The House by the Cemetery Review
My first copy (and virgin viewing) of Lucio Fulci's gothic-modern splice, The House by the Cemetery, was the Vipco VHS release of his 1981 effort, which I managed to pick up at a film fair near London a good few years ago. Whilst the quality wasn't too bad for a VHS copy, the film appeared to have suffered substantial cuts at the over-zealous hands of our benevolent guardians and protectors, known as the BBFC, and the viewing experience was further degraded by the fact that the copy I had purchased was some sort of pre-release which had the running time printed across the bottom of the screen throughout. I confess to feeling an immediate affection for Fulci's mildly chilling piece, but was dismayed by the confusing randomness and non-sequitur delivery of the film, which I was more than happy to blame on the enormous scoops of storyline the BBFC had cut out during their thoughtful and considerate editing.
When I was finally able to catch the unexpurgated copy of The House..., I discovered that despite the BBFC's best efforts to protect our adult eyes from Fulci's delightfully excessive uber-gore and to frustrate our desire to make any sense of the film, Fulci was himself perfectly capable of depriving us of sense and reason surrounding the film's plot, without any pesky outside influences making annoying cuts.
Anyone who knows a Fulci film will know why the director chose to include a plot at all - certainly in his horror films, at least; the plot conveniently serves as a vehicle to drive the picture from one well-staged scene of gore to the next. This may sound unfair, but it's actually meant with the greatest of respect; Fulci's visuals are so unashamedly exhilarating, that any unnecessary complexity in the storyline would be met with cynicism. It's no surprise that one of the techniques Fulci indulges himself in throughout the film is the rapid zoom into the characters' eyes (although to nowhere near the same extent as in his eye-zoomfest, The Black Cat); his obsession with the visual manifests itself through both the bloody waterfall of on-screen carnage, and also through his observation of the observers, his capturing of the shocked gazes of those caught within the madness of his films. And the delivery of the bloody shocks is similarly unashamed and often obscene; take the opening scene with 'Steve' hanging off the in-swinging door. Is that a pair of scissors we can see plunged into your chest, Steve? Of course it is, but why not zoom in at speed on the bloody implement just to hammer the point home?
What proves particularly strange about this haunted house yarn is not the general paucity of plot, but rather the way in which what little plot exists develops. One could be fully forgiven for believing that the script had been written as the film itself unfolded, thanks to the proliferation of silly and cliched red herrings. Just a quick glance at a handful of these reveals the extent of frustrating leads and suggestions which are never satisfactorily addressed. One can reel them off effortlessly; whether it's Norman's creepy and condescending treatment of wife Lucy, his continued insistence that she takes her 'pills', the arrival of weird (but strikingly attractive) babysitter Anna who barely speaks and cleans up pools of blood without blinking, the presence of a lunatic bat in the basement, the quiet implications that Norman has been having an affair, the blanking of Lucy in the street by the estate agent she saw the day before, or the slow decapitation of a mannequin who looks just like Anna in a shop window; all are planted inside the plot with a deliberate hand, but none are drawn together towards a satisfactory conclusion. The only explanation for these frustrating plot teasers seems to be that the film has gathered influence from a number of different sources. The paranoia of Lucy generated by the suspicious behaviour of her husband Norman has echoes of Rosemary's Baby (1968), for instance, and the cleaning up of what appears to be blood is somewhat reminiscent of the bleeding taps in The Amityville Horror (two years before in 1979).
For all of that, The House... is uncharacteristically patient in its accumulation of tension, in relative terms at least. Once the obligatory murders of the teenage couple in the opening few minutes have been taken care of, Fulci takes great care to construct some intrigue and to develop the characters, even if much of this promise is stolen from us at a later stage. Many viewers crave the offal-soaked viscera that Fulci is so well known for, but his film is so much more effective for a relative level of restraint in the earlier parts of this efficient picture.
This relative slow-burn is leant credence by the strength of the performances, and it's perhaps the notorious grumpiness of the cranky director which wrings such good performances out of the assembled throng of multinational cast members. Fulci favourite Catriona MacColl puts in a typically solid shift which exceeds the expectations of the genre, and her quietly attractive presence makes her a strong lead again here. Paolo Malco does well as the sometimes creepy, sometimes heroic husband, Norman, and Dagmar Lassander is wonderful as the bolshy estate agent Laura. A mention should also go to the children, Silvia Collatina (Mae) and Giovanni Frezza, who performs brilliantly as Bob despite the ridiculous overdubbing of his voice by an adult.
Fulci directed his gothic chiller during something of a heyday of Italian horror, and whilst much of the genre fed shamelessly on more successful American pictures, the movement still demonstrated some impressive momentum and visual inventiveness. The director had enjoyed unexpected success with his violent and visceral (and entirely unofficial) 'sequel' to Dawn of the Dead, Zombi 2 (see what they did there?), and demonstrated a deftness for exhilarating gore which has seldom been rivalled since. Yet Fulci would never become a master of his craft in the same way as fellow Italian rival Dario Argento, who had set an unassailable lead with his visually stunning and genuinely unsettling Suspiria; surely a definition of horror in its purest and most literal form.
Even if he never reached the pinnacle of visual quality attained by Argento, it's impossible to deny the gusto with which Fulci attacks his films, and The House by the Cemetery is one of the finest examples. The visuals here, gore-drenched though they might be, are frequently brilliant. Shortly after the opening death scene, we are treated to a genuinely chilling sequence where young Bob stares at a photograph of the gothic house which forms the centrepiece of the film, and 'sees' the little girl Mae at the window, warning him away. The movement of the young girl freezes, the photo fades to black and white, and a shiver runs down our spine. The camera moves carefully throughout the film, with many wide shots absorbing the splendid grandeur of the American home, and despite the mildly disconcerting rapid zooms into characters' eyes, this is Fulci in full control. Other splendid visual moments include the unfortunate demise of Daniela Doria in the opening sequence (featuring a simple but brilliant effect by the talented effects man, Gianetto De Rossi), wide shots of the forest, the gruesome moment where Bob explores the horrors of the basement, or - perhaps the best achievement of all - the scene where Lucy (MacColl) is dragged down the basement stairs by the monstrous Freudstein, and we see this horror both from her eyes (as she watches Bob fade away 'up' the stairs) and from a side view as she is mercilessly dragged down step to step.
Despite the careless unravelling of initially intriguing plot threads, and the grating sound of little Bob's apparent voice, it's a testament to Fulci that The House by the Cemetery remains one of his strongest and most charming films. The film's finale delivers a similarly powerful emotional impact to the bleak, desolate and unsettling conclusion of The Beyond, and his initial restraint - a trait the director has never been synonymous with - pays substantial dividends as the shocks increase towards the glorious grand guignol finale.
Perhaps this courageous demonstration of restraint was all too much for poor old Fulci. His next film would be his most controversial; he followed up The House by the Cemetery the following year with the profoundly obscene, deeply shocking, and devastatingly effective slasher flick, The New York Ripper. Fact fans may be interested to know that the attractive young victim brilliantly dispatched by the murky Freudstein in the opening scene of The House... is Daniela Doria, who plays the unfortunate Kitty in ...Ripper, a victim whose staged death still cannot be seen in unexpurgated form - legally, at least - by British audiences.
Arrow release this all region Blu-ray, DVD, and DVD extras (three discs) set in a tidy little package, replete with 'retro' nasty artwork on the cover, which despite its unquestionably (and intentionally) tawdry feel, isn't quite as unpalatable as some of the earlier Arrow releases (take a look at the Two Evil Eyes cover if you want to know what I'm talking about). One of Fulci's official entries to the much cherished 'nasty list' (judged worthy of this accolade by the discerning United Kingdom DPP), this is his work presented completely uncut. Arrow have overseen a transfer from the original negatives, and presented it in the native aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Encoded using the MPEG-4 AVC codec, and displayed in 1080p resolution, the presentation delivers a solid, accurate, consistent quality which surely leaves this Italian splatter shocker in the best possible shape since its initial release (although Blue Underground have also recently - well, late last year - released a Blu-ray edition). Of course, this is a film from over 30 years ago, and if you enter your viewing experience with that in mind, you'll be very pleased with the outcome. The film does show its age in some respects; the light, for example, can sometimes oversaturate, but Arrow have presented a very true release which doesn't over-process the natural grain of the film, and noise is not attacked to a degree where the image becomes artificial.
The case is well designed, featuring a tidy arrangement of all three discs in a standard sized Blu-ray case, and the cover is reversible, allowing you to switch to the alternative artwork (which is slightly reminiscent of Psycho; is the 'Norman' connection in the film merely a coincidence?). Inside the case is a 19 page booklet featuring an essay on the film by Calum Waddell, and then an interview with Catriona MacColl, also conducted by Calum (although it's worth noting that this interview appeared on the Arrow DVD released in 2009).
Subtitles are available in English, and there are also English SDH subtitles for the deaf or hard of hearing.
Audio is available in English or Italian uncompressed mono, and as with the visuals, it's surprising just how good the film sounds, considering its age. Dialogue is clear throughout, and sounds are delivered with a pleasing tonal balance. Walter Rizzati's synth-drenched musical score is clear and consistent, with the synth sounds delivered richly, and the piano notes reproduced with firm clarity. If you crank the volume up, you will be able to hear a small amount of extraneous noise on the soundtrack, but if this is the price for a well balanced and true aural reproduction, it's one worth paying.
You may or may not be pleased to learn that Bob's overdubbed screechy voice is also reproduced with excellent clarity, and is guaranteed to offend your ears on frequent occasions throughout the film.
Arrow include a bumper crop of tasty extras to make this a great value release; indeed, it will take you some time to make your way through it all! What's particularly significant to note is that the extras provide some distinctly intelligent views from those involved, and therefore make for an engaging viewing. Note that the same set of extras appear on the DVD and Blu-ray versions of the film, and then a third disc (DVD) is dedicated to the remaining extras.
First up is the option to watch the film with a short Introduction by 'Bob', also known as Giovanni Frezza, who makes an apology for his character's voice you are about to hear during the film, that of an adult, rather than a young boy.
There are two sets of audio commentary. The Audio commentary with star Catriona MacColl, moderated by Calum Waddell is first up, and Catriona puts in a suitably intelligent shift in response to Calum's questions. What becomes apparent throughout all of the Catriona MacColl moments is her surprise at the enduring nature of the film - something she struggles to understand. Indeed, she mentions on a number of occasions across the extras that she not only thought the film wouldn't last very long, but also that it wouldn't be seen outside of Italy! Her comments will prove engaging to fans of the film, but you can't help but detect amongst her bewilderment at the success of the film some quiet, underlying sense of distaste. She recalls her shock at hearing from a relative that not one, but two films she starred in were being discussed at a Mary Whitehouse panel in the eighties, and she also regularly highlights a dark, sadistic, and misogynist side to Fulci, which suggests that his on-screen visuals were motivated by some rather disturbing proclivities.
Waddell performs his questioning role well and moves the discussion along throughout with his gentle interview style. However, you should listen out for a couple of slightly uncomfortable moments!
The second slot, an audio commentary with co-star Silvia Collatina, moderated by Mike Baronas of Paura Productions is quite a different affair in tone, both literally and figuratively speaking. Firstly, Baronas' voice is far deeper than Waddell's, and if you use a sub you'll feel the room vibrate when he talks! That said, his laidback tones make for an excellent interview, and the level of engagement Silvia Collatina (little Mae in the film) enjoys makes this an intimate and warm accompaniment to the gory visuals. Collatina shows a remarkable level of recall bearing in mind her age when the film was made, and if there's any distaste for the movie and the genre beneath her voice, you certainly can't hear it.
The interview segments are warmly welcomed, though the overlong introductory and closing padding which the production company, High Rising Productions, always insist on sandwiching their material between, is not subject to such a warm welcome.
Giovanni Frezza kicks off a round of interviews with a 15 minute slot called Back to the Cellar: Interview with star Giovanni Frezza. Frezza, who played the child Bob in the film, proves himself an amiable and altogether charming man, and discusses, in English, various aspects surrounding his role in the film, and his career after The House..., which included Fulci's own Manhattan Baby, and Lamberto Bava's Demons. Frezza notes the grumpy and intimidating figure of Fulci, and this is a theme which continues throughout the allocation of extras.
Cemetery Woman: Interview with star Catriona MacColl - a moniker which I am sure will make her shudder briefly - is the second interview here, and MacColl's intelligent delivery in her finely sculpted accent certainly makes for an absorbing listen. As a major character in three of the director's best films, the talk inevitably focuses on the relationship between the director and actress for much of the time, and MacColl mentions on a number of occasions how proud she was to have 'tamed' Fulci. The most fascinating part of the interview is her assertion - her unequivocal statement - that Fulci was a misogynist. This is a suggestion that is, to some, beyond question, yet there are counter arguments which state the opposite, and for a full analysis of this, I would recommend that you analyse Stephen Thrower's comments on Fulci's The New York Ripper (see the Shameless Blu-ray for the booklet containing a succinct version of this debate), which draws a compelling conclusion. One thing is for certain; if Fulci hated women because of the way he portrayed them in his films, then he must have absolutely despised men, as it's the male characters in his output who usually prove the most repulsive and loathsome.
Freudstein's Follies: Interview with special effects artist Giannetto De Rossi is an interesting glimpse into the gory special effects - surely the centrepiece of any Fulci horror yarn - created by De Rossi. This segment is subtitled, which is a shame in a sense, as De Rossi's English is far superior to the average English person's Italian. He acquits himself well here, and makes this an enjoyable slot. Wax Mask – Finishing the Final Fulci: Interview with Sergio Stivaletti about his completion of Wax Mask after Fulci’s passing, however, is far less enjoyable, which is perplexing since Stivaletti usually interviews very well and charms his audience with ease. On this occasion though, his comments left me feeling a little uncomfortable, as he discusses picking up the mantle where Argento had planned Fulci to direct, before his untimely passing.
Women of Italian Horror: Featuring Silvia Collatina (The House by the Cemetery), Stefania Casini (Suspiria/ Bloodstained Shadow) and Barbara Magnolfi (Suspiria/ The Sister Of Ursula) is the real gem here, and whilst there are a couple of inevitable requests for 'screams', the commentary is largely very intelligent, with the female subjects being left to do the talking. Stefania Casini in particular is delightful; articulate, absorbing, and sharp of wit. The interviewees discuss a variety of topics, including the role of women in the films of the Italian heyday, and there is some consensus that women were not only depicted poorly in these films, but also treated dismissively and sometimes cruelly on set. With such dignified and intelligent commentary from all concerned, hearing the stories of how they were treated evokes a certain level of anger as a viewer.
An additional DVD continues the flow of extras. What should be quite a treat is the 42 minute House by the Cemetery Onstage Q&A Cast Renunion, which captures a session with the cast as they answer questions at the Horrorhound convention in Indianapolis during March 2011. The problem here is that the sound quality is wretched, and it's difficult to hear what the actors are saying.
A 30 second and very grainy House by the Cemetery TV Spot is absolutely hilarious and I strongly recommend you check this segment out as a matter of urgency, purely for the unintended comedy of the voiceover gentleman's delivery; brilliant.
Even more grainy and pixelated but far more nutritious is the hour long Italian Trailer Compilation, which presents a number of Italian trailers for notorious films from the same canon as the main feature, each prefixed with an informative and intelligent summary. There are some predictable (but welcome) features such as Zombi 2, but some lesser known entries as well, such as Fulci's crime drama Contraband (look out for Fulci himself, no stranger to the odd cameo, firing a machine gun out of a window), his acclaimed period piece Beatrice Cenci, and Sergio Martino's delightfully bizarre giallo entry, All the Colours of the Dark. Fans of gritty trailers from the Italian movie heyday will revel in the grimy, lo-fi glory of these bizarre nuggets of gore, violence, and occasional colourful psychedelica. Note that it is worth pressing the pause button when the text is on screen, so that you can absorb the information in a reasonable amount of time, and do make sure you check out the trivia for each title, many of which are intriguing. This extra in particular is both inventive and thoroughly enjoyable.
Also included is a single Deleted Scene, discovered on the original negatives. This segment has apparently never been released until this version of the film. The short piece (less than a minute) starts after a short text introduction, and leads out from a live section of the film. Since the deleted scene does not have any sound, it is easily identifiable as to when the 'deleted' section commences. Whilst not an especially intriguing section, it's worth a watch, and a real boon in terms of completeness for ardent fans.
Finally, our mammoth bonanza of extras rounds up with a pleasing three minute The House by the Cemetery Trailer.
Well done, Arrow; this is a fantastic set of extras.
Arrow are beginning to pack quite a punch with their releases, and demonstrate that they are a label to be taken seriously, despite the garish quality of their artwork. The company deserves much recognition for their efforts in producing another solid Blu-ray transfer of a decades-old film, and including a stash of high quality extras which constitute an incredibly comprehensive accompaniment to the main feature. Fulci's film itself is a confusing medley of red herrings and unexplored plot threads, but his eye for gory visuals and a surprising touch for the haunting and the strange make it an essential item for all fans of underground horror. Rammed full of intelligent and varied extras, Arrow have surpassed themselves here and set a standard for others to follow.