Reviewing Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell Trilogy, Part 3: ‘The House by the Cemetery’ (1981)

“Freudstein’s house… it draws me like an infernal magnet and frightens me. How many have wandered innocently into the waiting spiderweb?”

So here we are at the lowest level of the Gates of Hell, and it looks an awful lot like a basement in some creepy, New England house. Ignore the noises in the corner and the bodiless eyes that follow us around. Also don’t mind the trail of blood the babysitter is cleaning up. She’s made coffee.

Lucio Fulci has said of The House by the Cemetery that he wanted to make a film inspired by H. P. Lovecraft without being based on one of his stories. One that could easily be interpreted as existing in the same universe. In mood, at least, I think he succeeds – the events of The House by the Cemetery could easily take place in Arkham or Dunwich or any other of Lovecraft’s fictional New England townships. Whatever else you could say about Lovecraft, though, his stories generally had a tight, logical structure to them – within the bounds of their fictional universe. I’m not sure anyone could say the same of Fulci…

But it’s also a ghost story, and in that sense – and in the fabricated quote that closes the film – it owes as much to Henry James and his classic stories as it does to Lovecraft. A spooky old house, voices no one can pinpoint, noises in the basement, odd characters and happenings and a couple of weird kids. Remove the gore, the frequent close ups of eyes and make the villain more ambiguous and it could pass for a (very loose) adaptation of something like “The Turn of the Screw.”

Of course, if you remove those elements than it’s not a Lucio Fulci film.

I find The House by the Cemetery the hardest film to slot in to the Gates of Hell trilogy. There is no gate in the film and really no larger sense of impeding doom at all. The other films are scenes from an ongoing (and gory) apocalypse, with ramifications for the larger town and world in which they are set. The actions and consequences in House are really confined to the house itself. I think Zombie would be more thematically appropriate as a part of the trilogy, but that’s beyond the scope of this review series.

I have friends for whom this is their favorite Fulci film. It’s a relatively restrained outing for him, and its pace is slower and builds more traditionally to a climax. For me it’s that restraint that actually prevents it from being in the upper pantheon of Fulci films. After the delirious highs of The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery almost feels like a step back. As if Fulci had scared himself with his visions of a film freed of traditional storytelling restraint. There’s also a startling lack of brains being squeezed out of their skull.

As per usual with a Fulci film, I’ll place the warning here. We’re taking another trip down:

(This means gory descriptions and images below.)

The Medium
I have the 2011 Blu-ray release of The House by the Cemetery from Blue Underground. It’s perfectly serviceable and has a good array of extras, but I keep going back and forth about double-dipping and picking up the 2020 release, which features a new 4k restoration and additional extras. I held off, as this has always been my least favorite of the Gates of Hell films, but I’m kicking myself now, especially as it includes the excellent soundtrack by Walter Rizzati

For streaming options, House is available for subs on Shudder, Fubo, Showtime and Flix Fling and free with ads on the Roku app. It can be rented or purchased at the usual vendors.

The Movie
Poor Daniela Doria. After vomiting up intestines in City of the Living Dead and being suffocated in an airless room in The Black Cat she’s rewarded for her dedication by having a knife thrust through the back of her head. The opening scene of violence involving a trysting couple serves mostly to let us know that bad things happen in the titular house, and that someone – or someTHING (creepy music) – lurks in the basement.

There’s also an odd little girl, Mae (Silvia Collatina) who lurks in the windows of the house, whether it’s the real house or a photograph of it. She’s trying to warn a child named Bob (Giovanni Frezza) to not come to the house.

And let’s just get this out of the way – the most horrifying, soul-rending, nightmare inducing element of this film is the dubbing of Bob. Regardless of who did the dubbing (IMDB points a finger), the high-pitched “adult attempting a child’s voice” is nails-on-a-chalkboard grating and seriously comes close to derailing the entire experience at times. If Bob was a minor character we wouldn’t hear it quite so much, but he isn’t – and even when he’s not on screen usually there’s someone yelling his name loudly, reminding you how terrible it will be when you hear his voice again. It does get better – or at least easier to ignore – over the course of the film. It would be unwatchable otherwise.

As someone who shares the name, I’m annoyed on his behalf.

The film follows the fate of the Boyles, as close to a nuclear family as you can find in a Fulci film. Dad Norman (Paolo Malco), mother Lucy (Catriona MacCol – rounding out her appearance in each of the Gates films) and, of course (sigh) young Bob. Norman is moving to a rural Massachusetts town with his family in tow so that he can finish the research of the late – but seemingly unlamented – Dr. Peterson. There’s a been a bit of an unpleasantness with a murder/suicide involving the doctor and his mistress, but the research is ground breaking and could make or break Norman. At least according to his mentor, Professor Mueller (Lucio Fulci, once again sending characters into harm’s way both on screen and off).

There are disturbing portents. The girl, Mae is not only sending messages to Bob via photographs of the very house that they’ll be moving to, but she also wanders the streets of the town (New Whitby) experiencing terrible visions. Particularly of a store display mannequin that loses its head, revealing a gory, meaty stump. Bad things are going to happen, you see. Very bad things.

The Boyles arrival in town also contains elements of unease. Mae chastises Bob for showing up, despite her warning (he opines, reasonably, that parents tend to do what THEY want, rather than what kids ask them to do), and then leaves him with her disfigured doll. The realtor (Dagmar Lassander) renting them the Freudstein house- I’m sorry, Oak Mansion – is certain that she’s seen Norman before, despite him insisting that he’s never been to town. This won’t be the only time he’s recognized, as the local librarian (Carlo De Mejo) also seems to think that he’s seen Norman in town with his daughter…

There are a lot of these moments mixed in with strange glances, closeups of eyes, awkward pauses and odd behavior. Fulci lays on the trappings of a mystery. Has Norman been to Whitby before? Does he have something to do with Peterson’s death? Could the attractive babysitter Ann (Ania Pieroni), who shares some of those glances with Norman (and bears a striking resemblance to the decapitated mannequin), be the reason? Is there an ulterior motive in the way he downplays Lucy’s concerns and is constantly reminding her to take her pills? (Ones that can cause hallucinations, according to Lucy!) And why did Peterson give up on his regular research to investigate the Freudstein house – the very house they are renting? Apparently, Dr. Freudstein (does anyone else hear that name in Gene Wilder’s voice?) was a surgeon who conducted illegal experiments. Then murdered his family. Then had his gravestone embedded in the living room. You know, typical Victorian era shenanigans.

Another director would be using these elements to build up Norman as the ultimate villain, perhaps having organized Peterson’s demise and working in tandem with Ann to drive his wife mad, like something out of Diabolique, but Fulci isn’t interested in satisfying our suspicions, or even following through on any of a half-dozen possible sub-plots that he throws out. They’re distractions, ways to keep us off balance and guessing as to the true events occurring.

One of the things that I enjoyed about the film this time around was actually part of the more grounded feel of the film (compared to previous Fulci plots). Once things start getting really spooky – with the sounds of a child crying, the gravestone embedded in the front hall of the house and a vicious bat attack from the basement (man there is a lot of blood in that bat) – Lucy has had enough. She wants out, and even Norman is ready to go, though it means an interruption in his research. It strikes me as surprisingly realistic for a Fulci film, where some characters just seem to stand around until they’re murdered horribly.

The house – or what’s inside it – isn’t ready to let them go, however. When the realtor arrives with keys to a new place she finds the house empty, and is ambushed by a mysterious figure who stabs her repeatedly with a fireplace poker while her foot is trapped in a crack in the Freudstein tombstone. The figure then drags her into the cellar, leaving a wide, gory trail behind.

When Mary comes down to the kitchen in the morning (where were the Boyles during the murder?) she finds Ann busily cleaning the blood trail of the floor. The two women then engage in a series of non-sequitors and silent staring contests before Ann declares that she’s made coffee, which seems to pacify Lucy somewhat. Neither of them mentions the horrific streak of drying blood that Ann’s cleaning.

That feeling you’re having? The “what the hell is going on?” feeling? THAT’S maximum Fulci.

Norman feels that Freudstein is the key to events happening at Oak Mansion – I’m sorry, the Freudstein House – and leaves to dig through Peterson’s material. Lucy goes shopping. This leaves Ann and Bob alone in the house and you’d be forgiven, given Ann’s odd behavior and insistence on cleaning up evidence of horrific crimes, for thinking that she’s somehow part of things. An accomplice. Like Veronica Lazar’s character in The Beyond she finds that she isn’t immune to the forces of darkness. (Interesting that Pieroni ALSO played one of the Three Mother’s in Dario Argento’s Inferno, Mater Lachrymarum.) Descending into the basement in search of Bob, she’s beheaded just like the mannequin that Mae saw in the shop window. Bob arrives just in time to see her head bounce past him on the stairs.

His parents don’t believe him, as parents in horror movies are wont to do. You’ll start to feel sorry for him… but then he’ll talk and that will go out the window.

Things progress rapidly from that point on, because as Norman discovers Freudstein (yes, I’m ignoring the heavily weighted possibilities of that name) was a doctor banned from the medical profession for terrible experiments. Experiments involving the ability to extend life using body parts. Freudstein is still living in the house, you see. And he needs fresh parts.

There’s a great sequence with Bob – yes, with Bob – that occurs after the child goes into the basement searching for Ann. His parents have told him that she can’t be dead, you see, so he’s just checking.

“Ann? Mommy says you’re not dead. Is that true?”

Gah. Anyway, Freudstein shows up and chases Bob up the stairs, where the door is already locked. Norman, arriving late with his revelations about the good Doctor, attempts to bash down the door with a hatchet, after telling Bob to stand away from the door. Except Freudstein is keeping Bob’s head pressed against it. So we’re treated to a number of close calls as the hatchet blade penetrates the door only inches from Bob’s head! (There are echoes of Mary’s close calls with a pickaxe in City of the Living Dead.) It’s an intense sequence and if you’re as annoyed by Bob as I am then it’s satisfying in a way that probably reflects poorly on your character. I won’t tell anyone.

Lucy and Norman descend into the basement to rescue Bob from Freudstein’s clutches, confronting him in his laboratory/abattoir. Norman is revealed not as some evil mastermind, but simply as a concerned father and husband desperate to protect his family (despite what Fulci’s slow-zooms on his eyes might have suggested). Lucy, too, is determine to save Bob. Again, another director would use this opportunity to have the parents set aside any differences and save the day.

That’s not what happens here.

The Freudstein makeup effects are interesting – he looks like he’s had a yellow candle melted over his head and one arm is that of a small child (actually that of the actress who plays Mae) and the other is seemingly rotting. It’s also weird that he doesn’t actively attempt to kill the characters at the end, except when they try to escape or confront him. He even specifically takes a step or two back a couple of times, as if to say, “Okay, we done here? I’m good if you are.” And for someone who has supposedly extended his life by using fresh body parts he’s exceptionally full of maggots.

The ending is another classic WTF moment from Lucio Fulci, in that Bob’s parents buy him enough time to get halfway up through the cracked tombstone in the upstairs hallway. As Freudstein closes in the girl Mae appears and pulls Bob all the way through… into a version of the house that is fully furnished in a Victorian style. Mae’s mother arrives and insists that Bob and Mae follow her “home” down the tree-lined street outside the house. It appears that Bob has traveled back in time – or perhaps into a different part of The Beyond, where time has no meaning.

There’s that Fulci feeling again.

The Bottom Line
The House by the Cemetery is Fulci in more restrained form. The plot is (almost) straightforward, despite a heaping helping of distractions and red herrings. The pace is also more sedate and allows for a buildup of tension that climaxes in an intense confrontation with the malignant force within the house. No, the ending doesn’t make sense, and there are any of a dozen plot lines that are dropped or more likely never intended to be fleshed out. Does it feel like a satisfying conclusion to the Gates of Hell Trilogy? In my mind, no it does not – hell it doesn’t even really feel like it should be a part of the trilogy at all. It’s still Lucio Fulci working at the height of his powers as a filmmaker, though, and contains plenty of the unsettling mood and violent imagery that’s his hallmark. It does feel like he reached a peak with The Beyond though, and House is a step back toward a more traditional style of filmmaking. Still enjoyable, but not quite as daring, not quite as interesting as the films that came before.

And that concludes our tour of The Gates of Hell. I hope you enjoyed the trip, as odd as it’s been, as many dead-ends as we’ve run across. I’ll just leave you here in the dark, then. I’m sure you’ll be able to find your own way out. Just stick to the path. It wouldn’t be good if you ended up going through one of the gates. Not good at all…

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.