House by the Cemetery Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: January 21, 2020
Audio: English & Italian 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio; English 5.1 DTS-HD MA
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, English for Italian Audio
Run Time: 86 minutes
Director: Lucio Fulci
A young family moves from their cramped New York City apartment to a spacious new home in New England. But this is no ordinary house in the country: the previous owner was the deranged Dr. Freudstein, whose monstrous human experiments have left a legacy of bloody mayhem. Now, someone – or something – is alive in the basement and home sweet home is about to become a horrific Hell on Earth. (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)
In the early 1980s, Lucio Fulci was riding the highest high of his entire career. Following a successful run of spaghetti westerns, gialli, farcical comedies, and period melodramas, he had his first international mega-hit in 1979 with Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2; aka: Zombie Flesh Eaters and Zombie 2: The Dead are Among Us, 1979). Despite being a logical extension of his earlier films, Zombie’s extremely graphic violence – itself a result of cashing-in on George A. Romero’s trend-settingly violent Dawn of the Dead (1978) – became a calling card and the one thing a new legion of viewers would come to expect from his work. As a result, producers and financiers were happy to pay premium cash for whatever Fulci wanted to make next, as long as it was gory, spooky, and included zombies in some capacity. This offered the director, who was already more than happy to shoot scenes of excessive and creative violence, a unique chance to cut loose with surrealistic, Gothic-themed horror movies, culminating in a trio of fan-favorites – City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi; aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980), The Beyond (Italian: ..E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà; aka: Seven Doors of Death, 1981), and House by the Cemetery (Italian: Quella villa accanto al cimitero; aka Zombie Hell House and Freudstein, 1981).
Of these, House by the Cemetery is the odd picture out for a litany of reasons, but most obviously because it is a comparatively normal Italian horror movie. In some interviews, Fulci referred to City of the Living Dead and The Beyond as Artaudian horror stories, in reference to French dramatist Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty movement. They are bizarre mood pieces that forego logic in favor of nightmarish imagery. House by the Cemetery has a structured story (however strange compared to a typical Hollywood horror movie from the same era), defined characters, and it even ends on a solid twist. There are supernatural elements, but most of the outrageous mayhem is wreaked by a (mostly) living creature, rather than undead minions with warping powers or the ability to make necking co-eds vomit forth their entire digestive tracks. Still, it fits the Gothic trilogy for more reasons than it doesn’t, such as a lead performance from British actress Catriona MacColl, writing by Dardano Sacchetti (who shares credits on this film with Fulci and Giorgio Mariuzzo), and their American locations – City of the Living Dead takes place on Long Island and rural Massachusetts, The Beyond takes place in New Orleans, and House by the Cemetery takes place in the outskirts of the Boston area. Fulci also considers all three movies to be his homage to H.P. Lovecraft and, while only City of the Living Dead directly references the author in that it namechecks the fictional city of Dunwich, this one matches the author’s storytelling M.O. most precisely.
Allusions to popular Hollywood films are less vague than those to Lovecraft and other literary or artistic sources (like Artaud). It’s funny to think that Zombie was accused by so many critics of flat-out ripping off Dawn of the Dead, despite the huge differences between their stories, characters, location, and even the look of its undead creatures, considering how much more blatant House by the Cemetery’s varied influences are. Two obvious touchstones are Stuart Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror (1979) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), both movies that already shared quite a bit in common, from their literary sources (they’re based on books by Jay Anson and Steven King, respectfully) to their solitary, haunted locations and familial themes. The Shining imitation is more obvious, extending to include a little boy protagonist who is warned of the oncoming danger by supernatural friends and a ghostly photograph (one of which acts as a harbinger of doom, the other as postscript). Another possible inspiration is on Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979), though the similarities (the prolonged battles with Phantasm’s finger monster and House by the Cemetery’s hand-eating bat, for example) are less concrete.
House by the Cemetery’s more grounded reality (at least compared to the two Gothic horrors it followed) makes it easy for Fulci to also borrow elements from North American slashers. The international print campaign and the art adorning most early home video releases heavily implied that it was a movie about a mad killer slashing people up with a butcher knife. Of course, a mad killer does slash people up – sometimes even with a butcher knife – but the better description would be a haunted house movie where the house is haunted by a slasher killer. Fulci never quite made a straight-forward slasher, but he danced around the genre for the rest of his career, most effectively with his House by the Cemetery follow-up, the brutally repugnant, late game giallo New York Ripper (Italian: Lo squartatore di New York, 1982). The nearly bloodless Murder Rock (Italian: Murderock - uccide a passo di danza; aka: Dancing Death, Slashdance, and The Demon Is Loose!, 1984) and gory meta murder mystery A Cat in the Brain (Italian: Un gatto nel cervello; aka: Nightmare Concert and I volti del terrore, 1990) also skirt that giallo/slasher line.
Despite the slasher edge, the death scenes all feel appropriately Fulci-esque. He’s not interested in stabbing and slashing as much as the complete disintegration of the human body. There’s nothing on the insanity level of The Beyond’s acid bath, but the violence is similarly over-the-top, such as a knife being driven through the top of a skull and out of a victim’s mouth. The juiciest stuff is reserved for the climax, when the family discovers that the assumed dead original resident of the house, Dr. Freudstein, has been living in the basement for decades and keeping himself alive by murdering residents and grafting their parts and organs onto his own body. Freudstein’s body is a revolting, fleshy patchwork and his face has endured so many surgeries that it is bereft of recognizable features, like eyes and a mouth. His murders and gut-strewn lab are among makeup artists Giannetto De Rossi and Maurizio Trani’s most convincing work (apparently, this time Trani’s team focused on makeup and De Rossi focused on mechanical effects). Just as vital to the Fulci Gothic formula is the texture of the rotting environment surrounding the rotting people. He and cinematographer Sergio Salvati take time to appreciate the dust, decay, cobwebs, and rust of the Freudstein house, exploring every nook and cranny of Massimo Lentini’s production design and Mariangela Capuano's set dressing.
Arguably, House by the Cemetery was Fulci’s last great movie, though it didn’t mark a definitive end to his prime era. New York Ripper offered fans another glance at the kind of expert gore they’d come to expect from the maestro (amusingly, House by the Cemetery was released on South African home video under the title Revenge of the New York Ripper), and the likable, if not sometimes dull mummy's curse movie (with no mummy), Manhattan Baby (Italian: Il malocchio; aka: Evil Eye and Eye of the Evil Dead, 1982), was very nearly on par with the Gothic trilogy, visually speaking. After that, however, his films lost most of their visual flair. Even the creatively interesting ones – namely his adult fantasy, Conquest (1983), and sci-fi action flick, New Gladiators (Italian: I guerrieri dell'anno 2072, 1984) – lacked the atmospheric allure of his best work.
Unlike in the UK, where it was first heavily edited, then banned outright as part of the Video Recordings Act of 1984, House by the Cemetery was easily obtained on VHS in North America. Unfortunately, Vestron Video’s tape, which was otherwise uncensored, had two reels out of order, leading American fans to think the film was as impenetrably plotted as City of the Living Dead and The Beyond. Anchor Bay’s 2001, anamorphic DVD (released simultaneously with a widescreen VHS tape) was the first time that R1 fans could see a complete version of the film, including a couple of scenes that the original US theatrical distributor cut because they were afraid that their horror audiences would be bored by domestic drama. That is, assuming they hadn’t imported bootleg tape recordings of the Japanese or Dutch Laserdiscs. Additionally, there was a series of budget label, non-anamorphic DVDs. Blue Underground’s US Blu-ray and Arrow’s UK Blu-ray arrived in 2011 and 2012 (British fans were finally able to see the film uncut in 2009), respectively. These featured essentially the same transfer, likely derived from the same digital scan, though Arrow’s transfer was a little lighter (the XT Video Entertainment’s Austrian BD was practically identical to BU’s). The Blu-rays were obvious improvements over the DVDs and Blue Underground had learned a lot of lessons from their New York Ripper and Django (1966) transfers, but the base scan was still rife with CRT/telecine noise, as so many Italian-born HD remasters had been at the time (including those two I just mentioned).
That brings to Blue Underground’s new 4K restoration. I’ve included caps from this new disc (left) and the original BU Blu-ray (right) in the sliders below, but do caution that this is a case where the biggest upgrades are most easily seen at full size (which you can see by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images at each side of the slider and opening them in a new window/tab). The details are punched up considerably, revealing more of that beautiful texture that can only come from a combination of Fulci and aforementioned cinematographer Sergio Salvati, as well as impressive clarity from the wide-angle shots. Contrast levels are stronger, which is a pleasant surprise, given how many 4K remasters tend to be darker than older restorations. The lightness doesn’t ruin the mood, either, because the blacks remain deep and rich. Color timing, on the other hand, may be a contentious issue for some. For the most part, the more vibrant and warmer hues are a plus, but there are cases where Salvati’s patented cobalt blues have been tealed-up and the neutral hues skew a bit green, whereas before they were probably too pink. Despite a tinge of that spritzy telecine quality, the grain looks like actual grain here, especially in motion. Notice the lack of posterization effects in the blurs and soft focus.
This new disc comes fitted with three uncompressed, DTS-HD Master Audio options: English 1.0 mono, Italian 1.0 mono, and a new English 5.1 remix. That brings us to the part of the review where I remind everyone that Italian movies were shot without synced, on-set sound, so all language tracks are dubbed. In addition, the international casts were often speaking different languages on set. Most of Fulci’s horror movies work better in English, because the lead cast members tended to be English speakers. In this case, the dub cast was full of top-tier talent, including Anna Miserocchi dubbing Teresa Rossi Passante, Carolyn De Fonseca dubbing Dagmar Lassander, Edward Mannix dubbing Paolo Malco, and Serena Verdirosi, who had perfected her Catriona MacColl voice after dubbing the actress for the third time. Unfortunately, little Giovanni Frezza, who plays young Bob, was dubbed by an adult woman named Francesca Guadagno who...well, despite her best efforts, sounds exactly like an adult woman, not a young boy. Anyway, if you’re one of those people that can handle Bob’s voice, the English track is probably the way to go. The two mono tracks are comparable enough in tone and clarity to leave the audio quality out of this particular equation. The 5.1 remix is fine, but unnecessary, outside of the stereo spread it gives the music. Fulci’s usual collaborator at the time, composer Fabio Frizzi, was not available for House by the Cemetery. His replacement, Walter Rizzati, did a fine job filling in and matching Frizzi’s typical tone without completely mimicking his style, especially when opting for baroque keyboards over choral arrangements.
Disc One (Blu-ray):
Commentary with author Troy Howarth – The author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films (Midnight Marquee Press, 2016) does a typical job combining analysis with context, cast & crew histories, and the occasional joke. There are enough behind-the-scenes factoids to teach even the most ardent fan a thing or two, but Howarth is still sure to cover enough of Fulci and his career to educate the newbies.
International and US trailers
"Bat Attack Aftermath" deleted scene (1:01, SD)
Poster and still galleries
Disc Two (Blu-ray):
House Quake (14:46, in Italian with English subtitles) – A new interview with co-writer Giorgio Mariuzzo, who was not included on the previous Blue Underground writers interview. He recalls his other collaborations with Fulci and his contributions to House by the Cemetery’s script. Apparently, his specific interest in story may explain why it is the most narratively coherent of Fulci’s Gothic horror films.
2014 Spaghetti Cinema Festival Q&A with Catriona MacColl (29:37, HD) – This UK-based festival clip is hosted by Calum Waddell. There isn’t a lot of new information here, but it is a charming discussion, nonetheless.
Calling Dr. Freudstein (19:34, HD) – The always dependable Stephen Thrower, the author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci (FAB Press, 1999/2016), speeds through a deep exploration of the film’s production and influences, including Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (pub: 1898) and a much better comparison to Lovecraft’s work than I managed to muster here. The interview ends with some then and now comparisons of some of the film’s New England locations.
Meet the Boyles (14:17, HD) – Interviews with lead actors Catriona MacColl and Paolo Malco
Children of the Night (12:18, HD) – Interviews with (former) child actors Giovanni Frezza and Silvia Collatina
Tales of Laura Gittleson (8:56, HD) – Interview with actress Dagmar Lassander
My Time With Terror (9:21, HD) – Interview with actor Carlo De Mejo
A Haunted House Story (14:07, HD) – Interview with co-writers Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Briganti
To Build a Better Death Trap (21:32, HD) – Interviews with cinematographer Sergio Salvati, special makeup effects artist Maurizio Trani, special effects artist Gino De Rossi and actor Giovanni De Nava
Disc Three (CD):
Soundtrack by Walter Rizzati (31 tracks, 57:11)
The images on this page are taken from the new 4K Remastered Blue Underground BD and Blue Underground's original BD and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.