There is genre film and there is, oh heavenly bounty, Italian genre film. Granted, it’s a generalization, but there’s a wonderful tendency to value stylish sensationalism over logic and coherence that sets Italy apart and makes their genre (particularly horror) pictures unique delights.
Lincoln Center’s Midnight Movies series screened Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci’s The House By The Cemetery last Friday. It was an uncut version, though the print was in lousy shape and had Dutch subtitles for some perverse reason. The movie itself was in English, or Englishish (horror movies have other and often far greater priorities than the text), so the Dutch subtitles were alternately funny and distracting rather than an insurmountable obstacle to understanding. Film Comment‘s Gavin Smith, in introductory remarks about Fulci that doubled as a quasi-apologia for the quality and quirkiness of the print, offered the idea that the latter could make the experience of watching the movie a kind of grindhouse experience. While a helpful way to approach the movie itself, experientially that idea was undone by the fact that we were just down the hall from a place that makes (really good) $11 Old Fashioneds. But oh well, you can’t have everything, and the movie’s the important thing anyway.
The concluding installment in Fulci’s Gates of Hell “trilogy” (following the related but not directly connected City of the Living Dead and The Beyond), The House By The Cemetery is part cracked, slightly off-key Lovecraft homage, part ghost story, part balls-to-the-wall gorefest. That last is a smallish part in terms of total screen time, but oh deary dear, when things get violent in this movie they get good and well violent. In its initial release the picture was deemed so violent, in fact, that several seconds of footage from the more grisly murders needed to be trimmed; the movie was even banned in some countries. Even beyond censorship reasons, the cut footage—restored in the print I saw—goes on a bit long; when I checked to see what exactly had been trimmed, the list corresponded exactly with a number of things I’d noted went on for a little too long.
As a whole, The House By The Cemetery stops just short of wearing out its welcome. Its plot—a professor takes his wife and young son with him to stay in a Big Spooky House while researching a mysterious murder-suicide in New England—is standard to the point of being archetypal. But that’s not that the point with this kind of horror movie, in which a handful of grisly murders followed by someone figuring out what’s going on and trying to put a stop to it. The key, story-wise, is to include just enough variation on that template that there’s at least a modest degree of surprise, which standard The House By The Cemetery does reach.
Of greater importance than story, in this picture specifically and the horror genre in general, is atmosphere and tone. Fulci makes sporadically effective use of close-ups, particularly on characters’ eyes, and stages the death scenes well, though the editing is a bit slack in places. Walter Rizzati’s score is (to employ a technical term) awwwwwwwwwwwwesome, though, every bit the classic synth-y 70s-80s Euro-horror soundtrack. It goes a long way toward steering the movie back to creeping dread when it starts to veer off into repetitive time-filling.
Still, The House By The Cemetery is a florid, entertaining genre exercise. The spooky old doctor in whose spooky old house the protagonists are staying being named “Freudstein” is funny, especially considering that the movie is set in New England, though considering the townspeople’s looks one could accurately call it Nuova Inghilterra. All (well, most) kidding aside, these kinds of non-naturalistic elements (like the little kid being named Bob, for another example) remind the audience to suspend their disbelief, as essential an aspect of genre film as a camera. Once on board with the movie, it’s a slowish but engaging blend of several different horror subgenres (ghost story, slasher, even—kind of—zombie) whose highly illogical and entertaining concluding act builds to a surprisingly bleak yet quite satisfying ending.
Judging by Fulci’s reputation—generally held to be, along with Dario Argento and Mario Bava, one of the great masters of Italian horror—The House By The Cemetery is not his best work, but it’s not bad. Not bad at all. Even, maybe especially, with a shabby print with big honking Dutch subtitles, after a tasty cocktail at midnight. Horror, maybe more than any other genre, benefits from being seen with other people, under the right circumstances. Under those circumstances, it’s quite a lot of fun.