House by the Cemetery, The (US - BD)
Gabe didn't read the fine print...and just mortgaged his life for this Blu-ray disc...
When the respected Dr. Peterson murders his mistress and commits suicide, Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco) is sent to New England to complete the good doctor’s research. Norman brings his wife Lucy Boyle (Catriona MacColl) and son Bob (Giovanni Frezzi) along for a trip, and the family settles into Peterson’s now empty homestead. Bob is warned time and time again to stay away by a mysterious little girl named Mae (Silvia Collatina) who no one else can see. They arrive at the creepy house, which is located next to a cemetery, and find the cellar mysteriously boarded up. It turns out there’s a pseudo-zombie named Dr. Freudstein living behind that door. Soon horrible things begin to happen, and Freudstein starts killing visitors for their body parts.
Often grouped with City of the Living Dead and The Beyond as part of a loose ‘zombie trilogy’, House by the Cemetery is Lucio Fulci's final fantasy horror epic. I prefer to consider Zombie (aka: Zombi 2 and Zombie Flesh Eaters) the first part of the ‘zombie trilogy’, and The Beyond the last part, both because House by the Cemetery doesn’t feature any ‘zombies’, but rather a self-made monster who kills humans for their organs (not because he wants to eat their flesh), and because of its lack of apocalyptic implications. The Beyond also, in many ways, represents the director at his apex. House by the Cemetery is the last ‘important’ film in Fulci’s filmography ( New York Ripper is still impressive on many levels, but is not a properly good movie), but is also a measurable step down in quality from City of the Living Dead and The Beyond’s technical achievements (the largely boring Black Cat, which was also made in 1981, isn’t really a fantasy horror film, but a potboiler). Fulci brings to his best hallucinatory nonsense to the table, which works well for previous films, but for the most part it hinders House by the Cemetery’s more traditional (even vaguely intellectual) narrative. Fulci also spends a little too much time emulating popular 1979/80 American horror films, specifically Stuart Rosenberg’s Amityville Horror, Kubrick’s The Shining and Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (though the Friday the 13th elements can be viewed as satirical), which feels like a creative back-step following the more personal artistry of City of the Living Dead and The Beyond.
The largely nonsensical and derivative script does feature a novel take on the mad scientist trope. Dr. Freudstein, as him name indicates, is based largely around Mary Shelley’s proto-mad scientist Dr. Frankenstein, but rather than creating an external monster made up of re-animated body parts, Freudstein has turned himself into the monster. Clues to this twist (which isn’t so much a twist since the character is kind of dumped suddenly on the audience at the end of the movie) are also found in the character’s name, as the concept is indeed swimming in Freudian implications (implications which can also be found in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which was another obvious influence on Fulci). It’s easy to see what Fucli was trying to do with the character by setting him up as a boogey-man type, with a pseudo-scientific rather than supernatural explanation behind his murders, but the final reveal, though a striking image (I quite like the make-up design), is disappointing. It robs the character of his genius, and even his killing skills, as he basically embodies the same kind of threat Fulci’s zombies do. He’s slow moving, speechless, and apparently invincible. Of course, this is just a symptom of how silly the climax really is. Upon a first viewing it’s easy to find yourself wrapped up in the grim violence, but immediate afterthought proves detrimental. Even in Fulci’s low-logic universe it’s hard to believe Freudstein was able to maintain shop in the basement. How could the family not suspect as such, especially following the murderous events that befall their new residence?
The story is somewhat cleverly split between the three family members, which could explain why some parts of the narrative are driven by pseudo-science and others by the supernatural. It’s unfortunate that it’s so easy to overlook this division, because it not only explains away a lot of the film’s apparent lack of logic, it also shows real ambition on the part of Fucli, and his co-writers Elisa Briganti, Giorgio Mariuzzo and Dardano Sacchetti (I’m unclear on how the writing duties were divided). Lucy experiences the terror in psychological terms. She may or may not be mentally ill, and at the very least is driven to hysterics by the creepy phenomenon striking the house. Norman’s terror is more based in science, or in this case pseudo-science. He discovers the truth behind the house, and has a logical explanation for everything. There’s even a sense that he might be holding back important facts from Lucy in the way he reacts to some of her questions. It’s also possible that Norman’s doctor instincts have gotten the better of him, and that the drugs he’s force-feeding Lucy are actually creating the hallucinations. Bob’s side of the story is a more traditional ghost story. He sees and communicates with a dead girl who does everything she can to keep him away from the ‘haunted’ house. Being a child he also tends to roll with the punches, and his visions are generally ignored by the adults. Because the story comes to such an abrupt climax, and because Fulci heavily intimates that Bob’s reality is the true reality, the speculative nature of this multi-point of view reading is dulled, giving way to the entirely sensible assumption that the film is a sloppy mess of balderdash.
House by the Cemetery is still a uniquely Fulci-esque motion picture experience, and that there is something magical about its violent, gothic, dread-dripping atmosphere. Viewers in the appropriate mindset – the kind of mindset usually required for enjoying any late ‘70s/early ‘80s Italian horror film – are in for an occasionally disturbing and well crafted 87 minutes of utter nonsense, spiked by memorable set-pieces. House by the Cemetery’s imagery isn’t as shocking or skin-crawlingly dread-caked as the Maestro’s best horror films, but it might be his most haunting film, aside from maybe Beatrice Cenzi, which benefits from stronger characters and emotionally affecting melodrama (Catriona MacColl does a lot to bring humanity to the film, but she’s surrounded by weak performances, and dreadful dubbing). Fulci has a firm grip on the dream-like atmosphere, and captures the appropriate sense of nightmare, where anything and everyone is vaguely threatening, even when narrative events appear to specify otherwise. There’s even something to be said for the way characters fail to capably interact with each other, which vaguely follows the dream logic atmosphere. And ludicrous or not, the fact that Dr. Freudstein leaks the sound of weeping children is pretty damn chilling. Even the ambiguous final minutes are more effectively spooky than the nonsensical final seconds of City of the Living Dead (which fans now know are the result of an accident when developing the original negative), though it also kind of spits in the face of any viewer still hanging onto the tiniest thread of reason, which I understand can be quite frustrating.
Though I’d count the film’s gore effects among the best in Giannetto De Rossi and Maurizio Trani’s illustrious careers (they even stand up to the scrutiny of HD in some cases), I have to admit that Fulci’s penchant for elongating violence to farcical lengths gets the better of him here. For whatever reason the slow creep works for City of the Living Dead’s gut-barfing and head drilling, but the manner in which characters stand still long enough for Freudstein to slowly mangle them comes off as more goofy than suspenseful. The slow burn approach works well for scenes of unseen menace, and the sequence that sees Lucy and Morman desperately trying to flee from the basement is genuinely nerve wracking, but often the heavy gore scenes slow Fucli’s pace (the bat scene and Mrs. Gittelson’s death in particular), and are silly enough to pull even the most willing participate out of the film. The ultra-goopy climax more than fulfills the average gore-hound’s expectations though, and is much more successfully executed too boot.
Blue Underground’s release of Zombie got most of the press of the two October 25th releases, but this first time Blu-ray release of House by the Cemetery has also been remastered from its original negative, and is presented in full 1080p, in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. I’m willing to go out on a limb here and say this is the better of the two transfers. At the very least it’s a huge step beyond the Anchor Bay and Blue Underground DVD releases (both of which represent the exact same transfer), and a gargantuan step beyond those dreadful budget releases, which are so dark Mrs. Gittelson’s death is totally undecipherable (not to mention the lack of anamorphic enhancement). The advantage I see here is a more even handed approach to contrast levels, and an overall lack of crushed blacks. This may be due to ingrained expectations, as there are fewer previous DVD releases of House by the Cemetery, and thus fewer differentiations in darkness levels, but whatever the case I’m left satisfied that Fulci and cinematographer Sergio Salvati’s intensions for the film are maintained here. The daylight scenes are still a little on the blown-out side, and some of the darker elements tend to blend into each other, but for the most part this transfer is consistent and clear. Detail levels are incredibly sharp, revealing minute textures and lines, along with complex colour mixes that were subtle enough to be flattened on the DVD releases. Once again, this clarity doesn’t do the special effects any favours, but there are among make-up artist Giannetto De Rossi’s best, so more often than not his artistry is given a proper chance to shine. I also hadn’t noticed until this viewing that Freudstein’s left hand is a little girl’s hand. Some viewers will find the look a bit soft, but this does not contradict the soft focus look of many of the director’s other films.
This transfer is warmer than any previous transfers, featuring more brown in the place of flatter blue palettes. I found this colour timing a little more natural overall, especially in skin tones, which may or may not be an improvement depending on your point of view. At the same time even cool hues are more vibrant, and both blue and green levels punctuate the overall palette with more richness. There is some minor bleeding along the sharpest white edges, especially title elements, but for the most part these richer, more vibrant hues cut sharply against each other. The problem here is the same that effects most of the studio’s big ticket (comparatively speaking) HD releases – there’s evidence of digital tampering. Again, I’m not quite well versed enough to define this issue, but what I’m seeing looks an awful lot like DNR enhancement, speckled with some kind of digital noise. There’s speculation that this noise, which is most evident in still shots (especially in brighter gradations and harsh white edges), and relatively easy to overlook in motion, are the result of telecine scanning problems, rather than DNR. Occasionally the noise gives way to more obvious grain, especially in darker shots, and this looks more natural to me. Whatever the cause, this is an issue most viewers will happily overlook, but that will certainly bother the hardest of the hard core videophiles. Traditional film artefacts are minimal, including a couple of hairs in the gate, and minor white flecks.
Blue Underground’s Blu-ray surround codecs have usually followed the lead set by the first generation Anchor Bay DVD releases. Most of their DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are 5.1 or 7.1, but some are 2.0 or mono. Like their Cat O’ Nine Tails release, this House by the Cemetery disc features an uncompressed DTS-HD MA version of the AB DVD’s 2.0 surround track. It’s unfortunate that this is the one among Fucli’s strongest supernatural horror films that no one has even been able to separate in to 5.1 discreet channels, because the haunted house elements could’ve led to some cool, creepy stereo and surround effects. As it is, the majority of this track sits in the center ghost channel, with the stereo and rear work mostly pertaining to music, and musically generated sound effects. The track is plenty clean and clear, and doesn’t distort very much even during the highest, sharpest volume levels (specifically that horrible screeching bat), but the dialogue bleeds out a bit, and is generally pretty quiet. For whatever reason Zombie, City of the Living Dead and The Beyond composer Fabio Frizzi did not work on House by the Cemetery, which makes Walter Rizzati’s mixed electronic score something of a novelty in Fulci’s horror canon. This score is more rock based than Frizzi’s moody scores, setting it more in line with the kind of stuff Goblin did for Dario Argento. The uncompressed nature of the 2.0 English track certainly helps when Rizzati’s keys and drums hit their most bombastic levels, but the lack of LFE enhancement is a bummer.
The Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is much flatter in terms of effects noise, but the vocal performances are a bit more consistent. Of course, the inclusion of both Italian and English tracks brings about a pretty hefty dilemma. Catriona MacColl’s performance is an important element, and the actress dubs herself in English. Paolo Malco is obviously speaking English throughout most of the film, and is competently dubbed in English (by Frank von Kuegelgen, who also dubs Malco on The New York Ripper). Giovanni Frezza is the problem. In Italian he sounds fine, like a regular little boy, but in English he’s been dubbed by what most fans assume is an adult woman, and the voice work is dreadful, and mixed too loudly on every release of the film I’ve ever seen. This means the English track is preferable on every point but one, and that one is very distracting…
Almost every extra outside of the advertising materials is new to this Blu-ray release, starting with a series of cast interviews. ‘Meet the Boyles’ (14:10, HD) features stars Catriona MacColl and Paolo Malco. MacColl (always so gracious in these things), who worked with Fulci on both City of the Living Dead and The Beyond recalls the role with relative fondness, mostly since it was different from the other two, and describes the manner her relationship grew with the director. Together the pair recalls working with each other, Fulci’s attitude problems (which mostly didn’t effect them), filming in New England, special effects, and the film’s legacy. ‘Children of the Night’ (12:10, HD) features actors Giovanni Frezza and Silvia Collatina, who were the two children featured in the film. Both actors discuss their experiences as child actors on a horror film, bad English dubbing, doubling as Freudstein’s hand, shooting around gore, Fulci’s moods, and the film’s legacy. ‘Tales of Laura Gittleson’ (8:50, HD) features actress Dagwar Lassander, who continues the tradition of being dumbfounded by the film’s popularity in America (it’s firmly established through these interviews that no one in Italy gives a shit), and also covers her film career (including Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon, and Fulci’s The Black Cat), and working on the convention circuit. ‘My Time with Terror’ (9:10, HD) features actor Carlo de Mejo, who barely appears in House by the Cemetery, but who has a sizable role in City of the Living Dead, and who is the son of Alida Valli ( The Third Man, Suspiria, Inferno). De Mejo covers his long career, focusing mostly on his films with Fulci, including Manhattan Baby, Women’s Prison Massacre, and The Other Hell.
The crew interviews start with ‘A Haunted House Story’ (14:00, HD), which features co-writers Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Briganti, both of whom worked with Fulci on several occasions. Here they cover the story’s inception, inspirations, themes, and Fulci’s filmic practices. The final interview is the longest ‘To Build a Better Death Trap’ (22:00, HD), and features cinematographer Sergio Salvati, make-up effects artists Gino de Rossi and Maurizio Trani, and actor Giovanni de Nava (who played Freudstein under all the make-up). Subject matter includes the creepy setting, Fulci’s technique, effects processes, the difficulties in designing Freudstein, and acting as Freudstein. The extras end with a deleted scene (1:00, HD) featuring no sound elements, two trailers, a TV spot, and a poster and still gallery.
House by the Cemetery is the beginning of Lucio Fulci’s sharp downfall, but is still among his best films, and this HD revisit has slightly raised the film in my personal rankings. It’s bizarre, and features huge gaps in quality, but it works more than it fails. This 1080p restoration looks pretty spectacular, and the DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack is adequate. The new extras aren’t dramatically time consuming, but are surprisingly informative, and relatively entertaining. For the record, outside the Anchor Bay and Blue Underground DVD releases there have been some budget releases from Diamond and Brentwood, which are better looking than the full frame VHS versions, but they are missing footage, and two reels are edited out of order, making the already senseless picture even more senseless.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the Blue Underground Blu-ray screen-caps.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 25th October 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Italian Mono
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Meet the Boyles, Children of the Night, Tales of Laura Gittleson, My Time with Terror, A Haunted House Story, To Build a Better Death Trap, Deleted Scene, Trailers, TV Spot, Poster and Still Gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: Lucio Fulci
Cast: Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Ania Pieroni, Carlo De Mejo, and Dagmar Lassander
Length: 87 minutes
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