The Smell of the Rooms Terrifies Me – and Lures Me On: The House by the Cemetery on Blu-ray

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  • “How many have wandered innocently into the waiting spider web? How many more are doomed to follow?”

    The first time – of the two times, now – that I watched Lucio Fulci’s House by the Cemetery was nearly half-a-decade ago. I was doing a series of columns called Creature Feature Conversations that I actually miss writing, where author/publisher Jonathan Raab and I would watch some (often B-list) creature feature and Jonathan picked this weird, slow-mo nightmare of a movie.

    In the back-and-forth that ensued, we said a lot about House by the Cemetery, some of which I’m going to reiterate here. Like the fact that it is the original source of two samples from the Skinny Puppy song “Rivers,” or my note that, “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.”

    At the time, I had seen exactly one other Lucio Fulci movie. At this point I think that number is all the way up to…two? But Aenigma and City of the Living Dead are on my list, not to worry!

    Another author friend, Jeremiah Tolbert, once described the gore style of Lucio Fulci as, and I am paraphrasing here, “like someone stapled a piece of rotted mutton to a mannequin.” And that’s…surprisingly apt? Enough so that I have since repeated it pretty much every time I’ve ever written about Fulci.

    And that aesthetic bleeds from these movies into other Italian movies of the same era – or vice versa. House by the Cemetery and Ghosthouse have more in common than just exteriors shot at the Ellis Estate in Scituate, Massachusetts, for example, in spite of the latter being directed by Umberto Lenzi instead of Lucio Fulci.

    Like those films, to say that House by the Cemetery doesn’t make a ton of sense is to engage in the worst kind of understatement. It didn’t make a lot of sense the first time I watched it, and a second viewing did little to clear the cobwebs. But that’s also somewhat beside the point. This is a film that revels in its cobwebs.

    If Suspiria is, perhaps, the best example I’ve yet found of a movie that would be worse if it was any better – a film that takes its own weaknesses and flaws and transmutes them, likely entirely by accident, into something transcendently powerful – then House by the Cemetery is its equal and not-quite-opposite reaction, a Frankenstein’s monster of a picture seemingly made up of everything that the filmmakers could think of.

    Like the film’s Dr. Freudstein – perhaps the most suggestively named monster of all time – House by the Cemetery is a collection of ill-fitting parts that don’t exactly fit well together. But, like Freudstein, they don’t have to fit well to be effective.

    What the hell is/was Freudstein researching down in the basement? For that matter, what are the researches that bring his victims into his web? We hear that our ostensible protagonist is there to pick up the work of his dead colleague researching suicides – but to what end, for what purpose? Why does everyone in town insist that the male lead has been there before, with a daughter he doesn’t have?

    The film never really answers these questions, but it leaves them laying out suggestively enough that we feel like the answers are there, somewhere, even if it didn’t deign to provide them.

    What it does provide are all sorts of weird trappings. There’s an old dark house with a spooky history (and a tomb in the floor) that everyone in town knows to avoid. (“This isn’t New York,” our Extremely Understanding male lead tells his wife when she discovers the tomb. “Most of the old houses in the area have tombs in them.” Yeah, guy, not buying it.)

    There’s plenty of cobwebs and mutton-on-mannequin gore and the eponymous cemetery, which comes right up to the front yard of the house. When the realtor is finished showing it to them and is driving away, she backs into one of the headstones.

    Of course, there’s a precocious kid with Shining-like premonitions and the most annoying dubbed voice in the world, who encounters a possibly ghostly girl. There’s a delightfully Castlevania-y score by Walter Rizzati. There’s even a rubber bat, which leads to the goriest bat murder in film history. For real, that bat had to be, like, 250% blood by volume.

    In that earlier Creature Feature Conversation, I had a note about the sinister babysitter (because of course there’s one of those) cleaning up the blood from one of Dr. Freudstein’s kills that said, “Everyone is weirdly okay with this huge smear of blood on the floor! Do they all just assume it’s from the gore bat?”

    (Gore Bat, incidentally, is the name of my horror-themed thrash metal band.)

    While doing the prep work to write this piece, I read another review of the new Blue Underground Blu-ray, which opened with, “I don’t like horror movies.” If you, also, don’t like horror movies, House by the Cemetery isn’t the flick that’s going to change your mind.

    In fact, to appreciate House, you need to appreciate an increasingly small niche of horror movies – the borderline-nonsensical Italian horror films of the ‘80s, which are remembered for their maggoty gore, but which appeal to me for their haunting and often oppressive atmosphere of weird menace.

    House by the Cemetery is neither the best nor the worst example of the breed, but it’s a fairly representative one. If you don’t have the patience for its singular charms, it won’t win you over. If you do, though, the new Blu-ray is a welcome addition, complete with some nice behind-the-scenes features and, as with all the recent Blue Underground releases, a soundtrack CD.

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