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By Michael Muzerall | October 30, 2003

You know things aren’t going well for you as a movie character when you’re in a horror film and the creepy, dead girl’s ghost is on your side. Things can only go downhill from then on, as director Lucio Fulci sadistically demonstrates in “The House By the Cemetery”.
Dr. Gordon Boyle (Paolo Malco) plans to follow up on research begun by the late Dr. Peterson into the rationale behind suicide. Gordon uproots his wife Lucy (Katherine MacColl) and son Bob (Giovanni Frezza) from their comfortable New York City apartment and drops them into a small town on the outlying edges of Boston. The deal is for Gordon to continue where Peterson left off; possibly comprehending why his mentor succumbed to the very malady he was studying. The family moves into the quaint estate known as Oak Mansion, but is more cryptically referred to as the “old Freudstein house” whenever they are not in earshot of the realty agent and her assistant. Young Bob hits it off well with a ghostly apparition, Mae (Silvia Collatina), who’s keen on warning him of the menace posed by the accursed house. Sinister omens begin to mount up: the unnerving whimpers issued by unknown victims plague the halls at night, an excitable bat takes a bite out of Gordon’s hand, and the introduction of the alluring babysitter who acts so mysterious, even she doesn’t seem to know what she’s up to. The family overlooks many blatant signs of danger (they’d leave sooner, but they’re just waiting for their real estate agent to find them another house- honest to god, that what’s implied) that ultimately lead to a gore-encrusted climax revealing the secrets behind the estate’s original proprietor, Dr. Jacob Freudstein (Giovanni De Nava).
This film seems hell-bent to go above and beyond the call of duty to rub every possible audience member the wrong way, so its merits may be harder to define. The plot detours are too numerous, and ultimately unfulfilling, for this film to work on a narrative (and logical) level. There is an indication that Gordon has visited the town before Dr. Peterson’s suicide, and even goes as far as to hint that he may have had a second family that fell upon foul play. Don’t get too excited, this constitutes neither a fascinating story development nor a spoiler; it’s mentioned once in the film then never referred back to. Once Ann (Ania Pieroni), the soft-spoken yet desirable babysitter, hits the scene, we’re treated to many close ups of her eyes making come hither stares to Gordon, and vice versa, with Lucy eyeing them both. Lucy seems a little slow on the uptake since she doesn’t even acknowledge the goo-goo eyes zipping back and forth in front of her (Gordon’s a little slow too considering he never makes good on Ann’s tempting stares, another potential plot line that trails off to nowhere). “The House By the Cemetery” has plenty of opportunities to fray the viewer’s fortitude, whether it’s the lingering shots of Dr. Freudstein’s bloody handiwork to the less than sound choices in the voice-over artists (little Bob’s dubbing is so deadening to the ears that your sympathy for him is considerably compromised every time he opens his mouth). It’s rather difficult to give an accurate review of any actor’s performance when every line of dialogue has been dubbed over (even the english speaking actors like MacColl). Suffice it to say, they at least appear believably frightened when the scene requires them to do so and that goes a long way when looking at what virtues the film does have.
For those who persevere through the atrocities set upon their eyes (and ears), you’ll find something that’s worth taking away: a truly atmospheric piece of filmmaking that creates the most nightmarish vision of what a haunted house should contain. This Italian production has the same advantage that aided several Fulci films movies over the years, the use of actual American backdrops (in this case New York and Massachusetts) as opposed to recreating them on foreign soil. The house itself is unsettling, not because of some “Amityville Horror” architecture, but by the way it perfectly captures the essence of what makes a house appear… evil. Its exterior, with the nameless graves planted in front, promises untold horrors within. The interior expands the dread, with its gothic, stained glass windows and layers of ancient dust obscuring the house’s most disturbing secret. Having poked one hole too many in the film’s logic, Fulci wisely concentrates the climax on the visceral showdown with the hideous Dr. Freudstein. Surprisingly, it’s not so much that he ratchets up the violence (the bar’s been set before the opening credits roll), but rather how Fulci shoves the viewer into the same hopeless corner that the Boyle family find themselves in. Though no child is shown dying on screen, Bob is stuck between a fair amount of bloody carnage; Fulci can be criticized for this, but it must be said that if you’re doing a horror film, one should expect the horrors to unfurl to its inevitable conclusion. And yet, for a movie that constantly places value on intense, shocking set pieces over competent story structure, the ending comes as a bit of a quiet puzzle. You’ll either ponder its meaning and try to discover what Fulci’s intentions were or get smacked upside the head for thinking that Italian zombie flicks were designed to enlighten.

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