Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Beheaded

Lucio Fulci’s movies tend to 1) be really gross and 2) make no sense. The House by the Cemetery (1981) succeeds in both departments, as it’s got a number of truly gory death scenes strung along a flimsy plot about a haunted house, a mad scientist, and a precognitive ghost child… you know, the usual. Norman Boyle, a New York academic, drags his wife and his son Bob along to the titular estate in the Boston suburb of New Whitby. It’s a town full of barren trees, unexplained murder-suicides, and bleeding mannequins – in other words, it’s just brimming with atmosphere.

It doesn’t take a genius to guess that while Norman is off at the library, catching up on his dead colleague’s research, everyone who enters the house is killed off, one by one, in inventively gruesome ways. Bob and his mother narrowly avoid this fate, because of course they do. Fulci may not be especially sentimental – Bob’s life is imperiled repeatedly, and he gets a face full of clawed monster hand – but he still needs protagonists, so the Boyle family survives (at least until the take-no-prisoners climax) while their babysitter and real estate agent are decapitated and stabbed in the neck, respectively.

Meanwhile, Bob has made a new friend: a mysterious, creepy little girl who constantly warns him to stay out of the house, and go play in the graveyard instead. She hangs around wherever he happens to be, popping up in a photograph, across the street from the real estate office, and outside his house. Now, little kids are pretty creepy in the first place, but when they’re dubbed in stilted English with lines like, “You shouldn’t have come, Bob,” they get a whole lot creepier. Naturally, the little girl is dead-on; with one murder after another, who wants to stay in the old Freudstein house – or should I say, “Oak Mansion”?

But in typical haunted house movie fashion, Norman and family are OK with staying in the house, even after the murders. And after a really tenacious bat gives Norman a really bad bite on the hand. And after they find out how easily the cellar door can jam. After a close call with an axe and Bob’s head, the parents descend into the cursed cellar and hey, what do you know? The deformed Dr. Freudstein has been down there all along, using corpses to retain his youth. Or something. It doesn’t really fit together – and neither does the deus ex nonsensica that wraps the movie up, as the creepy little girl and her mother turn out to the wife and daughter of the good doctor – but are you really watching a Lucio Fulci movie for its neat plotting?

No. (I hope!) You should be watching for the scary, slightly surreal ambiance, as you realize that anyone can die, any time; for the outrageously gross, out-of-nowhere shocks that punctuate the dubious narrative like semicolons; and for Dr. Freudstein’s cheap, shoddy, but still very icky makeup. Fulci’s films may be “bad,” but they’re a very specific kind “bad”: unpretentious, unashamed, transgressive, and wasting no time with formalities before they get to the good stuff. Here are some fun facts I learned from The House by the Cemetery:

  • Don’t go in the cellar. Just don’t.
  • The human neck is a very fragile body part. When a knife is applied, the neck just gives in like a stick of warm butter.
  • If a creepy little ghost girl tells you to stay out of the house, stay out. No matter what your parents say.
  • Corpses help us play!

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