Another great setup for a classic horror story, another ham-fisted, mostly nonsensical movie from director Lucio Fulci. For the most part, The House by the Cemetery (1981) makes more sense than The Beyond, but it's still filled with its share of baffling creative decisions that left me confused and irritated. Naturally, the film has some nasty gore, memorable imagery, and eerie atmosphere that evokes childhood nightmares, but it's a long haul to get to those.
The House by the Cemetery has a premise similar to that of The Shining. Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco) packs up his wife Lucy (Katherine MacColl) and young son Bob (Giovanni Frezza) and takes them out of New York to an isolated house outside Boston where he will continue the research of his colleague Dr. Peterson, who killed himself after murdering his mistress. Bob doesn't want to go after he's warned away by the spirit of a little girl named Mae (Silvia Collatina). Weird things begin to happen, and it all has to do with the house's history with a notorious 18th century surgeon, Dr. Freudstein (hee, hee, hee, Freudstein).
While watching the movie, I realized my issue with Fulci's style as a director: every point he makes, he makes by bringing it front and center in the frame and lingers on it to make sure we get it. For example, following an incident that leaves Lucy hysterical, the movie moves to the next morning, where she is lying in bed and Norman is sitting in a chair. The scene begins with a closeup shot of pills on a nearby nightstand. OK, we get it; she needed medicine to calm down. Norman and Lucy talk for a bit and hug; he looks over at the pills, and Fulci zooms in on them, as if we didn't already know about them. Maybe if that shot was establishing the pills would still be important, it'd be understandable, but nope, they're never mentioned again or seen.
Ann is a problematic character because she continues to act as if she's in the know about the secret of the house and the monster in the basement. She acts cold and weird toward the Boyles, and without a word, she cleans up a pool of blood in the kitchen where someone was murdered the night before. Yet, she's revealed to be a complete innocent, unaware of the truth of what's going on. So, finding blood on the floor, cleaning it up, and never mentioning it to your employer is a common responsibility for Boston babysitters? Good to know. That may come in handy some day.
Still, there are some undeniably effective moments in The House by the Cemetery, at least when it focuses on the basement horror. Come on. Who hasn't, as a little kid, been nervous about going down the basement in the dark, afraid of what might be lurking there? At its best, the movie exploits that fear, and Fulci gives a number of creepy shots of the open cellar door, an open portal to total darkness. And of course, like something out of a nightmare, characters find reasons to go downstairs and end up trapped. Even the shots from the killer's point of view as he lumbers from in the basement and up the stairs are pretty cool.
The movie ends with text by Henry James about how no one knows if monsters are children or if children are monsters. I have no clue how that relates to the movie we just watched. If anything, the killer preys on children, so I'm lost.