The House By The Cemetery (1981)
Directed by: Lucio Fulci
Written by: Dardano Sacchetti, Elisa Briganti, Giorgio Mariuzzo, Lucio Fulci
Starring: Catriona MacColl, Giovanni Frezza, Paolo Malco, Silvia Collatina
AVAILABLE ON LIMITED EDITION 4K AND BLU-RAY: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 86 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
A young couple who go to an abandoned house to have sex are murdered by some kind of monstrous assailant. In New York City, Bob Boyle and his parents Norman and Lucy are moving into what seems to be the same house even though Bob has been objecting because a strange girl named Mae, first seen in a photograph of what looks like the same house, then in person, has been saying not to go there. After all, Norman’s ex-colleague Dr Peterson lived there before and killed his mistress before committing suicide. He’d been researching a much older owner, Dr Jaxob Tess Freudstein, and disappearances in the area. The house soon turns out to be rather odd and creepy, from the sound of sobbing to the discovery of Freudstein’s tomb right in the middle of the hallway. Their estate agent sends a maid / babysitter named Anne, but she’s strange too….
One’s favourite film of a filmmaker can change over time or stay the same, while “favourite” doesn’t always translate to what one thinks is “best”. With Lucio Fulci, it was The House By The Cemetery which I fell in love with more than his other horror works back in the day when I began to explore the genre seriously, courtesy of certain bootleg distributors far more than my three local video shops where these kinds of films tended to be either heavily censored of not legally available at all. And, even though his previous offering The Beyond seems to be his most highly regarded film, and Don’t Torture A Duckling his best in my opinion, this last installment of either Fulci’s “Gothic Trilogy” or “Zombie Quartet” [even though it only features one zombie and if you think about it “Dr. Freudstein” isn’t actually a zombie at all] remains the one I like most – but would I suggest it to Fulci virgins? After all, it has, among other daft moments, a scene where its heroine sees her maid mopping up a shit load of blood [just after we’ve seen an extremely gory murder] and says nothing! Maybe the blood on the floor had gone [the camera doesn’t show us], but surely Lucy would have seen her squeezing the mop into a very red bucket? Then again, by now the viewer has already seen a lot of unexplained stuff and things that don’t always rarely makes much sense, Fulci and his screenwriters clearly inspired by The Shining and The Amityville Horror but seemingly determined to put as weird a twist on them as possible, in order to make the material also their own. Containing outrageously gory sights but also absolutely oozing atmosphere and also containing some poetic and poignant elements, it’s an all-round rich experience that climaxes in a finale of pure masterful terror.
This was the third of Fulci’s fllms for Fulvia film and Fabrizio De Angelis. Its genesis lies in a treatment by Elisa Brigante, which was turned into a screenplay by her much better known husband Dardano Sacchetti, though that was rewritten by Giorgio Mariuzzo and Fulci himself. Mariuzzo has said that he was sometimes employed to lengthen Sacchetti’s scripts, and Sacchetti and Fulci fell out and parted ways after this film. Since then, each man had tended to take credit for what was good. Filming took place in New York City, Boston, Concord in Massachusetts, and De Paolis In. Cn/R Studios in Rome. The house was in Concord and had little done to it except for having fake gravestones just outside it. For some reason Gianetto De Rossi is credited with doing the makeup effects even though they were actually done by his assistant Maurizio Trani. The Italian censors wanted an eye-gouging removed from an already protracted killing; Fulci obliged because he wasn’t too pleased with the special effects. It was a commercial success in Italy but as usual not well reviewed. The UK release lost nearly a minute from the afore-mentioned scene plus most of another murder, which is nothing compared to the further 4 minutes and 11celeven seconds it lost when it was re-released on video in 1988 after spending time on the Video Nasty list, with most of the gore cut out, even most of the bat attack being removed as well as non-violent shotts of body parts, and the climax being very choppy. I once saw this mess on TV. Obviously the BBFC hated the idea of little boy being in danger and therefore removed nearly all shots of Bob being threatened by Freudstein, but why on earth did they think that shots of Lucy trying to open the cellar door with a key were unsuitable for viewers over 18? A 2000 release restored all of this except for 33 seconds; it only appeared uncut in the UK in 2009. The US video release fared just as badly but in a different way; two reels were in the wrong order with two characters seen killed then being alive as if nothing had happened!
The American slasher movie was at its height when this film was being made, and the opening scene is right out of one. The camera pans from a gravestone to reveal the cemetery in the foreground and the house in the background; inside are a couple who’ve often gone there for a bit of fun, but now the boy has gone missing and the girl is alone. She looks for him before getting a nasty shock; the sight of her fella nailed to a door by – well, we’re not sure. His brain is exposed and he has a pair of scissors in his stomach, but it’s hard to see what’s pinned him to the door. But then this is Fulci, where realism is second to effect. The girl, played by Danielle Doria who’d already vomited up her intestines and suffocated to death in two prior Fulci appearances and would go on to be have an eye and a nipple sliced in The New York Ripper [one would think Fulci had it in for her but reportedly she and the notoriously tough, grouchy bully of a director got on fine], then gets a knife rammed through the back of her head so that the knife exits her mouth. As the titles come up over a shot of the house, there’s a two-second pause before the title theme comes up, which seems careless, but then again these films were shot quickly and cheaply. A girl peering out from the window of a house which looks like the same house we’ve just seen and indeed been in is revealed, via zooms out and dissolves, to be inside a painting. Only little Bob, the young son of Norman and Lucy, seems to be able to see her, who appears to be warning Bob and co. not to venture into the house. Soon she appears to him properly to tell him to stay away, but the move is already in motion and can’t be stopped. Of course mother and father don’t believe Bob when he tries to tell them about this ghost girl who may be the daughter of Mr and Mrs Freudstein who lived in the house a century ago.
The house soon proves to be odd. Sobbing sounds are loudly heard, plus at one point a load of stuff being smashed up. The door to the cellar is not just locked but is barricaded. Underneath a carpet in the hallway is the tomb of Dr. Freudstein himself, though we’re told that such a feature is common to local houses, indoor tombs being a thing because of the cold wintry ground. Of course this is untrue, it’s just a typical Fulci film half-assed explanation. Critically examining a film that one has previously watched quite a few times since the late ’80s while virtually tuned in to another dimension reveals other incongruities that one had either ignored or ceased to notice for a very long time. One’s opinion of said film by rights out to change, but it doesn’t, and one instead admires how for so long Fulci had repeatedly drawn one into his off-kilter world. The plot is actually a bit tighter than the ones in City Of The Living Dead and The Beyond which were crammed full of random happenings, but there’s the vaguest of explanations for things that you’d think would be important, such as to how its monster is still alive. Yet the first half is actually primarily concerned with mystery and build up, as Lucy finds being in this house a struggle and Norman does more investigating into the death of his colleague who hung himself in the local library. Why was the subject of said colleague’s research “Suspended from the medical association and banned from the medical profession for life”? Could this have something to do with this killer who seems to have one monstrous hand and one nice-looking hand who every now and again seems to come out of the cellar to gruesomely slay people, even if the door was blocked for some time until the Boyle’s moved in – oh god this is something else which doesn’t make sense, but it seems so obvious that it must have been an intentional conundrum, like some others. They just add to the film’s weird effect.
The scenes involving Mae are fascinating and also rather poignant in a way that one wishes Fulci had gone further with in successive films instead of just hinting at slightly, though emotion definitely existed in some of Fulci’s earlier work before he got sidelined into horror, a genre he seemed happy to immerse himself for a while yet which eventually became trapped in. Mae and her mother seem to be not so much living in the past as living in a different dimension; Mary says they can’t see the house from where they are though Mae [and on two occasions Mary] can cross into our dimension and visit the external areas around it – and it may not even be the same house, which raises more questions. We sense some importance to Mae saying that her mother isn’t actually buried where her gravestone is, but it ends up being another another dead end, though, considering that the murderous Dr Freudstein isiher dad, one can certainly attempt to fill un the background that’s so vaguely sketched out. Mae sneaks out to see Bob against her mother’s wishes like an infatuated teenager, and kindly leaves with Bob her doll which looks like Mae, though that’s not nearly as odd as Mae looking at three clothes dummies in a shop window and discerning some importance to one particular dummy which resembles Anne, the babysitter we have yet to meet that’s soon to to visit the Freudstein House oh sorry Oak Mansion. Anne, who’s introduced with cuts to the afore-mentioned dummy, is presented with a lot of mystery. Frequent closeups of her eyes intercut with those of Norman not only allow Fulci to indulge in his obsession with eyes [we even see bright yellow ones flash in the dark but where do they come from?] but also suggest a connection between the two characters, but this doesn’t pay off whatsoever.
There’s frequent referencing to and variations on earlier Fulci moments, particularly from the first three “Zombie Quartet” movies, such as a tape recording, almost as hysterical as that notorious one at the end of Zombie Flesh Eaters, though it plays over a truly grand Fulci bit when the camera goes into and around the house and then the cellar, passing some truly gruesome sights in the process, before finishing with blood covering the tip of that indoor tomb. A head being pushed against a door while axe blows come from the other side from the supposed rescuer is much like the scene when our heroine is trapped in a coffin in City Of Tbe Living Dead and the hero is using a pickaxe to smash it open but almost smashes her face in while doing so, but adds an obvious Shining touch. After the opening murder, it’s some time before anything elsvicious takes place. An attack by a bat, looking a bit more convincing than fake bats usually look, splashes the red stuff about and signals a change. A three-part stabbing by a poker is lingered upon in the most extreme way, the camera even zooming in on the nastiness before it lingers on the blood spattering out of the final wound in slow motion. Did the Italian censors do us a favour by insisting on the cuts to the scene? Most horror fans have a liking for splatter and fixating on bodily destruction is one of Fulci’s interests, for better or worse, it’s part of his art [and I do believe that the word “art” can be mentioned in relation to much of Fulci but certainly not for something like the Saw movies] but can some scenes go too far? I used to be annoyed that a great still that I had in a book of Bob standing next to a corpse on a table with his stomach cut open couldn’t properly be seen in the old fullscreen versions. When finally shown, Freudstein is a truly frightening creation and the final act is brilliantly intense and even upsetting the first time you watch it because it seems that anyone might die!
Minor characters tend to act a bit weird and say weird things, such as a library [probably the same one from The Beyond] owner [Carlo De Mejo] owner who’s sure that Norman has been there before even though he hasn’t. One really wonders why MacColl didn’t go on to do not necessarily better but bigger things; she had the looks, the acting ability and the camera likes her. One of her nipples shows through her jumper in one scene; I guess she didn’t care. She and Malco have the warmth of a genuine couple and are given some scenes together which provide a very human, relatable dimension to the strange happenings. Fulci does his usual cameo, here as Bob’s boss. His favoured cinematographer for some time Sergio Salvati does some really great work here, the camera frequently tracking around the house and watching the characters with objects placed between them and the viewer; a partial three-dimension effect is almost achieved. Some fun stuff like the POV of a tray is also present. Walter Rizzati credited with the score, but actually someone named Alessandro Blonksteiner also wrote some of it, and the music does sound like fhe work of two people, with Rizzati contributing the more melodic material, notably the Bach-influenced main title theme and the very touching theme for Mae, and Blonksteiner providing the darker stuff, usually related to Freudstein; his “stalking” music for the killings is quite scary. The score provides the icing on the cake to a truly masterful horror film which even gets away with horrible dubbing for Bob and a made up Henry James quote at the end of its somewhat ambiguous but rather sad [however you interpret it] final scene. I think we can now say, without fear of mockery, that when Fulci was at the top of his game, he was very good indeed. And here he is, totally at the top; single minded, confusing, and rather wonderful.
LIMITED EDITION SPECIAL FEATURES
4K restoration from the original negative by Blue Underground
I’ve owned several versions of this film, and it’s never looked particularly good up to now. Even Arrow’s earlier release from 2012, while a vast improvement from earlier releases, was rather flawed. But wow – this new restoration is stunning. I’ve reviewed the Blu-ray version, and even that is a huge improvement, so much of one that it often felt that I was viewing the film for the first time; it’s amazing how many shots were faded or indistinct and yet I didn’t used to notice this! Colours are now extremely vivid, blacks are just perfect, and all previous signs of print damage seem to be no more. Depth [of course helped by the way a lot of scenes are filmed] is also impressive. This is just stunning and a considerable achievement.
4K (2160p) Ultra HD Blu-ray presentation in Dolby Vision (HDR10 compatible)
Restored original lossless mono English and Italian soundtracks
The Italian soundtrack might be preferable because Bob is given a decent voice, even though every cast member is obviously speaking English.
Optional lossless 5.1 English soundtrack
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack
Optional English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack
Audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films
This track is arhival really, Arrow having been able to port over narrly all of the special features from the three Region A Blue Underground releases, many of them from the first though this from the second. While I do own Stephen Thrower’s book about Fuci, I still haven’t read Howarth’s, so some of what he says in this track was news to me, such as the reason for MacCall’s first name being changed from Catriona to Catherine being Catriona translating as “Big Kate” in Italian, and Fulci and Malco becoming close friends after Malco told a typically rude and bullying Fulci on his first day on set to “lay off”. Perhaps most interesting to me were more details off the changes that Fulci made to to the script, such as Bob’s child friend originally being a living boy. Howarth doesn’t like the blood mopping scene but otherwise transmits his enthusiasm for the film passionately and with one excpetion lays off groan-inducing jokes, making this one of his best tracks to date.
Archival audio commentary with star Catriona MacColl, moderated by Calum Waddell
I was more than happy to listen to this track again, seeing as it was a real treat. MacColl did commentaries on her other two Fulcis but she seems to be at her very best here, enjoying, appreciating and happy to be associated with films that she once thought of having very little worth, and that few people would see, not not being happy at the time when her brother once told her about a seminar on video nasties that was currently taking place and she was in two of the films being discussed. Waddell asks the right questions and the two get on well, occasionally digressing to chat about, for example, Anthony Hopkins in The Silence Of The Lambs which Waddell finds very overrated. MacColl says that the crew filmed in New York without permission, that Fulci was nice to children unlike most adults, and laments the lack of awards recognition of genre actors.
Archival audio commentary with co-star Silvia Collatina, moderated by Mike Baronas of Paura Productions
And I was also more than happy to listen to this track again too; boy did Arrow in their 2o13 release by getting not one but two cast members to talk about the film, Collatina, herself a horror fan, is at tines silent, letting Baronas dio much of the talking, but this may be down to her not understanding English that well, and she does say a hell of a lot of interesting things, foremost among them being that she played Freudstein’s left hand and had to pretend to slit somebody else’s throat as well as be around stuff that one would think 9-year olds shouldn’t be around, including an early and very different mockup of Freudstein. We also learn that two actresses play Mae’s mother because one died, while there’s lamenting of how Fulci has always been more popular outside of Itsly and was never given his due while he was alive, which probably helped caused his depression.
Meet the Boyles – interviews with stars Catriona MacColl and Paolo Malco [14 mins]
This and the next six featurettes are from the first of the Blue Underground releases in 1011. We usually only hear Catriona, but here she is, still looking very good, saying how her character was the most interesting to play out of her three films for Fulci, though it’s Malco who you’ll remember more; after showing what’s left of one of the model bats and mentioning Fulci’s shouting and sadistic side, he thanks the interviewer for being given a rare opportunity to talk about Fulci; his affection is obvious even if he does mention Fulci’s sadistic side. The background music is often bizarrely chirpy and generally sounding out of place; fortunately the other featurettes in this area feature the film’s soundtrack, though what sound like remixes rather than the original tracks.
Children of the Night – interview with stars Giovanni Frezza and Silvia Collatina [10 mins]
Much of what Collatina says can be heard in her audio commentary, but some of it must have come as a surprise at the time, and it’s amusing that her interview only required her to pull scared faces. Frezza apologises for the voice he was given and says that the axe which very narrowly misses his head several times was actually real, which is quite shocking really. There were cuts in the door for the axe to go through, but having his head held agaiinst the door, even by Collatina, and the axe strikes being so close, must have been terrifying Both recall being sometimes frightened of Fulci, though Frezza wonders if he was that way on set on purpose, so an appropriate atmosphere was created.
Tales of Laura Gittleson – interview with star Dagmar Lassander [10 mins], descr
Lassander doesn’t seem to know why films like this have become so popular, but says how she was well looked after on the expensive A Hatchet For A Honeymoon, tells of not just her narrow fire escape on the set of The Black Cat but also how a great number of police turned up as soon as cast and crew landed in England because they had a mummified cat with them, and describes Fulci as “polite” and causing her no trouble. Obviously shot close to a convention which she attended along with MacColl, Frezza and Collatina, she enjoyed them because she gets to understand the American mentality.
My Time with Terror – interview with star Carlo De Mejo [9 mins]
Wow! Not having owned any of the Blue Underground releases of this film, I learnt from this featurette something that came as a real surprise; De Mejo, who was also in City Of The Living Dead and the underrated Manhattan Baby, and whom you’d expect to speak in Italian but actually has English is his first language, is Alida Valli’s father! De Mejo recalls seeing all this cereal on the set just before loads of maggots were blown in, and tells of how Bruno Mattei shot two films at once on sets right next to each other and even swapped some scenes!
A Haunted House Story – interview with co-writers Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Briganti [14 mins]
The two married-to-each-others writers, Briganti having also worked on Zombie Flesh Eaters, both say that childhood psychology, especially in matters of fear such as being afraid of the dark, was the starting point for the project as well as Sacchetti having to walk through a cemetery at nigh when he was 9-years old. After all, as he says, “children bridge the gap between the adult world and the next”. Briganti also says how she has trouble watching her films because what she envisaged often looked very different, while Sacchetti says it was Luciano Martino who came up with the name “Freudstein”.
To Build a Better Death Trap – interviews with cinematographer Sergio Salvati, special make-up effects artist Maurizio Trani, special effects artist Giannetto De Rossi and actor Giovanni De Nava [21 mins]
Clearly every person connected with this film was hunted down. De Rossi perhaps says the most, showing a contaption that would go in Doria’s mouth so that the knife would pop out of her mouth, and describing thet censored eye gouging, while Salvatti recalls how the house was creepy in real life, Trani talks about the uglier original look of Freudstein, and De Nava says how Fulci was annoyed every time he took his mask off, as it needed refixing on to his face every time.
House Quake – interview with co-writer Giorgio Mariuzzo [14 mins]
This and the next four features are taken from the 2020 Blue Underground edition, Here, Maruizzo says how he was most interested in plot and characters and that he and Sacchetti worked separately, that Fulci loved doing his role as a retired mobster in Contraband, and tells a great story about Fulci, who was usually scruffy and dirty, once showing up dressed impeccably before going to the loo and coming out untidy and with coke and piss on him.
Q&A with Catriona MacColl at the 2014 Spaghetti Cinema Festival, Luton, England [29 mins]
MacColl begins this Q and A by stating that she not be asked what Fulci was like to work with, because she’s been asked thar so many times, though of course the subject can’t help but come up anyway despite the people asking the questions trying to ask different things. She doesn’t seem to believe [without explicitly stating] Fulci’s story about the film breaking during the making of City Of The Living Dead and thereby being the reason for its vague ending; the interviewer thinks that either MacCall or De Mejo told her that originally she and that child were meant to hug. She also tells of how, after ignoring these silly films she’d done back in 1981, she, after turning many down, met with a persistent journalist who took her to a film festival, which began her re-evaluation of them. Elsewhere we’ve already heard what she has to say, but of course it’s nice to see her tell it.
Calling Dr. Freudstein – interview with Stephen Thrower, author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci [22 mins]
This featurette has the writer delving into the film and delivering a strange fact not previously stated on this release; Sacchetti saying that Fulci wasn’t too interested in the fantastical even though it seems that it was Fulci who’d add fantastical things. He also says howc he flinches at the idea of MacColl in The New York Ripper which came next and which she turned down, and puts forward the enticing suggestion that this small group of films could almost exist in the same universe, what with the many returning cast members and sets plus the similar feel. Some cool location comparison is also present.
Deleted scene [30 seconds]
The actual cut footage really isn’t much, consisting of a quiet few seconds immediately after the bat attack, and has no sound.
Alternate US opening titles
The replaced music is actually pretty effective, an eerie piece indeed.
Archival introduction by Giovanni Frezza [1 min]
Here begin the old 2012 Arrow special features, starting with Frezza apologising for the voice of his English dubber, something he does several times on this release.
Back to the Cellar – archival interview with Giovanni Frezza [15 mins]
Tbese tend to repeat things said earlier, but it’s nice that Arrow have included them anyway, and we get the odd nugget, such as Frezza saying that his mother hated him being in movies, and that he used to deny having been in The House By The Cemetery.
Cemetery Woman – archival interview with Catriona MacColl [21 mins]
New from MacColl is that she thinks that Fulci being nasty to some Italian actresses may have been because “They were more interested in the way they looked rather than what they were actually doing”.
Wax Mask: Finishing the Final Fulci – archival interview with filmmaker and special makeup effects artist Sergio Stivaletti [8 mins]
Though not about The House By The Cemetery, this is still a nice inclusion, even if it doesn’t go into the stories of what may have happened in the background. Fulci and Argento were intending to collaborate on Wax Mask. Then Fulci died and Argento asked Stivaletti to make it. Stivaletti says how he had no interest in emulating Fulci and changed a lot of what they’d planned, de-emphasising murder sequences and basing the main character on a real alchemist.
Freudstein’s Follies – archival interview with Giannetto De Rossi [10 mins]
De Rossi goes into detail about how he achieved his effects, and says how he [rightly] thinks that Fulci was trapped in horror, Italian filmmakers tending to be typecast if they have a big success in a particular genre.
Ladies of Italian Horror – archival interviews with Italian horror cinema stars Stefania Casini, Barbara Magnolfi and The House by the Cemetery‘s Silvia Collatina [24 mins]
The three ladies are intercut with each other as they talk about their time as stars of Italian horror. Casini says how she did a 24-hour crash course in English just before making her first film Blood For Dracula, Magnoli that she and others were indeed exploited, with nudity and sex scenes often added during filming, and Collatina how she constantly cried while shooting The House By The Cemetery.
The House by the Cemetery Q&A – 2011 panel at HorrorHound, Indianapolis, Indiana featuring the film’s cast [42 mims[
Unsurprisingly this Q and A with MacColl. Frezza, Collatina, De Mejo nd Lassander mostly reveals stuff that we’ve already heard much the same people say, and it’s in poor sound too; De Mejo is virtually unintelligible. Nonetheless, seeing these five together is quite wonderful, and this is also worth watching for Lassander waxing passionately about Fulci loving setting up and filming her death scene, and Collatina calling Anna Pieroni [Anna] “not very good at acting”.
International theatrical trailer
US theatrical trailer
Poster and still galleries
Limited edition packaging with reversible sleeve featuring two original pieces of poster artwork
Limited edition 60-page perfect bound book featuring new writing on the film by Roberto Curti, Stephen Thrower, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Rachael Nisbet
Fold-out double-sided poster featuring two original pieces of poster artwork
Six double-sided collector’s postcards
Bravo Arrow! With superb picture quality and loaded with extras, this must be the definitive release of a beguiling horror film which looks more and more like a classic as time goes by. Very highly recommended!