lucio Fulci.
Starring Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco and Ania Pieron.


A family move from New York to an isolated house, by a cemetery. Supernatural happenings occur. Banned as a “video nasty” in the 80s, its HD restored print is being released by Arrow Films in its original, unedited form.

The House by the Cemetery has all the Italian horror tropes of that era – campy slow zooms, dodgy American dubbing and a synth-based score that would make even John Carpenter blush. Yet these are the elements that make such films so oddly endearing. Well, “endearing” if mutilated corpses and maggot-ridden flesh is your kinda thing.

The plot is basic enough, with some conventions so apparent that you cringe at them just as much you do when a character’s larynx is viscerally ripped from his throat. The Boyle family, comprised of Dr. Norman (Paolo Malco), Lucy (Catriona MacColl) and their son, Bob (Giovanni Frezza), move from their New York apartment to a house in the sticks. It just so happens that this house was recently privy to a few gruesome murders. And it’s right next to a cemetery.

Actually, as Lucy discovers when tidying their new abode, the house is a cemetery. The hallway rug covers a “Dr. Freudstein’s” grave, which occasionally caves in and leaks blood. Also, process that name for a second. “Freud” + “Stein”. It’s almost as subtle as the film’s title.

The cemetery, however, isn’t really the creepy part. It’s the sealed shut door to the basement. Dr. Peterson, the previous occupant, had bolted several planks of wood across it, presumably with good reason. He was an ex-colleague of Norman’s, living in the house while researching suicides for a book. He quickly went mad, murdering his mistress and committing suicide himself.

Norman’s own research shortly becomes an investigation into why Dr. Peterson killed himself, which leads into the mysterious experiments of the long-dead Dr. Freudstein. This narrative thread is what strings the film together, and on which Fulci pegs his beloved gore set-pieces. He does do them very well.

But they aren’t scary. They’re gruesome, sure – Fulci’s camera obsesses over every knife that draws blood – but they don’t induce any large degree of psychological terror. Instead, they provoke “Eww, gross, her head just came off,” or “Whoah, that vampire bat was crazy!” reactions.

That vampire bat is so obviously on a piece of string. Initially you can ignore the thread, but the bat attack goes on for quite a while, exposing its artificiality. Fulci gets around this by adding more blood, which seems to be his approach to most scenes. The bat won’t relinquish its grip on Norman’s hand, its teeth drawing more and more crimson over the kitchen worktop. Norman grabs a pair of ridiculously long scissors from a drawer. More blood! as he agonisingly pries off the bat. And it works – Fulci pushes through your disbelief, overpowering the senses with all that gushing red.

Yet it’s not scary. The gore is too much of a spectacle to be truly frightening. And neither is the film structured or paced in a way to provoke tension or terror. Instead, the shots are held for too long, showcasing mangled limbs and decaying corpses, though few do this better than Fulci.

And for all its theatrical acting, annoying children and gore! gore! gore! The House by the Cemetery hints at a theme buried deeper beneath the gravestones. As in Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters, the film is more intelligent than it lets on. Are there otherworldly ethers, portals to other dimensions, or simply a direct staircase, behind a cellar door, down to the fiery pits of Hell?

Flickering Myth Rating: Film ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★

Oliver Davis

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