Title: House by the Cemetery (1981)
Director: Lucio Fulci
Cast: Catriona McColl, Giovanni Frezza
This is the third and final film of the “Gates of Hell” trilogy, which is composed of City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981) and the film I will be reviewing today House by the Cemetery. The idea behind calling these three films the ‘Gates of Hell Trilogy' is to unite these similarly themed films that deal with magical books that open the Gates to Hell. The books presented to us in these films talk about a doomsday scenario where evil conquers the planet and humanity pays for their sins, not unlike the bible. An interesting fact is that House by the Cemetery has nothing to do with any of that. There are no magical books; there is no gate of hell and the earth isn’t in peril as in the previous two films. I guess symbolically speaking, the family in this film does open the door to hell when they decide to finally go down to the cellar of their new home, unleashing another kind of hell upon themselves, but that’s stretching it. What really unites all these three movies is actress Catriona McColl, who stars in all three of them as the main character.
In House by the Cemetery we meet the Boyle family as they are headed towards their new home in
New England. The father, one Dr. Normal Boyle is moving there to continue the research of a colleague of his that used to live there but for some mysterious reason ended up committing suicide. The little boy in the family ‘Bob’ keeps getting these visions that warn him not to go to ‘ ’. But of course, nobody listens to the little kid and so the family moves in anyways. Once they get there, they notice one odd thing about the house: the cellar door doesn’t open. For some reason it is absolutely shut down. Nobody pays much mind to this detail; they figure they’ll eventually get to it. No big hurry. Yet the cellar does hold a mystery to it. What is making all those weird noises in the middle of the night? Oak Mansion
What House by the Cemetery does right is that it builds up the mystery surrounding the cellar. Just what is down there? If there’s one thing that Fulci did well in his films it’s the way he used ambiance and atmosphere. The house looks appropriately spooky, there are a lot of noises in the night, things move about the shadows, mysterious disembodied eyes peer at you from the velvet darkness. The house does have a cemetery near it, in accordance to the films title, heck we even have a tomb inside of the house! This is all great stuff, and the gore, boy the gore is awesome on this one. There are some truly grizzly deaths on display in House by the Cemetery! The gore is so plentiful and graphic on this one that it was heavily edited on many countries; as a result, there are various cuts of this film out there. The most complete one is the Anchorbay release which includes all of the gory goodness from the original cut of the film.
The problem for me with this movie is that a lot of the things that happen don’t really make sense, or happen simply for shock value, not because they have anything to do with the story whatsoever, this was a common thing in Fulci films. For example, one scene has a giant vampire bat attacking Dr. Boyle! The bat leaps out of the darkness and bites him on the hand. Apparently, these bats have one hell of a bite! When he is unsuccessful in getting the bat to let go of his hand, he gets a pair of scissors and stabs the bat to death, blood splurts everywhere and great, we have a shocking moment! But that’s it. That’s all it is. There’s no story development behind the bat. It tells us nothing! Great moment; but an empty one at that. Yeah, it’s exciting, it’s gory, and you probably won’t forget it, but moments later you are left wondering “why did that happen?” This will go on all the way to the films final frames.
Another nonsensical scene has a terribly bloody murder committed on the living room floor, lot’s of blood gets spilled all over the place, a bloody carcass is carried all around the living room and kitchen floor leaving streaks of blood all over the house. The next morning, we see the nanny mopping up the blood as if it was nothing. The lady of the house doesn’t notice these buckets of blood spilled on the floor, she simply goes on with her business and makes herself some coffee. What the hell?! Wouldn’t the nanny find all the blood spilled a tad bit suspicious? I mean, suspicious enough to notify her employers? But no, nobody gives a damn, nobody notices. Its little details like these that take you out of the movie, suddenly, your suspension of disbelief is in peril. But this doesn’t surprise me coming from Fulci, many of his films have nonsensical elements about them, sometimes they come off as mysterious and ominous, other times they come off as lazy storytelling.
Ultimately though, the film works. It is not Fulci’s best film, but it certainly is one of his good ones. At times it feels like a haunted house story, a ghost story, and at others it simply feels like a monster movie. What I love the most about Fulci’s horror films is that he really tries his best to freak us out. Nothing might be happening on screen, but the mystery is in the music, the noises, the spooky lighting, the actress suddenly screaming her lungs off out of pure fright. It’s the little buttons that Fulci pushes in our psyche that makes it all work, and ultimately, that’s what I enjoy about a Fulci horror film.
Rating: 3 ½ out of 5