Updated: Jun 6, 2020
Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.
The House by the Cemetery (1981, directed by Lucio Fulci)
With guest reviewer Orrin Grey
JR: This is the second time I’ve seen this film all the way through. I watched it a couple of years ago when I first started getting into Italian horror, and I just bought a few Fulci films on a lark. Although I consider this one of the lesser films from Fulci’s catalog that I’ve seen, it’s still a solidly ridiculous but entertaining flick. How would you explain the plot to someone who’s never seen it?
OG: Badly? Before I get to that, I just need to say that this is only the… let’s see, carry the nine… second Fulci film that I’ve ever seen, the first being probably his most famous, The Beyond, about which I remember almost nothing except that I’m pretty sure it had the same library in it as this movie. Honestly, if I were trying to explain House by the Cemetery to someone who hadn’t seen it, I probably wouldn’t even mention the plot, just tell them that it’s sort of an Italian mash-up of old dark house, giallo, and slasher films and let them draw their own conclusions.
JR: Add in a bit of The Shining family angst/psychic kid stuff, and you’re there. Yes, that looks like the same library from The Beyond, which is a better film all around, although probably less coherent. Fulci’s films have that effect on people: they’re bizarre and straddle the line between brilliant and nonsensical. They’re fever dreams half-remembered upon waking. But I had a similar experience with this one: I remembered almost nothing about it.
So, more or less, the titular house has a grisly history. The family moves into it so the father can do “research” of something or other. His predecessor was having an affair in the house and ended up dead. I’m not sure if that’s him in the beginning of the film hanging from the door, but if it was, that would strike me as mighty suspicious, especially considering his mistress also went missing.
OG: I assumed that was him, but he was also supposed to have hanged himself in the library, according to the Torgo-esque library assistant, so who knows? And yeah, I never could figure out what they were researching either. At one point someone claimed that the previous guy was researching suicide, whatever that means…
This movie was full of things that seemed like they were supposed to be significant, but I don’t know what of. Like the headless mannequin babysitter, who was just constantly super sinister all the time for no reason. Or everyone’s repeated insistence that the father of the family had been there before with his daughter, to which he always reacted in this completely guilty, sketchy manner, even while claiming not to know what they were talking about.
I actually think I liked this one more than The Beyond, thanks pretty much entirely to that aforementioned mash-up quality. Plenty of creaking doors, cobwebs, rubber bats, monster hands, and so on, and that is pretty much my jam.
JR: There was the implication of an affair between the father and the babysitter. I think. Feels like there was a scene or two cut for some reason. I’d say that the ambiguity about the plot and the family dynamic actually helps the film. It disoriented me and sent me looking for clues that never quite materialized, but added to the atmosphere of dread and confusion the film does seem to intentionally cultivate. The plot holes might be accidental, but I can’t say for sure. The implications of adultery and familial strife could be interpreted as one of the film’s central conceits, especially in context of the ending. Dr. Freudstein’s work is obsessive and self-centered, much like the father’s. Both men literally consume their loved ones (and others) in pursuit of the idol of work.
One of the film’s strengths is it setting. The Old Dark House is definitely memorable! It felt claustrophobic and yet expansive, filled with secrets. The rubber bat sequence is a highlight of the film. It alternates between audaciously ridiculous to grotesquely absurd, and goes on far too long, which adds to its charm.
OG: I literally have a note here that says, “Goriest bat murder ever!” That bat seriously contained more blood than its actual physical volume. Also, a later note, from when the sinister babysitter is cleaning up the blood from one of Dr. Freudstein’s kills, reads, “Everyone is really weirdly okay with this huge smear of blood on the floor! Do they all just assume it’s from the gore bat?”
JR: Also, did they seek out that babysitter, or did she just show up? And that was a ton of blood. Also: are tombs in houses really a thing? I loved the idea of it, but it seemed ridiculous. Just like everything else in the film, it seemed a touch off, like there was a bunch of spooky ideas thrown into a hat, and then they “wrote” a “script” based on all of the ideas. That’s why the film works for me, I guess: it’s a Frankenstein monster built out of genre tropes, and it all comes together (sort of) by sheer force of will, stitched together by competent cinematography and production design.
Speaking of monsters, what did you think of Dr. Freudstein?
OG: I loved the tomb in the house (and those very giallo stained-glass windows), but I also completely didn’t believe the guy’s shifty-eyed cover that “all of these old houses around here probably have tombs in them.” Right, guy, not buying it. (They really went to a lot of trouble to imply that he was complicit in what was going on, even though he really didn’t seem to be in any non-symbolic way.)
As for Dr. Freudstein, that is the best/worst name for a monster ever. It sounds like something from Saturday the 14th or Transylvania Twist. But I really dug him. He was way more of a monster than the storyline really needed him to be. I liked his weird smooshed bug face and his one monster hand and that he was just filled with maggots and worms. I also liked that they went ahead and made him overtly supernatural, and that the guy just knew, suddenly, that Dr. Freudstein needed fresh bodies to keep himself alive, somehow. Though I do have a note here that says, “Dude, stop expositing and just chop the damn door down!”
Also, did Dr. Freudstein just make the sound of a child crying most of the time, or was that supposed to be the kid, even though when we saw shots of the kid he clearly wasn’t making those noises, or what? I kinda hope it was supposed to be Freudstein, because it was really creepy!
JR: I’m pretty certain that was Freudstein making those noises, as they pop up throughout the film. I believe the implication is that he had absorbed the essence or organs of a child or children but it’s never explained. This leads to one of the primary issues with the film’s plot: what, exactly, is the nature of his work and research, and those of the follow-on researchers? The fact that “dad” knows what’s going on immediately lends to the idea that he’s in on it, at least partially, but doesn’t explain why he’d bring himself and his family to the mansion to get cut up.
When we delve into the basement during the final scene, all we see is a variety of mutilated bodies and limbs, alongside a bunch of hunting knives, which are not exactly helpful for surgical research. What is the secret Freudstein discovered? He’s got a monster hand (opposite a very feminine hand), a smooshy face, and a bunch of knives. How is he a mad genius?
There’s no attempt at making Freudstein seem like anything other than a monster living in the basement, and the idea that he’s just a monster living in the basement doesn’t exactly make sense, either, considering the space, energy, and effort required to live and hide in such a dwelling. We’re missing a ton of information here.
Also: why is the babysitter trying to pull the boards off the basement door when she first shows up? Why are there boards there in the first place, except to imply that someone knows about the undead man-monster living below? Is the New York Historical Society behind all this? If so, to what end?
What should have been a low-grade slasher is elevated by a number of interesting ideas thrown in (psychic premonition, weird science, adultery, gore-ridden mannequins) that don’t quite pay off, but I can’t help but respect the film for trying.
It does not work as a coherent narrative, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the sum of its parts and nothing more, but its parts are made of some of the finer, more ridiculous tropes the genre has to offer. I recommend this for audiences looking for a little Lynch mixed with their Cunningham.
What say you? What is the film trying to say—if anything at all—and would you recommend it?
OG: Freudstein’s other hand looked to me like a child’s hand, which would support the assumption that he had absorbed some children, and also that he was the one making those crying noises.
And yeah, I took five pages of notes while watching this thing, which I’m pretty sure is four-and-a-half more than the screenwriters were working from, but like a lot of these sorts of movies, it kind of works in spite of not making a lick of sense most of the time. If the film has any grander ambitions, I would probably have to examine it more closely to tease them out, but as an old dark house/giallo/slasher, it works well enough on its own while also throwing out enough WTF moments to make it at least feel like there is more going on.
Would I recommend it? Absolutely, but only to people who’re already at least a little familiar with—and a little bit fans of—some other gialli or similar flicks that are more about style and suggestion that making a whole lot of sense.
Before we go, I have to say that one of the most exciting things for me about watching House by the Cemetery was identifying two samples from the Skinny Puppy song “Rivers.” First the “Did you find anything interesting” exchange, and later, “I’ve lost all critical perspective,” from the recording left behind by the previous researcher. Which, that whole recording seemed like a sample goldmine, and made me wish that I had a techno band: “The smell of the room terrifies me and lures me on…” “Blood! Blood!”
Also, there is a lot of product placement for Fiddle Faddle in this movie. Fiddle Faddle is the J&B Scotch of House by the Cemetery…
Orrin Grey is a skeleton who likes monsters and the author of a number of spooky books. His stories have been published in dozens of anthologies and other venues, including Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year. You can find him online at http://orringrey.com.
Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.