Butcher Block is a weekly series celebrating horror’s most extreme films and the minds behind them. Dedicated to graphic gore and splatter, each week will explore the dark, the disturbed, and the depraved in horror, and the blood and guts involved. For the films that use special effects of gore as an art form, and the fans that revel in the carnage, this series is for you.
Within a two-year span, gore master Lucio Fulci released his Gates of Hell trilogy; City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and The House by the Cemetery. It’s an unofficial trilogy, as these films aren’t connected in any way in terms of plot. But there is a recurring Lovecraftian influence, a ton of gore, and actress Catriona MacColl plays a lead in all three. While the first two entries went large scale apocalyptic, The House by the Cemetery opted for a pared down haunted house story. Of course, in Fulci’s hands, a traditional haunted house becomes anything but. Instead of ghosts and walls that drip blood, this New England home paints the floors red with the entrails of unlucky victims.
Opening with a woman wandering an abandoned home in search of her boyfriend, she finds his bloody corpse hanging just in time to get a knife shoved through her skull and out of her mouth. If this isn’t your first brush with Fulci, then it’s no surprise that he gets up close and personal with the carnage. Cut to New York City, where our central family are setting up a move that will transport them to that very same New England home from the opening. Norman Boyle’s colleague Dr. Peterson was conducting important research in the house, but he abruptly killed his mistress and hung himself. Because this mysterious research is so important, Norman moves his wife Lucy (MacColl) and son Bob (Giovanni Frezza) into the house so that he can complete Dr. Peterson’s work. But Bob’s new babysitter Ann (Ania Pieroni) is behaving suspiciously, and a mysterious little girl named Mae keeps warning him away- though he’s the only one who can see her.
Naturally, the Boyle family will soon realize that vicious bats are the least of their problems.
Though The House by the Cemetery has a more coherent plot than many of Fulci’s supernatural horror films, it still retains Fulci’s preference of creating mood and feeling over logic. Meaning there are plenty of story and logic inconsistencies, as well as moments that will leave you scratching your head. Like Ann scrubbing up a big puddle of blood from the kitchen floor; neither she or Lucy seems phased by that. Ann, as a character, remains one of the biggest mysteries. She seems to be aware of the horrors lurking in the basement, or at least drawn to it, but it’s never explained- her decapitation ends any further character development or reveals. Bob’s ghostly friendship with Mae seems like it’s from a different movie altogether, quite likely part of an earlier version of the script from screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, who drew inspiration from The Turn of the Screw.
So, between that, Lovecraft’s influence, and a bit of Frankenstein thrown in with Fulci’s splatter-filled sensibility, this one is a true collage of haunted house weirdness.
Eventually, the house’s secrets are revealed. It’s not ghosts to blame for this creepy New England haunt, but an undead Dr. Freudstein. The living, worm-filled corpse of a Victorian mad doctor, Dr. Freudstein long ago discovered a way to keep his undead body going with the blood of victims. He also happens to revel in his kills. Though not as gory as perhaps the previous two entries in the Gates of Hell trilogy, this film still has decapitations, brutal throat ripping, scissors to the chest, multiple stabbings, and one gnarly death by poker. The Boyle’s real estate agent gets the slowest, bloodiest death of all.
The effectiveness of the gore has as much to do with the intimate way Fulci lingers on it as it does the special makeup effects by Giannetto De Rossi. De Rossi previously worked with Fulci on fan favorites The Beyond and Zombie, and he’s the mind behind some of the most memorable kills in Fulci’s films. His stellar work eventually made him a commodity stateside, where he worked on films like Dune, Rambo III, and Conan the Destroyer. More recently, he delivered the splattery goods in High Tension. His gore earned The House by the Cemetery a spot in the prosecuted section of the infamous Video Nasties list. The film didn’t pass for uncut release until 2009.
No matter your ranking of this film in the Gates of Hell trilogy, it’s still a rare instance where the haunted house story goes full splatter. Most families move into a haunted house and flee after the supernatural presence proves too much. In Fulci’s hands, don’t expect the family to get out alive. Even if it borrows from familiar stories that came before, Fulci’s style and use of gore makes it feel fresh. And there’s always one of horror’s best screamers in Bob.