31 Days to Scare ~ The House by the Cemetery (1981)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young family moves from their cramped New York City apartment to a spacious new home in New England. But his is no ordinary house in the country: the previous owner was the deranged Dr. Freudstein, whose monstrous human experiments have left a legacy of bloody mayhem. Now, someone – or something – is alive in the basement, and home sweet home is about to become a horrific hell on earth.
Stars: Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Ania Pieroni, Giovanni Frezza, Silvia Collatina, Dagmar Lassander
Director: Lucio Fulci
Rated: NR (but consider R a safe bet)
Running Length: 86 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  While we’ve discussed the popular giallo genre in 31 Days to Scare before (Suspiria, Twitch of the Death Nerve), I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to pull one of director Lucio Fulci’s films down from the shelves during October. Known both as The Godfather of Gore and The Poet of the Macabre for his extreme but stylish approach to gruesome violence on film, the filmmaker rose to worldwide acclaim in the early ’80s through a series of graphic horror titles. Though they were never as popular in Italy as they were as exports to countries like the US and Mexico, mention Fulci’s name to genre enthusiasts, and you’re going to get a variety of reactions. 

Love him or hate him, Fulci’s most recognizable work today was through the Gates of Hell trilogy, consisting of 1980’s City of the Living Dead, 1981’s The Beyond, and The House by the Cemetery, also released in 1981 and the film we’re going to focus on today. While the movies aren’t linked together through plot or characters, they all center around ultraviolence, ritual, and the dead rising through bizarre circumstances. The Beyond is the more famous of the three, but I had to investigate when a 4K of The House by the Cemetery landed on my doorstep.

A nasty prologue acts as a litmus test for nervous viewers who may be unable to handle the gruesome slayings that Fulci has waiting in the wings. The murders only get worse, but if you aren’t dashing for the remote the first time a knife enters flesh (around the 1:30 mark), then you can probably stick around to watch a family from the Big Apple pack up and move to a rundown home in an otherwise charming Boston suburb. Dr. Norman Doyle (Paolo Malco, possessing great hair and transition lenses) is continuing the research of his late colleague, who killed himself after murdering his mistress. 

It’s unclear how late into the move-in process he told his wife, Lucy (Catriona MacColl), that they were staying in the same home his predecessor had lived in when he committed the crime. Still, Lucy doesn’t have much autonomy anyway, so why should she care? Their young son Bob (Giovanni Frezza) has at least been warned through a psychic bond he’s formed with a mystery local girl (Silvia Collatina), but no one believes the precocious kids in these movies until it’s too late. A much too pretty babysitter (Ania Pieroni) arrives quickly, and before she can even make a pass at Norman, she is one of the unlucky few who venture into the basement and encounter the evil that lurks below.

I’ve seen enough of these Italian movies made in America to know the drill. No matter how good they are, the actors’ performance will appear stiff and awkward because they’ve been dubbed after the fact. All of these movies were filmed without the dialogue being recorded on the day, so even though The House by the Cemetery was filmed in English and some of the actors provided their own voiceovers, it never matches what we see on film. In the case of poor Frezza, the tiny boy’s voice has been replaced with an adult clearly trying to sound like a child.  The ramifications of such a decision are a true disaster and practically ruin the film because Bob plays such an integral part in the plot.

Fulci’s trademark brutal kills are displayed in full force in The House by the Cemetery. While there is an undeniable art to them and, at times, a patently disgusting realism that takes them one level too far, they are, unfortunately, the most exciting passages of the film. Instead of an intricately conceived plot that features stomach-flipping offings, we have bloody beheadings and extended stretches where nothing of note happens. The wheels fall off this gore train anytime Fulci attempts to draw out suspense even though the air has entirely been let out of the tires. I looked away several times during the killings and was tempted to glance at my phone during the scenes in between due to boredom.

When I was younger, I enjoyed these gross movies a lot more, and looking back, I wonder why. They’re just so awful and vile that I prefer my gory movies to have an aspect of the fantastical because then it’s a sign to everyone that the filmmakers know this is movie magic in the making. If the attempt is to make it look as authentic as possible, it gives me the willies. When The House by the Cemetery gets stylish with its tricks (and the 4k release from Scorpion Video is delightful, by the way), it reminds you that Fulci was a respected filmmaker for a reason. Even with blood spurting out of wounds and heads (literally) rolling around his sets, the man knew how to create nightmarish visions.

Where to watch The House by the Cemetery (1981)

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