Oct 26, 2013

The House by the Cemetery

When I first saw The House by the Cemetery (1981) aka Quella villa accanto al cimitero—the concluding chapter of Italian maestro of mayhem Lucio Fulci’s unofficial abyss-staring ‘Gates of Hell’ trilogy, following City of the Living Dead (1980) aka Paura nella città dei morti viventi and The Beyond (1981) aka L'aldilà—some fifteen or so years ago, I thought it was one of the most shamelessly derivative, conspicuously culturally confused and mongrelized, and nauseatingly nonsensical films I had ever seen and although my opinion has not changed much regarding most these ultimately irrelevant complains, like many of the films directed by the the great goombah “Godfather of Gore,” the cross-subgenre horror flick has grown on me quite considerably, as a sort of Guido exploitation horror equivalent to European arthouse cinema that wallows in stunning schlock and shock. Directed by a man who was highly influenced by crazed French playwright Antonin Artaud’s idea of ‘cruel’ imagery to shock the audience members into action and reaction and who once stated during a general discussion of his works The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery, “my idea was to make an absolute film…there’s no logic to it, just a succession of images,” The House by the Cemetery, like most of Fulci's films, will seem totally incomprehensible to the average American filmgoer and even horror fan, as a work that focuses on audacious aestheticism of the aberrantly atmospheric sort over plot and storyline, thus being a work of 'pure horror' in the truest, at least if one can look past the rather ridiculous dubbing. Of course, considering its flagrant thematic and aesthetic similarities with Frankenstein (1931) directed by James Whale, The Amityville Horror (1979), and The Shining (1980) directed by Stanley Kubrick, as well as Fulci’s admitted influence from the classic British gothic horror flick The Innocents (1961) directed by Jack Clayton, The House by the Cemetery is certainly a film with a plot and storyline, if not a hopelessly holey and haphazard one featuring a sort of degenerate dego dream logic that acts as an innate and ultimately intriguing ingredient of the film that—when everything is said and done—makes it stand strangely apart from the films it so shamelessly rips off. Like most of Fulci’s filmic frightmares, The House by the Cemetery is an undeniably Italian flick with an all Italian cast that pretends to be American, as a Guido gothic horror flick ostensibly set in New England, but feels like it takes place in some ominous otherworldly metaphysical hell of the culturally mongrelized sort. Borrowing conventions from horror subgenres including (but not limited to) psychological horror, haunted house flicks, zombie flicks, teen slasher movies, Poe-esque Gothic/Victorian horror, and Fulci’s own classic celluloid splatter and unhinged ultra-violence, The House by the Cemetery is, if nothing else, a fierce fever dream of the divinely derivative sort that derangedly defecates out virtually every classic convention and cliché of celluloid horror, thus acting as a sort of cinematic link between classic silent horror and senseless splatter cinema. 

 Opening with a topless young babe (Daniela Doria) calling out for her boyfriend, only to receive a knife to the back of her skull that exits through her mouth shortly after discovering her man's mangled body, The House by the Cemetery begins like a pseudo-sexy slasher flick, but soon switches to more traditional horror, albeit with gore galore thrown in between. Little blond boy Bob Boyle (Giovanni Frezzi) has a lot in common with Danny Torrance of The Shining as he can talk to dead people, most specifically a redhaired little girl named Mae Freudstein (Silvia Collatina) who looks like a young Lindsay Lohan and who the little boy first notices in a vintage photograph of an old New England house. Bob’s father Norman (Paolo Malco) is taking his son and wife Lucy (Catriona MacColl) and moving the family from NYC to Boston to the New England house in the photograph, which was previously occupied by his ex-colleague, Dr. Peterson, who went mad whilst living at the home and slaughtered his mistress and subsequently committed suicide, thus making it a rather eerie and senseless place to move, especially for a young family. Upon arriving in New Whitby, Boston, Bob sees his phantom friend Mae across the street and she warns him that both him and his parents are in danger and should have never moved to the curiously quaint and antiquated New England home; when Bob's parents go searching for him, instead of seeing him speaking with Mae, they find him holding a creepy old Hans Bellmer-esque doll, which looks a lot like Mae, and ultimately creeps out the boy’s mother Lucy. Indeed, Norman and wife Lucy suspect something is amiss about the house when the realtor Mrs. Gittelson (Dagmar Lassander) gets offended when one of her fellow employees describes the house as “the Freudstein” as opposed to her preferred name, “Oak Mansion.” Upon arriving at so-called “Oak Mansion,” the Boyles discover the place is in rather poor shape, as if it had not been occupied in decades or even a century, not to mention the fact that the cellar door is nailed/locked shut for whatever reason. In order to uncover more about the history of Oak Mansion, Normal Boyle goes to the local library the next day and learns from the assistant librarian, Daniel Douglas (Giampaolo Saccarola), that his former colleague Peterson conducted dubious research on Oak Mansion, as well as related local disappearances and related demographic materials. Meanwhile, Mae shows Bob the ancient tombstone of her mother Mary Freudstein, claiming that she is not really dead nor buried there. Most disturbingly, mother Lucy discovers the tomb of a certain “Jacob Tess Freudstein” built into the floor of Oak Mansion and her husband Norman tries to calm her fears by correctly claiming that it was not uncommon for people to be buried inside of their homes as the cold New England winters made it possible for people to be buried in the ground. Of course, Norman’s own nerves are shocked when he finally is able to open the cellar door, where he is brutally bitten by a rather fake looking vampire bat, so the family tries to move to a home elsewhere, but are told that it will be another couple days before they can be rehoused. Not long afterwards, real estate agent Mrs. Gittelson goes by Oak Mansion to tell the Boyles she has found them a new home, but the family is not there as Norman is being treated at the hospital for the bat bite, so she makes the fatal mistake of letting herself in, where she stands on the Freudstein tombstone, which cracks apart and pins her ankle and not long after, the grotesque being appears and drives a firepoker through her neck, subsequently dragging her lifeless body to the cellar.

 Naturally, Lucy is rather disturbed to find the new family babysitter, Ann (Ania Pieroni), who bears a striking resemblance to Brooke Shields and rather bizarrely is the one who was responsible for unlocking the cellar door, cleaning blood off the kitchen floor, ultimately evading all questions asked about the mysterious hemoglobin stain. Not long after, Norman tells Lucy that he has learned that Jacob Tess Freudstein was a vile Victorian surgeon who conducted inhuman illegal experiments. On his way to New York City to conduct research on the Freudstein home, Norman drops by the library and finds a cassette tape of his ex-collegue Peterson discussing how Dr. Freudstein committed familicide, ultimately killing his entire family. When babysitter Ann goes in the cellar to look for Bob, she has her throat slit and head decapitated by the monster Freudstein, which the little boy witnesses the end of, but cannot convince his mother Lucy that it really happened. Determined to take matters into his own hands, little Bob returns to the cellar from hell to look for his babysitter Ann and in no time, his mother Lucy hears the boy crying with terror from the basement. Although Lucy cannot seem to get the cellar door open, Norman inevitably comes home and takes an axe to the basement door. When Norman finally enters the cellar, he finds corpse-like monster-mummy-zombie Freudstein (Giovanni De Nava), who is over 150-years-old and uses his victims’ body parts to regenerate his rapidly degenerate blood cells, grabbing Bob by the face, so he cuts off the ghastly ghoul's arm and the undead being scampers away like a hobo cripple. After Norman once again attempts to attack Freudstein with the axe, the reanimated corpse manages to take the weapon away and before Mr. Boyle knows it, his throat is ripped out. Lucy and Bob attempt to make a getaway via a ladder leading to Freudstein’s tomb upstairs, but the hysterical mother does not have enough strength to move the gravestone and she ultimately dies when Dr. Zombie rams her down on each step as her corpse falls to the cellar floor. Magically, Bob manages to escape when he is randomly yanked from the ladder to the upstairs floor where he is greeted by his little girlfriend Mae. Mae’s mother Mary Freudstein urges the two children to leave and Bob enters ‘the beyond,’ thus become an adopted member of the prestigious Freudstein family as an inhabitant of a nefarious netherworld of melancholy, mayhem, and misanthropic phantasms. 

 While the setting is all wrong (post-WWII Vienna would be the ideal place), The House by the Cemetery is especially interesting, at least to an anti-Freudian like myself, due to its inclusion of a grotesque zombie doctor known for a murderous sort of malpractice as the archfiend villain, as if he is an undead Sigmund Freud who has set to destroy children and families with his debauched alien ideas. Considering the lack of political correctness in his films, I do not think it would be going too far to suggest that Fulci and his co-writers, Giorgio Mariuzzo and Dardano Sacchetti, intentionally sought out to use the name of Freud as a symbol of derangement and depravity because, like the theories of the hostile Hebraic psychoanalyst, Freudstein undermines traditional culture as a pernicious parasite who lives off the health of normal families. Of course, Sigmund Freud’s theories have gone on to become parts of mainstream culture and vocabulary, with stereotypical Freudian sexual innuendos even appearing in children’s films like Shrek (2001) and subconscious psychoanalytic techniques being used in advertising and ‘public opinion forming’ (aka propaganda) since his nephew Edward Bernays began working for President Woodrow Wilson during World War I. Interestingly, Bernays died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is just north of where The House by the Cemetery was set, thus one could argue that it is the very first anti-psychoanalytic horror flick. Ironically, like what Bernays did when implementing his propaganda (i.e. manipulating the goys), The House by the Cemetery, not unlike virtually all horror films, albeit to a more audacious extent, is a work that exploits the innate irrationality and ‘herd instincts’ of the viewer, as a work that ultimately stirs man’s most archaic emotions. A totally tasteless yet sleekly stylized work that wallows in spectacle and negates narrative, The House by the Cemetery—in its mystification of monsters and morbid metaphysical horror—is essentially psychoanalysis in reverse. In describing the ending of the film, Fulci offered the followings insights, “…what is to me the most tragic thing in The House by the Cemetery is not the people who die, but that little girl who opens for her young friend the gates to the world of the dead, and saves him from normality (i.e. from the monster who killed the boy’s parents), but also plunged him into the Beyond.” And, indeed, The House by the Cemetery concludes much like The Beyond, where the lead protagonists are not brutally butchered like their dismembered compatriots, but suffer a much more sinister and soul-stirring fate where they are plunged into a sort of pandemonium of nothingness and necromancy in what amounts to hell everlasting. Not unlike his early atypical giallo Don't Torture a Duckling (1972) aka Non si sevizia un paperino, The House by the Cemetery is a children’s horror flick made for adults, so it should be no surprise the film concludes with the Henry James quote, “no one will ever know whether children are monsters or monsters are children.” Ultimately, The House by the Cemetery is a film about the loss of childhood innocence, which considering the director's Catholic upbringing and seemingly contradictory cinematic output, demonstrates that Lucio Fulci was a hopeless romantic who sought tirelessly to once again obtain something he lost long ago. As somewhat farcically depicted in his rather reflexive work A Cat in the Brain (1990) aka Un gatto nel cervello, it seems that no one was more horrified by the films of Lucio Fulci than Lucio Fulci, a filmmaker who started making copies but ultimately ended up churning out some of the most grotesque horror films ever made, thereupon epitomizing the overused Nietzsche aphorism, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”

-Ty E

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