“No one will ever know whether children are monsters or monsters are children.”
This quote, which appears at the end of Lucio Fulci’s cinematic gorefest, The House by the Cemetery, is there (mis)attributed to Henry James. As far as I can tell, Fulci dreamt the quote up himself. Why he would want James to take credit or blame for this spooky little stab at aphorism, I don’t know. What it has to do with The House by the Cemetery is only slightly less obscure. Fulci has said, while being interviewed about The House by the Cemetery and its sibling The Beyond, “My idea was to make an absolute film...There’s no logic to it, just a succession of images.”
But this isn't avant-garde. It’s horror. And while Fulci’s disclaimer may absolve him and the other screenwriters from a host of continuity sins, there really is something approaching a coherent story in The House by the Cemetery. I’d like to think the plot holes are, at least some of them, clever misdirection that add to the movie’s inarguably unsettling atmosphere. Regardless, the images here are fantastic. I don’t have the stomach for the sort of gore that Fulci obviously delights in. But, damn! This guy knows what to do with a camera!
The House by the Cemetery is ostensibly about Dr. Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco), a glasses wearing, bearded academic of indeterminate intellectual interests who has a beautiful and appropriately frazzled young wife named Lucy (Catriona MacColl) and a creepy little snaggle-toothed moppet of a son named Bob (Giovanni Frezza). Norman’s mentor, Dr. Peterson, has recently gone bonkers, murdering his mistress and killing himself. (Or has he?)
For reasons not forthcoming, Dr. Peterson's death means that Norman, Lucy, and Bob will be moving from New York City to a sleepy suburb of Boston, into the same super-creepy Victorian house where Peterson was living, so that Bob can carry on with the former doctor's research. What was the good doctor studying, you ask? Suicide, of course. Except that Peterson’s otherwise nebulous research had gotten sidetracked, and he was instead spending his time investigating one Dr. Freudstein, a “turn of the century surgeon who had a certain penchant for illegal experiments.”
Unfortunately, we’re not talking about testing psilocybin in the effective treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Freudstein was more interested in disassembling live human bodies, like a retrograde Dr. Frankenstein. And apparently he too used to live in the dark, dusty, creaky, angular old mess of a house where Peterson lived and where Norman and family are now living.
Naturally, there’s more to it than that. Bob has premonitions of evil even before leaving New York, not unlike Danny Torrance in The Shining. (Actually, there’s a long list of minor details that The House by the Cemetery shares with The Shining.) Bob also has a young friend who may or may not exist but who is definitely warning him not to go into that damned house. (Again, like The Shining, leaning very hard on that old horror trope, children as savants of the supernatural.) Then there’s Ann, the babysitter, who may or may not be completely evil and/or in some sort of secret pact with Norman. And there’s also a boarded up basement door, concealing a sadistic bloodthirsty monster (who is at least nice enough to clean up after him or herself).
The movie is full of plot details that go nowhere fruitful and visual cues that lead you in directions that don’t pan out. Maybe this is sloppy screenwriting or poor directing. Whatever the case, even this contributes to its genuinely unnerving quality. But the credit for that should really go to two other things: the excellent score by Walter Rizzati – like an extended fantasia on Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, only on synth and with a rhythm section, that is, when it’s not nerve-wracking chromatic/atonal noise – and also to the fantastic visuals, which we can attribute to Fulci’s direction, the cinematography of Sergio Salvati, and editing by Vincenzo Tomassi.
When no one’s being stabbed to death or hacked to pieces, blood splashing and oozing and gushing everywhere, The House by the Cemetery is an absolute pleasure to look at. Slow, smooth camera movements are typical, punctuated by a slew of intense close-ups – man, Fulci is obsessed with eyes – what I can only call shock/reaction track-in shots – there must be a name for this, it’s so typical of classic Italian cinema and this sort of horror in general – and the occasional lightning fast rack focus shot. Extreme high and low angles also help to unsettle from time to time. All of this is brought together surprisingly well to tell the story in a thoroughly visual, and thoroughly disturbing, way.
I wish I had it in me (late on a Friday afternoon) to write a few thousand words about The House by the Cemetery so that I had a good excuse to include the thirty or so images I collected. I guess I’ll just have to include a mess of them anyway.