Turner Classic Movies
House By The Cemetery, The
Written by A.J. Hakari   




The casual acquaintance that pictures like 1981's The House by the Cemetery share with reality will forever be a make-or-break point with potential viewers. From giallo chillers to zombie gorefests, much of Italy's horror is renowned for favoring style over narratives following an already flimsy logical progression. Whether mood alone is enough to excuse certain plot quirks is all in the beholder's peepers, but from my experience, such inconsistencies tend to feast on one’s patience like spiders on a freshly-exhumed cadaver.


In spite of this, I still gave The House by the Cemetery – starring Katherine MacColl and Paolo Malco – the old college try, with my findings admittedly yielding more evocative photography and potent incorporation of gut-churning special effects than first expected. Fort sure enough the film’s overall lack of concern for just how it’s story treads from A to B becomes its own worst enemy, leaving us too frustrated to enjoy what are positioned as its most haunting pleasures.


Cath Mccall


Strange were the circumstances that summoned the Boyle family to a secluded old house in small-town Massachusetts. After its previous resident apparently murdered his mistress before taking his own life, Professor Norman (Malco) is assigned to carry on his research about the joint. Along for the six-month stay are his wife Lucy (MacColl) and young son Bob (Giovanni Frezza), but the bunch hasn’t even a chance to fully unpack before they’re beset by eerie happenings.



The new housekeeper (Ania Pieroni) constantly casts peculiar glares, Lucy is hounded by unearthly wails coming from the walls, and all the townsfolk swear that newcomer Norman has been there before. Not even little Bob is safe, for he’s soon visited by a ghostly girl (Silvia Collatina) who warns him to get out of the house as fast as possible. Death and despair have moved in with the Boyles, and the closer they get to the truth behind what’s going on, the more swiftly they begin to seal their own horrible fates.


This film wrapped up director Lucio Fulci’s unofficial “Gates of Hell” trilogy, which got underway with 1980’s City of the Living Dead and continued with cult favorite The Beyond months earlier. As with those productions, Fulci takes to the viewer’s gag reflex here like it owes him money, through a series of bloody and goopy set pieces that probably made some corn-syrup manufacturer very happy.

But along with this film’s reduced emphasis on fantasy (in comparison to its totally gonzo brothers) comes a more grounded sense of atmosphere and greater restraint in terms of the gore.

It’s odd to say so about something that opens up with a woman getting knifed through the noggin, but The House by the Cemetery is a fairly slow, methodical burn in regards to how it establishes tension.



 Fulci draws out the horror that descends upon the Boyles, combining the spilled entrails, haunting cinematography, and petrifying sound design to craft a truly maddening aura (one shot of MacColl shrieking as unearthly moans surround her is downright spook central). He knows just what sort of effect he wants to make and when he wants to make it, but therein lies the picture’s greatest fault.

Although creepy in the moment, the abrupt nature in which many of its shocks are delivered and the abundance of pointless narrative detours they inspire gradually wears on we the audience, discouraging us from wanting to further delve into what’s an otherwise freaky and intimate world.


For Italian horror aficionados, stories not adding up is par for the course, but because The House by the Cemetery can so expertly place viewers on edge, there’s usually so little payoff to its efforts ensures they don’t stick there for very long. How come everyone in town already knows who Norman is, why Pieroni’s character acts so suspiciously, or even something as simple as what’s behind those glowing eyes in the basement, are a few of the concepts apparently beyond this movie’s capacity to explain in a remotely satisfactory manner. Things get to a point of seeming less intentionally vague or mysterious and more likely that Fulci chucked onto the screen and just as instantaneously abandoned any weird idea that came to mind, rendering the flick a nonsensical gauntlet too aggressive to ignore or forgive.
The House by the Cemetery’s ensemble isn’t the biggest boon to the production either, with both the actors and the folks who dubbed them stranded in a listless limbo for the lion’s share of the running time. MacColl comes through with a mostly expressive and suitably terrified performance as Lucy. Malco’s Norman is a blank slate, while Frezza and his American voice actor feel as though they’d joined forces specifically to make Bob a character one actively roots to see trapped in evil’s clutches. Remaining performers are around to be eventually dispatched by some off-screen ghoul, although the mutilations they endure as they make their exits are at the very least memorably grisly.
If my lukewarm reception to Dario Argento’s body of work wasn’t enough evidence sense I’m not really an Italian horror guy, it doesn’t mean what value stuff like The House by the Cemetery might wield is lost on me. For all of its script-related failings, it succeeds as frequently on a visceral level, transfixing us with screams on the soundtrack and maggoty sludge shoved through corpses where more high-end features failed to with high-fluting’ production values. Though continuing to chase down similar films in the hopes of finding one that breaks through to me can sometimes feel like a fool’s errand. Coming close with a ditty such as The House by the Cemetery is enough to goad on the pursuit just a little bit longer.
Director: Lucio Fulci
Writers: Screenplay; Lucio Fulci, Giorgio Mariuzzo, Dardano Sacchetti Story; Elisa Livia Briganti)
Cast: Katherine MacColl, Paolo Malco, Giovanni Frezza, Ania Pieroni, Silvia Collatina, Dagmar Lassander
Rating: Unrated: (intense violence, nudity)
Classic Movie Guide Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Run Time: 86 minutes
Studio: Almi Pictures



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