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Freudsteinian slip

If you were looking for a few films to define the essence of giallo cinema for an audience previously unexposed to its very specific pleasures, then House By the Cemetery (Quella villa accanto al cimitero, a pretty good translation as it happens) would definitely be a prime candidate for inclusion. Directed by prolific Lucio Fulci, he of such horror favourites as Zombie Flesh Eaters (Zombi 2, 1979), City of the Living Dead (Paura nella città dei morti viventi, 1980) and the censor-baiting New York Ripper (Lo squartatore di New York, 1982), it ticks off genre characteristics like an eager holidaymaker finalising their packing list before departure. This is particularly true of the uncut version under review here, which is getting its first UK airing on any format as part of Arrow's new Masters of Giallo label. What's been restored is the violence, of course, which if you're not familiar with giallo cinema you may well find excessive. Actually there's a reasonable chance you'll think it's a bit much even if you've got a few genre films under your belt. It's just that giallo fans tend to expect this level of excess rather than complain about it. We are, in that respect, a rather troubled bunch, jumping with quiet glee at brutality that is often explicit, lingering and extremely bloody, and all too often directed at attractive young women. Hell, reading that back I'm actually a little concerned for my own mental wellbeing. Ah well, too late now.

The first horror hook of a film like The House By the Cemetery lies in its title, which clearly identifies which shelf it should sit on at Blockbuster. It's also a film that announces its giallo credentials in its opening scene. Presumably waking from a post-coital doze, a young woman puts on her clothes and goes looking for her mysteriously absent boyfriend. Quite why the pair come to this run down, cobweb-strewn old house to have it off is anybody's guess. Anyway, she doesn't have to search long before she finds her missing beau with a pair of scissors stuck in his chest. Just as she starts to scream, a kitchen knife is rammed through the top of her head and out of her mouth and her body is dragged off by a pair of malformed hands. This, we soon realise, is the house by the cemetery. Who could possibly want to move in here?

Enter the Boyle family, who seem marked for trouble from the moment we meet them. Young son Bob, you see, is getting telepathic warnings from a little girl named May, who initially talks to him from inside a large photo of the House by the Cemetery that sits on a wall inside the present Boyle household. Mum doesn't believe him, but then parents never do. But Mum has been taking tablets for her nerves, which are set to be rattled further when hubby Norman accepts a research assignment in New England, one that was previously abandoned when former friend and colleague Eric took his own life. A house has even been arranged for them all to stay at. Want to guess which one?

They're not there long before peculiar stuff starts to happen. Bob is now making face-to-face contact with May, who no-one else sees but who gives Bob a large doll that sets Mum's nerves on edge. She's getting jittery anyway after hearing strange noises and discovering the grave of the property's original owner – the almost comically named Dr Freudstein (it is better than Frankenfreud, though) – inside the house. It's a common feature of this type of property, hubby assures her. Really? Are you sure? Even May gets in on the act when a showroom dummy loses its head and bleeds all over the floor right in front of her. At least that's how she sees it. Not long after the Boyles have moved in, a woman bearing a striking resemblance to this headless dummy (we're given a quick flashback to remind us) shows up and announces herself as the new babysitter, and memories of The Omen's Mrs. Baylock join the list of borrowings that horror fans will doubtless be quietly compiling.

Now you'd think that having a cemetery next door and a grave in the house itself would provide reason enough for creepy manifestations, but once Dad starts digging into Dr. Freudstein's work, the true nature of the horror that lies beneath starts to become apparent. Sort of. The focus of the property's bad vibes is clearly the cellar. I mean it's clear to us, not to the Boyles, who are tragically unaware they're in a horror movie. It's boarded up, you see, and as all horror fans know, boarded up cellars or attics are locations to be avoided at all costs. Yet we all know they'll get that door open sooner or later, and when they do then just everyone who steps through it will either get a serious fright or come a horrible cropper.

As is so often the way with such things, the plot soon becomes secondary to the set-pieces, which are effectively creepy when suggesting the presence of evil through sound and camera angles and horribly graphic and protracted when killing is involved. This is giallo after all, and if you're going to cut a throat with a knife or push a hole in someone with a poker, why do it once when you can do it three times and watch the blood pump out and the victim writhe and scream for a while? That said, those tuning in for the gore may have to wait a bit between these graphic set-pieces, but when they come they seriously deliver the genre goods. It's certainly not hard to see what prompted the BBFC to whip out its censorial scissors.

Those unsympathetic to the giallo subgenre could well have problems here. Certainly my girlfriend – a horror fan but not a giallo horror fan – found plenty to complain about, loudly identifying the borrowings and asking of the lingering violence, "Now how is that supposed to increase the tension?" She does have a point, but I'd still argue that this criteria is met repeatedly elsewhere, in the strange noises and prowling camerawork, in the various encounters in the cellar, and in the scene in which Bob's head is held against a door that his unknowing Dad is trying to break through with an axe. My feeble attempt to explain that a giallo film that doesn't deliver on the violence is effectively cheating its target audience fell on sternly unresponsive ears.

Plot wise, The House By the Cemetery may be a patchwork of second-hand ideas, pre-destined incident, and in one case outrageous misdirection, a herring so red that it almost counts as an outright cheat. But in typical on-form Fulci fashion, the sum of the parts – which include some fine scope cinematography from Sergio Salvati (who provides more close-ups of eyes than any other film I can instantly recall) and a score from Walter Rizzati that mixes tinkly riffs with dramatic chords – makes for a stylish, entertaining and atmospherically effective whole. Its pleasures may be shaped in part by red-tinted nostalgia, but for the giallo faithful, they are there in abundance.

sound and vision

Arrow get their Masters of Giallo label off to a spanking start with this impressively restored 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, which is clear of any signs of dirt and damage and boasts the sort of stable contrast and sharpness the film probably hasn't seen since its cinema days (although I've not seen the EC Entertainment Ultrabit version released in the US). Colours are a little muted in places and have a slight brown/green bias, but are distinct enough when expected to be – the stained glass windows in the house are a good example. There's grain visible throughout, but this is never a distraction.

The mono soundtrack betrays the film's age more than the visuals, largely through the narrow dynamic range. The track is free of damage and hiss, though. Only the English language dub has been included here.

extra features

Fulci in the House: The Italian Master of Splatter (17:50)
A concise and engaging introduction to Fulci's cinema and specifically his golden period between Zombi 2 and House By the Cemetery, built around interviews with Fangoria editor Anthony Timpone and directors Joe Dante and Lloyd Kaufman, he of genre favourite Toxic Avenger. Timpone is a huge fan and does most of the talking, but makes his case well, really nailing the appeal of Fulci's work when he suggests that "there's something almost unsafe about watching a Fulci film." There's lots of good stuff here, with Timpone and Dante disagreeing on the merits of Italian zombie movies, Kaufman and Dante discussing censorship in Britain during the video nasty era, Kaufman pining for the days when film distribution wasn't completely controlled by the big studios, and special effects man turned director Sergio Stivaletti talking about helming The Wax Mask when Fulci died early in the production. There's even footage of – and a few stories about – Fulci's star turn at a Fangoria convention. A fine featurette.

Deleted Scene (1:00)
A first viewing anywhere of a deleted shot rescued from oblivion but missing its soundtrack. It's not exactly revelatory, but fans will appreciate its inclusion. That one minute running time includes the scrolling introductory text.

TV Spot (0:30)
Worth watching for the voice-over alone.

International Trailer (3:15)
In phenomenally good shape and with lots of the gory bits. Includes part of the above mentioned deleted shot, with the missing sound. One suspects a re-edit using the new print.

U.S. Trailer (1:41)
This one certainly looks for real, and it has that voice-over from the TV spot, but even more of it.

Photo Gallery (1:03)
Rolling galley of promotion stills and a poster, set to the film score.


House of the Cemetery is a film made with a specific audience in mind, and if that's not you then you're probably better off giving this a miss. For those of us with a giallo fan-boy membership card, however, it's a treat to finally see it uncut and in such good shape. A fine start for Arrow here that bodes well for releases to come.

House By the Cemetery
[Quella villa accanto al cimitero]

Italy 1981
83 mins
Lucio Fulci
Catriona MacColl
Paolo Malco
Ania Pieroni
Giovanni Frezza
Silvia Collatina
Dagmar Lassander

DVD details
Region 2
2.35:1 anamorphic
Dolby 2.0 mono
Fulci in the House: The Italian Master of Splatter featurette
Deleted scene
TV spot

Arrow - Masters of Giallo
release date
29 June 2009
review posted
28 June 2009

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