Arrow Video have now revisited one of their classic releases and delivered one of Lucio Fulci’s reputation-defining masterpieces in a show-stopping 3-disc extras-packed Blu-ray/DVD combo version -- to be followed later in the month by a limited run Blu-ray special edition. “The House by the Cemetery" seems to be a baffling work that divides many fans of the notorious Italian horror maestro, while those who've never been able to appreciate the unique pleasures of ‘80s Italian Horror in the first place often delight in making it exhibit one in their case against this inimitable director for what they see as his simplistic brand of illogical gross out gore-swamped craziness. The film certainly came at the end of a golden period which furnished the main group of works that would go on to make Fulci's name in the genre: namely, "Zombie 2", "The Beyond" and "City of the Living Dead". But "The House by the Cemetery" shares with the last two classics (alongside which it forms the last part of Fulci’s so-called Gates of Hell Trilogy) the defining presence of beautiful English actress Catriona MacColl, while the elegant visual style, distinctive scoring and the inclusion of those typical Fulci ‘eye’ motifs are as much of a feature here as they ever were. Even so, fans of the film such as I, have to admit to one or two frustrating, sometimes bewildering deficiencies in the execution of this rather unusual and inventive entry in the Fulci zombie oeuvre; down the years though, the strangeness of it all only seems only to add to its mysterious atmosphere.
Researcher Dr Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco), his wife Lucy (Catriona MacColl) and their young son Bob (Giovanni Frezza) leave behind the city bustle of their cramped New York residence for restful Boston in New England, where Boyle is to take up work on a research project originally started by a colleague who inexplicably committed suicide (apparently) after the violent death of his young mistress. The estate agent, Laura Gittleson ('70s Italian gialli starlet, Dagmar Lassander), finds them a beautiful old 19th century shuttered house called Oak Lodge to stay in, isolated in the woods and surrounded by picturesque autumnal New England countryside. This apparently idyllic location soon reveals cracks in the family’s façade as well as apparent cracks in the linearity of time itself: an up-tight and paranoid Lucy seems to suffer from a form of nervous exhaustion and is often encouraged by her problem-avoiding husband simply to take medication, something she would rather not do if possible. The couple's son Bob has a special Shinning-like "gift" which goes unacknowledged by both of his parents and seems to provide him with a telepathic link to a mysterious ghost girl called Mae (Silvia Collatina) whose existence only he is aware of. First encountered in an old Victorian-era photograph, she now has a tendency to appear and disappear again without warning after beseeching Bob to get away from the old house that is now his home as quickly as possible. Dr Boyle meanwhile seems strangely detached from his family, becoming more and more obsessed by a former occupant of the house, the curiously named Dr Joseph Freudstein. It seems the researcher friend of Boyle’s who committed suicide was looking into the work of Freudstein in the local library just before the tragedy that ended his life occurred.
Meanwhile Lucy Boyle is left alone in the odd old house while her husband is away, with only her strange and virtually mute babysitter, Ann (Ania Pieroni), to provide her with company. She starts to become tortured by strange groaning noises, ominous shadows, vivid creaks and objects moving about the house on their own. The fact that Dr Freudstein's dusty grave is actually inside the doorway of the building — in the passageway, under a carpet — hardly helps dispel her growing sense of panic and paranoia. The focus of the strange noises and odd activity seems to be the house's darkened, boarded-up cellar. Something vile and malevolent is in fact lurking down there, and soon the eviscerated bodies are piling up in droves: Mrs Gittleson and Ann meet particularly gruesome ends at the scarred right hand of a zombie-like creature (the left is unmarked and looks like a child’s!), and when young Bob finally ventures down the wooden, cobweb strewn stairs the scene is set for a crescendo of horrors that will see all the family battling for their very lives against something evil, putrid and inexplicable from outside the flow of time.
"The House by the Cemetery" can rightfully claim its place as the last in a quartet of zombie movies made by Fulci, even though only the last three films are usually considered to belong together as a group. As is the case in all his previous entries in this impromptu series, the one zombie creature that does appear in the film is a putrefying, rotten, maggot-infested monstrosity, shuffling with painfully protracted, nightmarish determination and excruciating groans that make it sound like it’s having at least as bad a time of it as its sliced and picked apart victims. Even so, this is not a straightforward zombie flick. For a start this creature uses various implements to dispatch his victims (a knife, a poker), lending the film a slasher-like quality to its pacing and execution; and the zombie thing gruesomely hacks up bodies in the cellar as well. The film has a strong paranormal, inexplicable element that takes it well outside the normal terrain covered by the zombie genre, and seems to be influenced by the success at the time of “The Amityville Horror” and “The Shinning” while taking the material into the same mystic realm inhabited by “The Beyond”, which lends it a distinctly Italian flavour. Strange surreal visions pepper the narrative: a photograph of the old house which has an image of the mysterious girl, Mae, peering out from one of the windows, changes inexplicably (even when no-one is looking at it); a creepy foreshadowing of the later death of the babysitter character appears in a vision when Mae watches a mannequin that looks uncannily like Ann, lose its head in a boutique window -- blood pumping from the severed neck stump; a bittersweet finale offers the hope (or is it the threat) of an unusual afterlife for little Bob on the other side of the cellar, but the implication is that history will repeat itself. This film is full of ambiguities and hints that are never quite fully explained. Perhaps this accounts for why so many casual viewers seem to find it laughable; it is probably much closer to the supernatural narrative logic free-fall of "Suspiria" and "inferno-era" Argento than the hard documentary-style immediacy usually associated with the typical satirical Romero zombie flick from around this period. Nevertheless, there are odd narrative lapses and omissions which appear to come down to sheer ineptitude rather than deliberate use of dream logic, although its general surrealist atmosphere enables the film to just about get away with them if you're willing to overlook certain points of contention.
For instance, why does her husband fail to notice or acknowledge Lucy Boyle in the street, at one point? And what is entailed by the librarian’s claim to have seen Dr Boyle visiting the library before with his young daughter (Mae?). The fact is that neither of these points is ever brought up again, let alone resolved! All of this is outdone though by the sequence that comes just after Gittleson’s murder: expansive pools of sticky blood are seen being mopped up without comment by the weird, lugubrious babysitter with bushy eyebrows, and Lucy simply walks in wearing her dressing gown, looks over Ann’s shoulder, yawns and walks away to pour a cup of coffee, as if finding a great mass of someone else’s blood on your kitchen floorboards is such a mundane occurrence that it barely needs acknowledgment let alone explanation! Other negative points that could be said to detract from the film are the atrocious English dub performances (especially from the grown-up female voice artist who takes the part of Bob, and gives him an annoying, perky upbeat cartoon yelp) and the infamous unpopularity of the little mop-headed muppet Giovanni Frezza himself, who played the little boy in question, and who just happens to have been cursed with the most notoriously punchable face in the annals of European Horror cinema!
One element that has always been associated with the work of Lucio Fulci is more than adequately covered, though, and that is, of course, his films' tendency to dwell on scenes of vividly intense gore and violence. Although the gore effects might not be as accomplished as those you would now routinely expect to find in any half-decent contemporary Horror film, they still have an unusual level of impact just because of the peculiarly gleeful way in which Fulci's camera lovingly glides slowly in to survey the bloody carnage with Peckinpah-like slow motion shots. The effect is further enhanced here because there is an unusually long and atmospheric build-up, more characteristic of a supernatural picture, before the gore finally gets to flood the screen. Fulci had a reputation for cinematic misogyny, since most of the victims are women and the most memorable death scenes are unusually inventive in finding ways to protract the horror of their deaths. The opening sees a young woman get a carving knife slammed so hard into the top of her skull that the blade comes to protrude out of her mouth; and later Mrs Gittleson is slowly tortured with a poker stick -- and when her jugular is finally skewered, the relish with which Fulci's camera slowly pans in on the ensuing fountain of gushing blood is positively perverse.
However, Fulci seems to me to be not so much a misogynist as just generally misanthropic in nature; a disillusioned romantic who delights in dwelling on the grimy, maggoty impermanence of life and who is disgusted by the fragility and vulnerability of innocence to corruption. Certainly, despite the drawback of having Frezza play him, little boy Bob Boyle is exposed to more violence and horrific imagery than perhaps any child in screen history: if watching his babysitter's head bouncing down the cellar's wooden stairs wasn't traumatic enough, or having his face held up against a wood-frame door while his own father unknowingly hacks at it with an axe from the other side, he also finds himself forced to stumble through the rotting, dismembered remains of just about every victim in the film, gaze upon bodies strung up in a line and then, witness his dad's throat get torn out by a zombie’s bare hand and his mother's face repeatedly pounded against hard, splintery wooden steps as she is tugged and dragged across the cellar stairs! All the while, Walter Rizzati's score veers between melodic Bach-like fugal prog rock to demented synth wailing; and the set design and the cinematography of Fulci regulars Massimo Lentini and Sergio Salvati is unusually lush and beautiful in this instance -- providing all the disgusting imagery with a bizarrely ornate set of surroundings. For me, the film overcomes most of its drawbacks and still stands as one of the director's most enjoyable and inventive outings before his sad and interminable drift into low budget mediocrity in the late-eighties and early-nineties. “The House by the Cemetery” has been given a brand new HD spruce-up by a restoration team based in London and Rome for this release, apparently -- and although I only have the screener DVD copy of the film and the third disc of extras from the 3-disc Blu-ray/DVD duel release pack which Arrow Video are putting out this month, the improvement is hugely noticeable over the previous transfer, even though that one never seemed all that bad to begin with. Much sharper definition is noticeable in many scenes however, black tones seem fine and colours are generally excellent, with skin tones appearing naturalistic. The English mono track is available with SDH subtitles and we also get the Italian audio mono track as well (with English subtitle translation), so you can finally hear little Bob actually sounding more like a normal child for once (although it still wasn’t Giovanni’s voice in the dub).
A huge selection of Extras kicks off with two commentary tracks. The first features cult heroine Catriona MacColl in conversation with Calum Waddell. The star of this film seems to have talked herself into accepting her stint in the world of Italian horror as a legitimate part of her resume after (one gets the impression) years of tending to keep very quiet about the whole period, a silence induced no doubt by her awareness of their Video Nasty status in the UK back in the mid-eighties and for many years afterwards. Now they’re revered cult items and Fulci’s reputation only seems to be growing, the actress seems relived that this must mean that she ‘wasn’t wrong to do them’ after all! MacColl spends some time talking about trying to understand just why these films are so lauded and appreciated by young audiences today, in-between remembering with fondness the difficult, grumpy, emotionally distant creature who was Lucio Fulci. You won’t be wowed with lots of new information on this track, but it’s interesting to hear MacColl trying to make sense of the complex director’s attitude to her and her fellow performers. The shoot seemed to be a generally happy one, though, from her account of her relationships on set with the other actors, such as Paolo Malco -- although the bloke who played doctor Freudstein was apparently a bit weird in real life, as well! On the second commentary track actress Silvia Collatina, who played Mae, remembers the making of the film in the company of moderator Mike Baronas, who, it turns out, has befriended most of the actors who appeared in it, during the course of his researches for various DVD companies, and is able to provide quite a bit of information himself. Collatina turns out to be a huge horror fan who apparently relished the gorier elements of the shoot. In the film, Dr Freudstein’s left hand appeared to be the withered hand of a child, and Collatina supplied that hand in question -- which means it is her you see slashing through Ania Pieroni’s throat in the goriest sequence, despite the fact that she was only eight years old at the time!
“Cemetery Woman: Interview with Catriona MacColl” sees the actress talking, during this twenty-seven minute piece, about the progress of her career at the time and how the film came about just as she was considering moving to Rome and dividing her life between the Italian capital, Paris and England. However, she eventually decided against the move and subsequently turned down her next offer from Fulci’s office after Cemetery (which would have been “The New York Ripper”) without reading the script (although from what she’s subsequently heard of it she would have definitely turned it down even if she had!). She talks about the mutual respect and liking she and Fulci had for each other, despite his difficult manner and outrageous temper tantrums (which were never directed towards her, but which she often witnessed from afar), and considers that, despite the misogyny he expressed towards some of the younger women in the cast, much of the time his attitude was provoked by their lack of professionalism and unwillingness to get on with the job in hand. MacColl reveals that she was drawn to making these films in the first place mainly because it afforded her the chance to work with some of Italy’s greatest technicians. She talks about choreographing her death scene, which involved having to create the effect of her face being bumped down a wooden staircase, and she remembers Fulci as being quite sweet towards the child actor, Giovanni, in comparison to his treatment of almost everyone else.
“Back to the Cellar: Interview with Giovanni Frezza” is a fifteen minute interview with the grown up version of the little on-screen horror, Bob … and boy do I feel guilty for all the nasty things I’ve said about him in numerous reviews of Italian horror movies I’ve written down the years! The adult ‘Bob’ seems a thoroughly unassuming, charming, modest individual who looks back at his younger self’s career as an icon of early-eighties Italian horror with total bafflement. He speaks in English with a heavy accent here, but manages to make himself understood well enough, recalling how he fell into acting by accident but ended up as one of the ‘most requested child actors in Italy’ soon after appearing in “House by the Cemetery” – only his second film. In contrast to MacColl’s memory of Fulci being quite lovable and avuncular towards the young Giovanni, the youngster apparently witnessed a few of the director’s famous on-set blow-ups and so was consequently utterly terrified of him! He is at great pains to apologise repeatedly throughout (and also in the accompanying film introduction he provides) for the dreadful adult-dubbed voice his character was given in English language prints of the film and, endearingly, claims to have been mortified when he heard it years later! There’s an amusing story about showing the film to his classmates without first preparing them for the nature of some of the content, and the interview concludes with Frezza admitting that he fell out of the acting profession after simply losing interest in it around the age of fourteen, which was when he stopped going to auditions. He claims he was never very scared by any of the material as he was filming it, but the finished product was much more potent and scary than he’d imagined.
“Freudstein’s Follies: Interview with special effects artist Giannetto De Rossi” is a ten minute piece in which De Rossi remembers Fulci as being a professional and an intellectual who surrounded himself with ‘Class A’ technicians, but increasingly resented being ghettoised in the Horror genre. He gives a brief summary of how each of the effects in the film was achieved.
“Wax Mask – Finishing the Final Fulci” is an eight minute featurette in which Sergio Stivaletti runs through the story of how Dario Argento came to ask him to take on the task of directing Lucio Fulci’s intended comeback project “Wax Mask”, after the director died just before it was due to go into production. He explains how he altered the screenplay to suit his own tastes and how the project turned into something radically different to what it would have been had Fulci lived to complete his version of it.
“Ladies of Italian Horror” is a twenty-two minute piece examining the film careers of Silvia Collatina (“The House by the Cemetery”, “Murder Rock”), Stefania Casini (“Suspiria”, “The Bloodstained Shadow”) and Barbara Magnolfi (“Suspira”,”The Sister of Ursula”). The ladies are asked about how their careers eventually panned out and what they think about the more exploitative elements of the many Italian genre films that were successful in the seventies and eighties. Casini reveals she gave up film acting because she became fed up with the limited and repetitive nature of the roles she was being offered in what she and everyone else at the time considered to be ‘trash cinema’; and so she finds it rather amusing that these films are the very ones that are now remembered and loved by so many.
There are also a whole bunch of easter eggs on the disc, easily found from the special features menu, which include mini-interviews with director Sergio Martino, writer and producer Luigi Cozzie and screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti; plus another introduction by Giovanni Frezza (an alternative take to the one accessible from the main menu) and a brief anecdote by Silvia Collatina about her memories of hanging out with little Fressa between takes. Finally, there’s a Japanese trailer for “Lady Oscar”, the film Catriona MacColl made for French director Jacques Demy in 1979, in which she gets to play a swashbuckling female captain of the guard in pre-revolutionary Paris!
The Blu-ray and the DVD copies in the set are both identical, but there is a second DVD bonus disc featuring a wonderful 42 minute reunion Q & A appearance by Giovanni Frezza, Silvia Collatina, Catronia MacColl, Carlo DeMejo and Dagmar Lassander, shot at the Horrorhound convention in Indianapolis, in March 2011. The participants are seen meeting up again for the first time in years and are happy to revisit old memories and experience the love of the US crowd. The disc also includes well over an hour’s worth of battered trailers for numerous Italian galli and exploitation titles, both Fulci and non-Fulci, most of which manage to cram every frame of sex and gore they contain into just three minutes. Each is preceded by a short text review by Calum Waddell or Nick Frame. Some of these titles will be familiar to most viewers; others are intriguing obscurities, such as the hard-to-see Fulci historical picture “Beatrice Cenci”. There is also a short, soundless deleted scene from "The House by the Cemetery" discovered in the original negative and now included as an extra, which is really just a minor extension of the bat sequence, and finally a trailer and TV spot.
This version also features a reversible sleeve and a collector’s booklet, but there is also a Limited Edition Blu-ray and Bonus disc only version coming out, which will be released later in the month featuring three poster artwork cover options and a newly commissioned fourth, plus a double-sided fold-out artwork poster and slip-case.
A beautiful restored transfer brings out once again just how artistically lush Fulci’s work from this period could often be, despite the fact that these films were pretty much knocked out, one after the other, within a comparatively short space of time. It’s impossible to find much fault with the extensive collection of supplementary materials included here; Arrow Video have followed up their supurb “Demons” and “Demons 2” discs (although the individual releases themselves have been delayed for a few more weeks) with another corker.
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