I was planning from the beginning of this Halloween Binge to watch the two films I’d not seen in the highly thought of trifecta of Lucio Fulci horror films. I watched The Beyond last year, and City of the Living Dead this year, but there was no way I was going to wait another year to watch The House by the Cemetery. Lucio Fulci has become a steadfast favourite of mine, so I was not passing this one up. Along with those other two, it makes up the unofficial Gates of Hell trilogy. I was hoping it would stand up next to the other two – that would’ve been enough of a reward.
The movie came out in 1981 and stars a handful of repeat performers. Most notable is probably Catriona MacColl, who was in both of the other Gates of Hell films. It also features New York and more rural areas, like many of Fulci’s films, as well as a spooky house, a lot like The Beyond. With all that, I was worried The House by the Cemetery ran the risk of being very similar to the past films. I like the other films enough that some similarities wouldn’t have completely ruined the film for me, not by any stretch; it just might have made the film a shade less interesting.
Luckily enough, this film actually stands out from all the other Lucio Fulci films I’ve ever seen, in quite a few key ways. The most obvious difference is the complete lack of zombies. There’s not a single undead menace in the whole film, which I really did not expect. There’s one monster, and he follows some zombie-like rules, but there’s no menacing horde of zombies to be seen in The House by the Cemetery. Which is kind of exciting on paper, after all this is a follow up to The Beyond, a film Fulci hadn’t planned to put zombies in.
The House by the Cemetery also differs from the other films in that it features a family. In fact a lot of this movie’s runtime revolves around two children, one who’s a member of the chief family, and one who can communicate telepathically. Which brings us to another thing that makes The House by the Cemetery stand out from the rest of the Gates of Hell trilogy. The House by the Cemetery is one of the least supernatural Fulci movies I’ve seen, which might seem like an odd statement without some context.
So the movie starts with a classic horror film scene – two teenagers making out in an isolated location. Or at least it’s implied that’s what happened. We actually open with a woman putting her top back on before wandering through a decrepit house calling out her boyfriend’s name. When she finds her boyfriend he’s very dead, at which point she gets stabbed in the back of the head with such force the tip of the blade comes out of her mouth. Then we meet a family moving from New York to an old house outside of Boston. The reason being that Norman is taking up the work of a scientist he knew who was set-up here. The scientist in question was studying a few morbid topics and eventually killed himself. They move into the old house he was living in, and hire a mysterious nanny for their kid. There are clues things aren’t right from the get go. The young kid claims a girl has been warning him not to go in the house since before they moved. The girl lives in Boston and seems equal parts panicked and disinterested in the proceedings. At one point she sees a mannequin that looks exactly like the family’s new nanny in a store window. The mannequin’s head falls off in a puddle of blood and viscera, which is surely an ill omen. The family discovers that the house they’ve moved into was owned by a masochistic surgeon named Dr. Freudstein (awesome name). Of course Freudstein has successfully kept himself alive all these years by murdering people and using them as a source of replacement body parts. And he still lives in their basement.
So other than the psychic kid there’s not really much that’s supernatural about this film. All the gore comes from Freudstein, who’s technically a scientifically created menace. The only other danger in the whole film is a bat, which isn’t exactly the most fantastical menace. One of Lucio Fulci’s greatest talents is imbuing his films with a very unique take on the supernatural. The atmosphere he crafts is rather unlike anything else out there, and it’s a little disappointing that The House by the Cemetery completely eschews this tone (most of the time) for such a physical and literal menace.
That, and this film has some of the least exciting gore of any Lucio Fulci movie I’ve seen. There are a few good moments, like one character getting decapitated and Freudstein bleeding maggots, but they feel few and far between. There’s definitely nothing on the level of The Beyond, or City of the Living Dead. There’s not even a fabulous eye-wound like there is in Zombi 2. The gore and scares in this film don’t feel nearly as prominent as his past works, in part because of how long he saves the Freudstein reveal for. By the time the family (and the audience) actually sees Freudstein, the film is already over.
The film does have one of those fabulous Lucio Fulci endings. It’s almost a Lovecraftian ending – a twist combined with a pessimistic note. Excitingly this time it makes sense, as opposed to City of the Living Dead. Still though, the film is missing a whole lot of other Lucio Fulci trademarks, which is a real shame. It leaves The House by the Cemetery sadly low on my Fulci rankings. Indeed it’s probably my least favourite Fulci so far, it still has its moments, but not nearly as many as his other films.