Retro Review: ‘House by the Cemetery’

In this Retro Review we will be looking the 1981 flick House by the Cemetery, one of the most memorable films of Italian horror master Lucio Fulci. This was to be the filmmakers foray into Lovecraftian horror without actually adapting an HP Lovecraft story. To that end he took his crew to the northeast United States where this particular style of horror is synonymous. Pulling inspiration from a number of classic gothic sources and putting a fresh spin on them, the legendary director created a movie which has become a major fan favorite.

Norman and Lucy Boyle along with their poorly dubbed son Bob, move into a large New England house neighboring a cemetery. It is your standard gothic spooky house complete with a tomb in the hall for a previous owner, Dr. Freudstein (they claim it’s common for old New England houses to have people interred in them. As someone who has lived in the South all my life I’ll take their word for it). One peculiarity in the house is the basement door is solidly locked. Over the course of the film, this door does open and those unfortunate enough to be there when it happens meet a grizzly fate. Bob seems to know something is going on thanks to his ghost (???) friend he makes Mae. Soon enough his parents learn the truth that Dr. Freudstein is still alive and using their basement to unnaturally prolong his life, becoming a horrific monster in the process.

Those hoping for a concise and logical narrative will sadly be out of luck with House by the Cemetery. Fulci prefers to give audiences a trippy nightmare drenched in atmosphere. There are countless plot elements which make no logical sense but taken as part of the overall picture the results are quite effective. It is almost like Lucio Fulci had in mind the scary and intense moments he wanted and used the thinnest of plot threads to reach each of them. There are times this works against House by the Cemetery as it makes the characters come off as incredibly dense. At one point, the family’s matriarch, Lucy comes downstairs and sees the housekeeper Ann wiping up a messy streak of blood and viscera which leads directly to the locked basement door. But the topic of conversation is the fact that the housekeeper had made a fresh pot of coffee. That being said the horror elements of this film is where it truly shines. The sets are a dreary and gloriously gothic taking full advantage of the bleak atmosphere shooting on location provides. Add to that the fact that Freudstein uses the sound of a child crying to lure victims and it all becomes quite unnerving. Aside from Fulci, the hero of this film is make-up artist Maurizio Trani. His work here is absolutely gruesome and violent, going right up to the border of “overboard” but never crossing it leaving a trail of movie violence that is top-notch. The design of Dr. Freudstein in particular is striking, as a creature where every element which was human has faded and all that is left is a monster living off of victims he savagely hacks to pieces.

While financially successful, a movie this violent naturally could not escape censors as there exists cuts of this film where some of the more macabre moments were left on the cutting room floor. Luckily nowadays the full cut of the film is readily available. For the horror set House by the Cemetery has become a favorite and for many (myself included) this movie served as their introduction to the world of Italian horror.