I’ve often equated watching the best of Lucio Fulci’s horror films with being buried alive in a cemetery after dark. They’re that hopeless, that claustrophobic, that suffocating. They’re fiercely nihilistic and overwhelmingly nightmarish. And, best of all, they positively reek of rot. The stench of decay and deterioration practically wafts right through the screen and up your nostrils. Me? I can smell the stink of the desiccated Dr. Freudstein as he lumbers malevolently toward me every time I watch House By The Cemetery, and oh what a sweet, sweet stink it is.
Many films depict death. Horror films practically depend on graphic depictions of outlandish death scenes for their very survival. It’s the genre’s bread and butter. But few filmmakers deal with death as does Fulci. He doesn’t just depict death. Oh sure, we’re all familiar with the maestro’s infamous indulgences in the splattery excesses of extreme gore. Frankly, Fulci fetishized onscreen death in a truly intense way, and the visual violence he imprinted onto celluloid is, if you ask me, pound for pound the best in the genre. But a mere blood-and-guts prodigy is not all Fulci was, and the ol’ splinter-in-the-eyeball gag is not the alpha and omega of Fulci’s death fetish. Plainly speaking, the man was downright obsessed with death. He was fascinated with it as a concept, and the finest of his horror works can be viewed as misanthropic meditations on the inevitable end of life, as well as the various philosophies and theologies that have been applied to what comes (or does not come) afterward.
Though not Fulci’s best film (while many will happily sing the praises of The Beyond, it is my contention that The Gates Of Hell remains the man’s true masterpiece) and certainly not the one in which his death fetish was at its most crystalline (that would be 1991’s Door Into Silence), the 1981 ghosts-and-ghouls shocker House By The Cemetery nevertheless has, from top to bottom, everything a Fulci flick needs to achieve genuine greatness. Simply speaking, it’s hopeless, claustrophobic, suffocating, nihilistic, nightmarish, and it reeks of rot. Oh, and it’s also dripping with the red stuff.
If Gates Of Hell is number one in my book (and it is), then I must admit that House By The Cemetery is undoubtedly number two. But it’s a close race.
Another entry in Fulci’s “7 Doors Of Death” trilogy (alongside The Beyond and The Gates Of Hell), House By The Cemetery focuses on yet another godforsaken location unlucky enough to be constructed atop one of this world’s seven mystical gateways to the netherworld. In this case, a house. Specifically, the one-time abode of one Dr. Jacob Freudstein, a turn-of-the-century surgeon with a tenancy toward immoral human experimentation. Hey, we all have our little quirks. Seems in the case of the old Doc, however, such “quirks” led to madness and murder. But, of course, this was all so long ago. Surely the devilish Doctor now lies passively putrefying in a grave somewhere, right?
Hmmm. Maybe. Maybe not. Whatever the case may be, the unholy misdeeds unleashed by the fearsome Freudstein seem to have polluted the very house in which they occurred, and a long history of horrors awaits anyone foolish enough to move into the damned place.
Even more so than The Beyond, House By The Cemetery is Fulci making good on his desire to do a classic haunted house movie. It’s a lonely, lamentful, craftily creepy, and sweetly suspenseful ghost story given a touch (or more) of the patented Fulci flair as well as a whopping fuckload of gruesome gross-eries of both the pus-dripping crumblin’ cadaver and viscera-grinding bloodbath varieties.
Like any of Fulci’s masterworks, the greatest strength of House By The Cemetery is its oodles ‘n’ oodles of grim atmosphere. There’s plenty of powerful imagery to be seen as well, not the least of which is the design of the deadly Doc himself. It merits mention that the moldy, basement-dwelling, butt-ugly freakazoid Freudstein clearly served as the inspiration for the House Of 1000 Corpses iteration of Rob Zombie’s “Dr. Satan” character.
Working in tandem with Fulci’s atmosphere and visuals is the score by Walter Rizatti. Admittedly, it’s not quite as strong as those of more celebrated Italian composers a la’ Fabio Frizzi, Ennio Morricone, or Claudio Simonetti. But it is nonetheless appropriately oozing with doom and gloom. Especially worth noting is the synthy gothic church organ bone-chiller “I Remember,” which is just as effective as the “Voice Of Nothing” cut from Fabio Frizzi’s score for The Beyond or “Apoteosi Del Mistero” from Gates Of Hell.
Not all is perfect here, mind you. The dubbing is atrocious, even for an Italian horror flick, and the child character of Bob (a blatant rip-off of the “Danny” character from The Shining) might just be the most irritating kid in cinema history. And that’s saying something. Still, Fulci’s strengths far outnumber his flaws (at least in this particular effort, …I can’t say anything for, say, Conquest).
With its unique blend of Victorian spook yarn style, Lovecraftian dread, and Judeo-Christian theology, this is by far one of Fulci’s most complex creations. House By The Cemetery is, furthermore, absolutely awash with both sadness and cruelty in roughly equal amounts. It deals with themes such as family, insanity, perversion, surgical addiction, the line between science and occultism, the afterlife, and reincarnation. There is also much subtext about psychology and duality, and the question is raised: Is Freudstein really what he appears on the surface to be, or… is he a manifestation of young Bob’s own damaged psyche? Perhaps the character is some manner of projection of Bob’s inner darkness. What exactly is the nature of their relationship? Is it symbiotic, parasitic, or self-destructive? The quote that ends the film seems to tie the whole story up nicely, but it still leaves enough room for ambiguity. How much of House By The Cemetery is a ghost story, how much is a fairy tale, and how much is figurative abstraction? The first half of Freudstein’s Frankenstein-inspired surname, “Freud,” is particularly worthy of mention here.
No doubt, House By The Cemetery is a challenging film. It exploits both childhood fears (here, the bogeyman in the basement is made real) and their evolved adult counterparts (said bogeyman mirrors Jung’s “shadow”). Furthermore, the picture asks more questions than it answers, all in an attempt to push its audience members to come to their own conclusions, to use their brains and make their own assessments. That alone ostracizes a large market of movie-goers who view cinema solely as popcorn escapism, and go into the multiplex not to expand their minds but to shut them off. Where some see touches of dream-logic surrealism and Freud and Jung-derived symbolism, other see only plot holes and narrative eccentricities. Its why, to this day, Lucio Fulci remains a cult figure, a grossly underrated filmmaker often unfairly written off as little more than a splatter-sick schlockmeister. Personally, if you ask me, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with popcorn escapism or splattery schlock. But Fulci deserves more than that. He deserves to be placed on the same pedestal as similarly twisted surrealist auteurs as Alejanro Jodorowsky and Jan Svankmajer. House By The Cemetery is proof of that.
More than anything, though, House By The Cemetery is proof of Fulci’s greatest talent of all. That is, his ability to bury you alive, leave you gasping ’til death, let the worms and maggots feast on your flesh, and somehow make you love every morbid minute of it.
Like his Dr. Freudstein, Fulci lives. Forever.
Everyone else… has to die.
– Wilhelm Screem, The Werewolf Of The Comic Shop
Tags: Italian Week