Monday, September 14, 2009

Funny Fulci

When I wrote about Zombie, I threatened to do another post on the films of Lucio Fulci, and here it is. Today we're focusing on one of his lesser works, part of his "death" trilogy, along with City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, and before he went off the rails with such limp entries as Manhattan Baby and Murder Rock. There are goofy incidents and slashed throats a-plenty in 1982's House by the Cemetery. What's missing, however, is a coherent plot, which makes the movie so much fun to watch.

Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco), a researcher of old houses, is asked by his professor boss (Fulci himself in one of his numerous Hitchcock-style cameos) to go to a small town in Massachusetts, New Whitby, and live in the house his colleague had just committed suicide in. Yes, you read it right. He packs up wife Lucy (Fulci regular Catriona MacCall) and little son Bob (Giovanni Frezza) and off they go to New Whitby to experience small-town life and small-town weirdness. There, Bob meets Mae (Silvia Collatina), a little red-headed girl who'd been communicating with him telepathically and warning him not to come. She seems to have second sight and can foretell the awful events in store for Bob and his parents.

Mae disappears whenever his parents are around, so I guess she's a ghost or something. And Lucy, who's already teetering on the edge of sanity, is freaked out by the house, which she insists is the same one shown in an ancient photograph they had in their apartment in Manhattan. Norman scoffs, asking if she's been taking her pills, to which she retorts, "I read somewhere that they provoke hallucinations." What? Her psychiatrist prescribed pills that cause hallucinations?

Well, we must have all taken those pills, too, because the story just gets wackier as it goes along. The realtor sends them a babysitter (?), Ann (Ania Pieroni), whose eyebrows are so huge and black it's really distracting. There's a goofy bat attack, a tombstone in the floor of the dining room, a bunch of people are killed and Norman discovers that the culprit is Dr. Freudstein, a rotten-faced ghoul who dwells in the basement of the house and has been collecting body parts to keep himself alive. Ann, the realtor, Norman and Lucy all die at Freudstein's maggoty hands, but Bob is rescued by Mae.

Child actor Frezza, whose eyes and nostrils adorn the top of this page, had a brief career in horror and exploitation films (also in Manhattan Baby). He's just so extreme-looking: too blonde, too blue-eyed and too red-lipped. Add to that the petulant voice the filmmakers gave him for the English-language prints, and you've got a character whose every appearance is over the top. And the reason you only see his eyes and nostrils is due to Fulci's love of the smash zoom. To indicate terror, he hurls the lens at an actor's face to get a close-up of his or her eyes and the bridge of the nose. And that's in widescreen. In old TV aspect ratio VHS videos of Fulci films, the effect is even more hilarious. It looks like Fulci is zooming in tight to just the nose!

Imagine the script direction: Freudstein approaches. Zoom in on Lucy's nose to indicate her level of terror.

Pieroni, who was also in Dario Argento's Inferno, is certainly striking-looking. I don't know why her eyebrows are so huge in this film, but early on, Mae sees an extremely strange-looking mannequin in a store window lose its head, and it's supposed be a foreshadowing of Ann's death, so I guess they had to beef up her eyebrows to make her match the decapitated dummy. And Ann serves as a red herring. There's lots of shots of her looking sinister and not speaking, indicating that she's somehow involved in the murders. But Lucy's so high she's oblivious to Ann's mysterious countenance. When she comes into the kitchen and finds Ann on hands and knees scrubbing at a huge bloodstain on the floor (the aftermath of a murder), she merely yawns and asks what she's doing. Ann gives her the side-eye and replies that the coffee is ready. Hmm. Q: How are you feeling? A: The garbage disposal is broken. Ooooookay.

But Lucy has a way of reacting strangely to things in general. At the beginning of the film, she tells Bob to wait in the car while she and Norman pick up the house keys from the realtor's office. This is when Bob first meets Mae, so when they come back out of the office, the car is empty. Rather than frantically looking up and down the street for her son, Lucy simply turns ever-so-slowly to Norman with an expression of slight concern. Maybe she's kind of glad she won't have to hear that voice and see those huge red lips anymore, but—damn!—there's Bob across the street, playing with a giant antique doll that Mae has given him. Back home, Lucy stares at the doll with disgust before hurling it to the floor and bitching about the trash Bob is always bringing home.

The deaths in House are few but memorable. In the pre-credits sequence (Fulci loves those), a post-coital couple are Freudsteined in the basement. The boy gets the top of his skull removed and the girl gets a huge butcher knife through the back of the head, causing the tip to protrude from her mouth! Ann has her throat slashed over and over in graphic close-up while helpfully holding still and not raising her arms to defend herself. And the tombstone in the dining room comes into service when the realtor steps on it, only to have it crack open and wedge her foot painfully in the fissure so that Freudstein can very slo-o-o-w-w-w-ly creep up to kill her.

Now here are a couple of clips for you to enjoy. First up is the goofy bat attack with the whole crazy clan:

Now please enjoy the cleaning of the bloodstain, featuring some nice shots of Ann's huge eyebrows and Fulci's trademark "The eyes (and nose) are the windows to the soul" framing:

I'm telling you, House by the Cemetery doesn't need a laugh track; it needs a "huh?" track.

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