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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Nightmare Logic: Lucio Fulci's HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981)



October evenings in 2016--the usual chill of autumn warming the corpsey cockles of my hideous heart, but there ain't none. Has the Earth finally run dry of autumn leaf snap? It's the only reason I'm still here! Here where a Rosato Brothers' insulting C-note of an October day barely resonates before summer muggin' of Danny Aiello flattens the coffers. Speaking of Italians, man, maybe I've mellowed with age, but Lucio Fulci's 1981 Quella villa accanto al cimitero aka HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY has sure come along in my esteem. Maybe I'm finally mature enough to admit my prejudices against Italians (too many at my NJ high-school) and confront my childhood fear of a certain basement in our old Lansdale PA house in the 70s. with its scary basement and scariers crawlspace. If you were ever afraid of the basement yourself, back in the time when you were small and weak and each unaccompanied step was an endeavor, and when just going down there to get something for your mom while she was making dinner was so scary you'd race back up the stairs at the first tiny creak (even if you knew you made that creak), then travel with me back.. back..

Sure, there's a pretty fake bat involved, but we've all seen worse, and at least the wings flap and we wouldn't want Fulci to kill a real bat just for a movie, because we are not sick freaks. And he would.

Before diving in, a word of warning--even some of Fulci-heads I know aren't huge fans of this movie due to its many confusing anti-ellipses and stubborn adherence to paranoid  nightmare logic. Me, I like it better than most of his others in his undead series (City of the Living Dead, Zombi 2, The Beyond) for the same reason and because he keeps the focus so narrow, so localized and nightmarish, tapping the same vein of cabin fever time-bending paranoid 'always been the caretaker' interiority that make films like The Innocents, The Haunting, and The Shining (see Pupils in the Bathroom Mirror) so effective. Nothing evaporates the supernatural like the intrusion of cops and shrinks, fire arms, witnesses, panicky groups of holed-up survivors, reporters, etc.-- and nothing condenses it quite like communication failure between isolated, dysfunctional family members, like the Boyle's: dad Norman, is an academic researcher lugging wife and eight year-old son to New England for a six month stay to finish the 'project' Eric (his mentor in grad school). Played by giallo mainstay Paolo Malco, Norman has a habit of staring conspiratorially at the camera as if its his Mr. Hyde wingman--especially when his emotionally drained and tantrum-prone wife Lucy (Catriona MacColl) is in his arms and can't see his face (which is Italian cinema shorthand for he's either having an affair or is a killer or is read herring); the Danny Torrance-style psychic son Bob (Giovanni Frezza--burdened by one of the lamest voice characterizations in Italian horror dubbing history), is in communication with a murdered former resident, a young girl named Mae Freudstein (Silvia Collatina) who urges him not to come, danger! Danger! But what parent ever heeded a tow-headed third grader's babbling (and why isn't he in school?). There's also the ever-enigmatic and smoldering-eyed Ania Pieroni (the music student young witch in Inferno) as Anna the babysitter. Cue paranoid vapors from Gaslight (all through sultry stares --no words).

What makes Italian cinema endure so well is that post-Antonioni 'signifier-meld' where no one genre or storyline settles over the suspicion and enigmatic movement to become 'predictable.' Like Argento, Fulci was coming to the horror genre from mysteries / giallo procedurals, where keeping audiences guessing who the killer was meant having everyone be slightly suspicious--everyone is hiding something--or so it seems. People keep mentioning the last time Norman was up there and he says they must be mistaken but he's that shifty-eyed Italian kind of giallo-brand ectomorph (thin enough that he can be mistaken for a woman) with eyes that make you suspect he's having an affair with or trying to kill you, even as his actions and words are all regular scared family man; and the mom is emotionally unbalanced, refusing to take prescribed pills even as dad gaslights her ("I read somewhere those pills can cause hallucinations" - she says. "Are you sure?" Norman asks). Stilll, whether she's imagining or not, there's no arguing that the graves from the cemetery next door run right on under the house, and even inside the living room. When asked about the grave in the hallway, not exactly a standard fixture, dad dismisses it with a shrug; "Lots of these old houses have tombs in them because the winter's cold here and the ground is too hard for digging." Are you sure?



Lurking on the threshold between the seventh-dimensional terror of Lovecraft and poker-faced absurdity of Bunuel, Cemetery requires the kind reckless willingness to abandon familiar signifier-chains we find only in the post-Antonioni art house and the horror film lover's eagerness to embrace the primal anxieties of nightmare logic. In pursuing this unusual combination, Fulci treads a rather lonely path. There's the wry termite wit of Michel Soavi's La Setta, Cemetery Man, and Stagefright in the latter 80s-90s, and Forlani and Cattet's Amer in this century, but with more genuine dread than both. Fulci alone brings a painterly kind of attention to wringing maximum suspense from random things like a steak knife being used to turn a key in a rusty hinge, the camera pulling up close and the suspense rising with the intense chalkboard squeak of long-rusted, painted-over bolt slowly turning, while dad comes ever closer to slipping his grip and slashing open his wrist (or having the knife blade snap off and go ricocheting around the kitchen before lodging in someone's head); then the door opens--Norman flashes the flashlight through the thick cobwebs and we wonder if Freudstein really does live down there or is some kind of a ghost. And then--before Norman can look around--a bat attack. It's quite a sequence - practically as it occurs all in real time from when Norman wakes Lucy up (the barbiturates lining up on her night table like little troupers) to the death throes of the bat; from waking up refreshed after a night of (presumably) Valium and sex, and winding up back to being the sobbing out-of-her-depth nervous breakdown, all in a single, prolonged sequence. That's all Fucli, baby - there's no one who comes close to that kind of micro-focus.


TICK-TOCKALITY and MOLASSES LIGHTNING

And then, as the basement keeps opening, the weird mix of nightmare logic and deadpan humor shifts to straight nightmare. No other film of Fulci's is so rife with childhood nightmare faithfulness, and so void of cold logical counterpoint. Italy's other great horror maestro of the period, Dario Argento, still turned to logical cops and psychologists for eventual explanation but in House Fulci forgets about cops and rationale as the time window is just too short. By the time the progressively more deranged and horrified recordings left by Norman's mentor reach the part about Freudstein keeping himself alive in the basement via a steady stream of replacement organs and limbs shorn from new tenants, Bob is already locked in the basement and Freudstein--one of the most genuinely unnerving Italian walking corpses--is shambling towards him, crying like a dozen children. As with Carpenter's Halloween (its sequel was in drive-ins the same year as this) this long scene crawls in melting clock tick-tock momentum. It's a slow cross-cutting wherein time moves slower than real life while never actually being in slow motion: moving across a room to open a locked door (ala Leopard Man) can seem to take forever, the more you crosscut. So crosscutting between one person riding to the rescue and another facing danger, over, say, a three-minute period, the film running time would be six minutes, if adding a third element (Killer POV), nine minutes, and so on. It's an editing strategy that subverts our the narrative pacing expectations originally set up by DW Griffith, who invented crosscutting as a narrative style in 1909's A Corner in Wheat. To watch Orphans of the Storm's race against the guillotine for example, the scene seems to cross-cut five minutes out to half an hour. The feeling transcends ordinary excitement to create that nightmare pacing feeling of running through three feet of sucking mud while some demonic entity slowly advances towards you. Usually crosscutting liberates us from time's tedious aspects while enhancing our desire for the two separate threads to finally meet (the pursued or endangered heroine and the cavalry riding - riding to her rescue) which flatters our paranoia. We sense our desire will be met at the conclusion of the sequence, due to associative tendency created through signifier expectation: show me an apple near a pointed black hat and I'll think its poisoned with sleeping sickness; show me a racing squad of cop cars crosscut next to an isolated young woman slowly opening her attic door, and I'll think the killer is up there -- etc. Few American auteurs dare screw with this formula the way Fulci (and Soavi had) until Demme with Silence of the Lambs when at the start of its own scary basement climax, it turns out the FBI SWAT team are rushing an empty house not Buffalo Bill's, who answers the door to find Clarice, alone. It's a betrayal of expectation for devastating suspense. The cavalry will not be coming. We realize, deep in our gut, from this effect, that Clarice is truly on her own.

A similar rupture even occurs in the time-frame of Cemetery as well, between the two children who are in psychic communication--which we only realize at the very end (though we can surely guess) are on opposite sides of the life-death divide, separated by 60 or so years. Time is much more fluid in its ability to travel both directions, which we're not used to. This angle confuses some people in its ambiguity but if you know Antonioni's BLOW-UP (1967) and the birth of LSD symbolic melt-down post-structuralism and the 70s movement towards ESP, telekinesis, past-life regression, Satanism, post-Manson cults, deprogramming, near death experiences (NDEs), Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape theoryand the way in which strange visions and dreams might well be some denizen of your house in the far future channeling your ghost (wherein you might be talking to your unborn great granddaughter and not even know it), then yes the ending makes perfect sense. If someone from the past can visit our present why not vice versa. Who knows? Even we might be from the future right now.

Whether or not Fulci had seen The Leopard Man (1943), with little Maria's blood coming in under the door as her mama rushes to unlock it--is incidental. He takes that one pivotal moment -- a key scene in nightmare horror no one who's seen it can forget, and drains it of all cultural, feminist Jungian-archetypal symbolism, and mixed emotions (our relish knowing mom deserves to have this death on her conscience)--then distills it down into pure fear, turning the whole second half of the film into one prolonged, torturous crosscut scene of child locked on one side of a door, parents frenzied on the other, father pounding like a crazy man. In doing this, Fulci distills a gallon of vodka down to a pint of 190 proof Everclear just so we can then take an hour and a half to sip it straight with no chaser. We may be dizzy, nauseous and trembling by the end but by god are we drunk.

Fulci's other films in his undead category, such as The Beyond (also 1981) lack that kind of focus; they are all over the place, literally: flashbacks, hospitals, precincts, florists, and corpses with pink Jello-pop acid waves and tarantulas, seeing eye-dogs and half-headed zombie broads, etc.  All the true classics of horror seem to focus in on an isolated set of characters which allows for structural collapses of the social order, patriarchal symbolic edifices toppled by intrusions of the unassimilated real, in HOUSE the cast is kept down to a handful-- there are no cops nosing around, no red herring "pervert" suspects, and the supernatural element is kept under wraps as long as possible. Once people are killed they don't get up and walk again, or wink in and out of existence (as they do in City of the Living Dead), they just get hung up on the basement laundry line for Freudstein's use in his home repair.



Thus while many critics will say House by the Cemetery doesn't make sense, that people take so long to walk from one room to another and no one thinks to call the cops or move out, I'd counter that, in dream logic, it all makes perfect sense; dream logic isn't an excuse for lazy coherency, to just toss whatever crap together you want and call it dream-like --though that has been done plenty of times. In 'reality,' the structural geography of the dream landscape is just as organized and cohesive as the social order: each element corresponds to an aspect of the psyche, with Freudstein as the Primal father devouring his young like Cronus. Whereas something like, say, American Werewolf in London, will rely on dream sequences to justify senseless but visually interesting 'trailer-ready' moments, such as a squad of werewolf Nazis bursting into the family living room and machine gunning everyone. In his use of these sequences for shock and awe, Landis betrays a faith in the permanence of conscious perception that pegs him as part of the provincial pop Spielberg-Lucas-Chris Columbus school of wide-eyed wonder, the type who takes these things literally, and so insists of gruesome latex transformation scenes, and issues like waking up from your rampage naked (your clothes having been shredded off), the kind of literal-mindedness comes from having not taken mind-altering drugs, or experienced drastic social upheaval or had mental illness issues (they're all the same thing, really).

Take as opposition to that literal-minded approach the more grey-shaded psychic breakdowns from highbrow European immigrants who came to America fleeing wars and revolutions on their home continent. For them it was the shadow of the wolf over Europe vs. the promise of the New World, rather than the kind of hot-roddin' make-up wizardry of LA film schools. In The Wolfman (1941) and the original Cat People (1942 - below), the transformations don't 'hurt' or leave gory residue, they overtake the person like the physical manifestation of a dream state.  I recently made careful observation of the shadowy transformation scenes in Cat People recently and noticed (thanks to the clarity of DVD) that Irina's transformation to a cat person isn't rendered by effects but by black-on-black animation (if you look closely in the dark shadows in the corner of the pool room you can see an animated black ink splotch). Her transformation back from cat to human is conveyed by wet paw prints gradually becoming--not bare feet--but high heeled shoes! Val Lewton understood that the the female version of a black panther isn't a naked woman but a woman in a fur coat with high-heels. The camera doesn't dwell on it, merely pans away, but the implication is a truly marvelous Camille Paglia-style fusion of the chthonic feminine and high fashion glamazon.


But Fulci, a dream logic master, doesn't need dream sequences or mystic auras to infuse a simple domestic setting with weird imagery. Without ever straying too far from the banal he subverts the normal family and their dramas into figures and narratives of childhood nightmares. It's similar to the way we can use the archetypal models of Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland to illuminate reality from the point of view of a paranoid schizophrenic. Imagine a real-life Dorothy who 'no place like home'-s her way back to black-and-white to find she's murdered Mrs. Gulch by drowning her in the water trough. Or imagine a mentally ill Alice, chasing real white rabbits around the woods, killing them, and opening their stomachs to find the ticking watch she hears. Like The Innocents or The Shining, Cemetery is a study of the magical/archetypal and the real/social, and how easily one becomes the other.

In understanding the importance of isolation for reality to bend - the way cops and psychiatrists dispel the fantasmatic by their signifier presence alone. A cop's whole training, and the court system, and doctors in both social function and symbolic authority, is to clear away the cobwebs and separate fact from fiction. The very things that drive people into fits of cabin fever murderousness are ideally abated by the presence of 'the law.' Ghosts come out only when there's no one around to dispel them with the lamp of logic.

Therefore too comes the realization that a terrified kid locked in the basement, hammering at the door screaming and pleading, while his mom pounds on the other side, and the killer lurches slowly across the room--might run on and on, time melting down to stasis, the terror mounting like the swinging of a pendulum, or the slow ascent of a roller coaster. It doesn't matter in the end if the threat is actually real or imagined (if he's scared because of a creak he heard and his own scared kid imagination-embellishment) it can still function along this line - in fact, the two need each other --the isolated paranoid schizophrenic (or terrified child) and the supernatural Other like opposite polarities with a genuine demonic manifestation the lightning strike.


"Oh God! His voice... I hear it everywhere!"

One of the major quibbles/strengths for the dream logic effect is the sound of paranoia, the diegetic ambient sound effects which are genuinely attuned to incongruous association. Using Eisensteinian associative/subliminal  sound-editing, the steady background sound of birds outside the window might include a child's scream --in the same key--heard but once, so that our brain doesn't have time to consciously notice, so that the birds never quite become a child screaming (they way it would be spelled out under John Landis or Spielberg). In other words, if you hear a tree fall in the woods but didn't see it, and the sound of its creak-and-crash occurs the same time as a rusty door hinge is opened and is howling dog from a few yards back, did you really hear it? I mean, maybe you heard the sound itself, but it was buried within all those other sounds, so you didn't think "hey, a tree fell,' and yet, subliminally, you might think, "hmm I wonder if any trees fell lately." Or would you wonder if you just misread it, heard the dog plus a squeaky screen door hinge and a car driving by all congeal to sound, briefly, like a third thing, like an overtone in Tibetan throat singing? If another tree fell right afterwards or you heard a chainsaw, then you'd realize you heard it. Otherwise.... no. So did we even hear it in the film, either? I could rewind and check but would rather leave it be, Schrodinger's Cat-style.

Freudstein's disruptive manifestation comes even into this field, for he's a master of audio mimesis, his voice like Satan's river. His unholy Bluto-style laughs of pleasure sounds like it's almost a narrator overdub recorded through a tin can and mixed with a lion at the zoo when killing the real estate lady. He even cries in a child's voice (possibly Bob's own) when injured, a voice that sometimes doubles itself to sound like a chorus. And buried in the child crying (which sounds very fake, perhaps appropriately) there's an occasional tiny laugh. Are these the voices the ghosts of murdered children or is it a by-product of stealing their limbs, (including his own daughter's arm)? Does he have some kind of ability to mimic his previous victims to lure new ones down, ala Attack of the Crab Monsters? or does he just cry like a little bitch if hurt?

If you need an answer, then you may want to know for sure whether the hauntings in The Haunting and The Innocents are just the projections from the deranged mind of a repressed middle-aged virgin hysteric, or actual ghosts from within the cloistered walls of a remote empty mansion. Again, Schrodinger's Cat, man. Once one or the other is confirmed the film becomes either a medical drama (The Snake Pit) or goofy horror (The Snake Woman), but while it's in between, baby it's art.

Norman stares directly into the camera a lot - for the same reason most actors never do: it's freaky

Critics who disagree that House by the Cemetery is art may instead label Fulci a sensationalist, especially in the spoiled mainstream USA, where open endings like House's allow for lots of WTF unanswered questions to just hang there. But they wouldn't dare say that about Antonioni or Lucretia Martel, because there's no shambling corpses in The Headless Woman or Red Desert. Instead in both films we find an ordinary upscale housewife reconfiguring ordinary random events around her so that they almost constitute amnesia or an affair.  We can never be sure what's going on in either film, but both capture the way a thrill of guilty fear might pass us when we hear a siren in the distance or the flush of shame when we hear someone laughing behind us.

In an international film center like Italy, since the language / dubbing is always so iffy from language to language, and there are so damn many, much of any film's power rides (1) on the ambient noise / foley / sound effects and a style of antithetical music originated by Ennio Morricone and picked up by everyone. Italian auteurs like Fulci know the tone of a whole film can change with a bad dub job (as in the terrible adult voice doing little boy Bob here) but no one can argue with the way an innocent child's sob of woe is folded into the sprocket-waves of a squeaky door hinge, or a woman's scream becomes a jazz horn. And enigmatic dialogue thrives under flat renderings from voiceover dubbing artsts who we hear over and over, from movie to movie, yet whose names we never learn. 

Walter Rezatti's score plays along the grandiose soapy themes mocked and indulged in equal measure by the post-Morricone composers of Italian cinema. Surging between soapy melancholic grand piano and crescendoes of church organ-driven prog rock, taking enough long pauses here and there so we can hear the pin drop, emphasizing all the weird random noises that come in and out of the mise-en-scene,  Rezatti's score captures the weird way Fulci's 'melting thunder' time mirrors across itself, the way modern horror comes rupturing out of its ground like oil gushers of the putrid dead in between cliffside romantic clinches so that sweeping concert piano virtuosity --which normally is my least favorite Italian soundtrack instrument--fits elegantly as counterpoint. That great semi-ironic Ennio-style antithesis brings depth and emotion in a way the more old-fashioned on-the-nose telegraph orchestration of Spielberg types like John Williams and Howard Shore cannot. Rezatti ain't no Morricone, or even Goblin but he is a kind of Keith Emerson-meets-Bruno Nicolai. As always with Fulci, this music is used sparingly, effectively, sometimes jarringly - roaring to life to cut off actors' last word or stepping on their first, with even what sounds like a 'play' button clicking in the mix. I've written too much validating accidental Brechtianism to just presume Fulci 'missed a few spots' in the sound editing, especially with all those earlier marvelous musical flourishes.








I AM LAZARUS, COME FROM THE DEAD 
(but reincarnated as a kid, so who believes me?)

Another example of Fucli's open-ended death/Lazarus metaphors (ala Mike Hammer --va-va-voom! Pow!): Bob, the child, racing in terror through a field, the camera running up behind him with the score roaring to life with crazy synth squiggles of twisted menace. He stumbles, falls atop a grave, the ghost (?) of its occupant's child, Mae Freudstein (redheaded child of horror Silvia Collatina) lifts him off the stone, grabbing him by his arm, which stays folded across his chest like he's in a coffin; Mae turns out to have been chasing him in a game of tag. But now Bob has to run home for lunch; promises -as we all have--to race back out to play as soon as he's done. Mae watches as he runs back towards the house before saying (with a robotic fatalism), as if he's right there next to her. "No Bob, don't go inside." but the score surges to life again and cuts off her last syllable.



By then we've already seen Mae in a flashback to her own period (Victorian, judging by the dress), earlier (and again later) saying the same thing, as if in a trance, after we've heard her say it to Bob, while he's in a trance. Bob also hears her talking to him from the window of the old photo of the house they're moving to, so one imaginary friend in the early 1910s is having a conversation with a real boy in "present" time (1981), etc. But we get both sides of the divide, illuminating the flexible immortal quality of film narrative as a perfect medium for ghosts and 'shining.' The girls admonition in the graveyard --"you shouldn't have come, Bob" has a chilling unemotional frankness far beyond either of them registering a scary emotion.

It's not like Bob really has a choice, after all, he is a child and in no position to refuse his parent's moving choices. If a child tells his parent not to move somewhere because a girl in a photo told him not to go, they'd just laugh and roll their eyes, think he just doesn't want to leave his local friends or babysitter. Even after he sees his new babysitter's head bounce down the stairs, Bob is still unable to get the gravity of the circumstance across to his disbelieving mother. The type of parent who-- if you came to them covered in bruises-- would chide you for scuffing up your new pants. Of course from that horror then comes the comedy of Bob shouting down into the basement: "Ann! Mommy says you're not dead!" But walking down the stairs to do it, when the last time someone walked down the stairs it was the babysitter and the door just swung and locked her down there, and something killed her. This is just one of the ways Fulci builds terror in a viewer, the raw molasses slow illogic after all that high-toned paranoia reaches back to the fatalistic dread of kids who aren't heeded until it's too late. It's the big fear preyed on in all the best horror films, most recently in Let the Right One in and It Follows, of being a kid in danger and adults around either unwilling or unable to notice or give your fear the slightest heed. Not until the blood runs under the door will they believe you and even then will rather believe it's somehow a result of your own morbid imagination or your own fault.


NIGHTMARE LOGIC III:  Schrödinger's Cat People

House opens up with a mini masterpiece of generating suspense - we pan  up from the gloomy house and there's a gorgeous young women getting dressed by a table where clearly she's been getting it on with some unseen boy mere moments ago. She's talking to him as if he's off-camera boyfriend (we never see him... alive).  Because of the dusty remoteness of this house we glean the young couple's love is forbidden (probably both living with parents), passionate (you'd have to be ripe with sexual heat to get it on in such cobwebbed gloom), and doomed (no one knows they're there, of course, so won't be looking for them). Not an uncommon way to begin a film, I'll grant you. But rather than the usual exchange, the whole scene is just her talking and slowly realizing he's not answering and is in the basement, dead, her fear generating from blithe babble to screaming. Fulci regular Daniela Doria is the girl,  counter-orbiting with the camera around the copulation table in ever wider arcs, introducing us to the house in the process --which is caked in dust now but presumably won't be after the credits. While many Italian filmmakers add weird touches and tricks from Hitchcock etc., Fulci's trick is to cut right to it, like paring away Argento's operatic style to establish a sense of powerless unease in the viewer using very little in the way of backstory, plot, or other stalling tactics. Good writing can convey more mood and information in a glance or line than three pages of lame exposition and that's the case here--all the details add up so that after barely a few minutes of elapsed screen time, the house itself seems doomed, and all who would enter into it are goners. The basement especially is cavernous and foreboding, the kind of place you-- better to just leave it be, and you're not sure why--but we feel it, too, in our bones along with the setting wintry New England desolation. As a result what might be just another dull opening murder of a naughty young girl and/or boy leaves dread in the air like a radio key. From this we cut to New York City and Bob's first psychic link with Mae, whose warning him not to come before he even knows they're going.

House by The Cemetery - Anna the Babysitter

Later: The real estate agent's corpse is dragged across the kitchen and down the stairs, leaving a wide streak of blood; the close-up of blood on the wooden floor is suddenly interrupted by a sponge coming into frame. We wonder for a half-second if Dr. Freudstein is actually cleaning up after himself, but then see the floor's being cleaned by Anna, throwing down a big mop and bucket. But is she cleaning the real estate agent's blood or was the blood gone before she started cleaning? Is she in league with Dr. Freudstein or is Lucy just hallucinating and by now shrugging it all off (or is it the dead bat blood from earlier still uncleaned)? Lucy comes into the room in her robe, "What are you doing?" she asks. Anna gives her an enigmatic look that could mean either a) what does it look like, genius? You people leave blood everywhere (in other words, Anna think Lucy has been killing people and is now just being coy). and b) I'm going to fuck your husband. But instead, Anna finally says "I made coffee."

haunting stare from House by the Cemetery

Lucy begins prattling, oblivious to Anna's eyes which seem to say 'cut the crap' with every glare: "What a shame you didn't come with us to the restaurant last night" Lucky says. This gets a knowing, vaguely contemptuous and cuckolding reaction shot stare, this time even closer and straight into camera that could be read many ways, as its no doubt meant to. Since a lot of these signifiers all come from Agatha Christie-style whodunnits, Italian filmmakers and audiences are used to the 'everyone's a suspect with the same approximate build, male and female' enigmatic suspicion-building tropes, so it's as if these tropes are classical painting and Fulci is a modern expressionist, using the same colors and shapes in such a way as to call everything into question. This ambiguity even continues with the implication Anna is bringing a tray of coffee to Norman at this desk, but instead in the reverse shot reveals Lucy is actually behind the tray. Later Lucy comes out onto the street with a bag of groceries and we think we see Norman driving by in the car but he doesn't see her or pull over. Did Lucy drive the car and he stole it, leaving her to walk home with two bags of groceries through the woods? Did he say he was going to NYC but really is hanging around the library, listening to disturbing tapes of his predecessor's rantings (accompanied by POV shots of Freudstein's 'workshop' replete enough gore to repel most anyone no matter how fake most of it looks)? Or did he ditch his wife in town so he can race home and have a quick tryst with Anna?

It would be unfair to make Fulci account for the lack of resolution in all this unspoken
'let's drive the wife insane' red herring implications anymore than in the  'almost affair' between Richard Harris and Monica Vitti In Antononi's Red Desert. There's no trope or cliche that sits still and allows us to situate ourself into what kind of movie this is, which again maddens the materialists. They can argue that since nothing comes of it, plot-wise, it's just a waste of time that goes nowhere, that it's just Fulci fooling around with the bag of enigmatic stare tricks so beloved of Italian genre filmmakers and French film theorists.

I would argue that it's because this approach generates a sense of paranoia and unease that it spooks off those materialists. If you submit to the ambiguity as intentional, it helps amp up the shocks to come. This makes the later horror events seem further and further afield, a few reels away, but then they come fast, relentless, remarkably blunt and close to home, like convincing us the danger is coming towards us from far away, pointing it out in the distance, and then when it's about half-way closer, stabbing us in the throat from behind with a scissors. Fulci critics wouldn't dare say Hitchcock wastes our time with the Melanie Daniels'-Mitch Brenner meet-cute romance in The Birds or Marion Crane's embezzlement in Psycho. Well, Fulci does the same thing within the confines of wordless stares! In all three films the suspense and fright comes seemingly from left field - we're not given to expect birds or knives or monsters in the basement in any of those three films because the cinematic signs are all lining up for a different movie, one we've doubtless seen: in The Birds, the story of a spoiled city heiress finding love and meaning while hiding out in a small waterfront fishing community (in the vein of Anna Christie, The Purchase Price, He Was her Man) is sideswiped by the bird attacks, so that the birds fly in under our radar in a sense. In Pyscho there's no signs of what's coming in the shower as we believe we're seeing some sexy noir thriller where a woman steals from her employer to run away with her handsome lover. In House by the Cemetery it's sort of the reverse: we think we're headed first to a slasher movie, then a ghost story, then a torrid sexual affair movie where a babysitter and a husband plot to drive a wife insane through mixing acid into her downers and acting all weird like George Hilton. I love the off-kilter lines promoting this effect, like when husband Norman asks if Lucy's taken her pills (we never learn what they are or hear of them again). Though clearly very rattled by the goings-on in the house she says no, she hasn't been taking them because "I've read somewhere that those pills can cause hallucinations...." He looks at her (mock?) enigmatically: "Are you sure?"

One can read the paradoxical inference (she hallucinated reading the article) but as it's also just tossed off by the dubbing so if that meaning was there it's become lost in translation, but it's also typical of the gaslighting tactics husbands and their young lovers (or daughters and gigoloo acid dealing boyfriends) employ to destabilize a saintly momma in Italy's many soapy romantic thrillers. Especially in the age of the"Valley of the Dolls" era-- (the 60s-70s) wives could no longer always tell what reality was thanks to some blue pill a man who says he's her doctor keeps giving her--is he arranging gaslight-style scenes to make her think she's hallucinating? Put strong acid in her Valiums and play weird tape recordings of dead husband's voice under her bed (as they do in The Big Cube) and you can get her to jump off the roof into the sea while you're safely miles away with perfect alibis. It lets the filmmaker use all sorts of crazy images and  unresolved ellipses (way better than the "it was all a dream" defense.



One final deep fractal example of this style might be found after the incident in the kitchen and Anna's mopping. Both parents are out and Anna is alone in the house with Bob, who's playing with his remote control car in the living room. We see him deeply engaged in the living room wheeling the car around, then car turns a corner toward the kitchen out of his sight; Bob turns the corner wondering why it hasn't driven back. He turns the corner and it's gone and there's no sound of it revving at all; the basement door, which is usually locked, is wide open however --instantly evoking the introductory scene (just replace the unseen boyfriend with a toy car). Bob goes down into the gloom to look for the car and disappears from the frame. A moment later, Anna comes into frame and calls to him but he doesn't answer. She notices the basement is open, looks down the basement steps, and slowly goes down to look for him. Suddenly the door slams shut above and locks her in and some shadowy thing comes moving towards her from the far end of the basement. She starts screaming for Bob but he's somehow now upstairs, oblivious. It's so a simple logical progression: from the remote control car disappearance to the babysitter locked in a cellar, it's like a nightmarish noose. She's screaming for Bob to open the door as the monster shambles towards her out of the gloom. It takes awhile to even realize Bob here's her and is trying to work up his nerve to go down and open the door. While she screams he's collecting his stuffed monkey and flashlight and then slowly, leisurely walking down the stairs.



The glacial pace in which Bob suits up to walk across the kitchen floor -taking his sweet time -as she's cut to ribbons on the other side of the door is maddening, that borrow of Leopard Man thrown into an infinite loops, and yet we certainly can't fault Fulci for choosing 'nightmare time' frame for the action, the slowing down rather than speeding up is just what real nightmares are like. There's no time or space in a nightmare-- no logic rhyme or reason -running three steps can take an hour and a ten miles crossed in a single second. As, one after another, the adults trundle down into the basement to their deaths, we worry most about the children, whom we after all rarely see killed onscreen. From the tapes of the previous tenant/researcher that Dr. Boyle listens to: "Oh my god, not the children!" That terror in the tape is the most emotional of all the voices in the film. The terror on the tape settles over the rest of the film like a pall, and not much is left.


Demerits for some terrible dubbing, especially by whomever did Bob, who like he's always counseling a simpleton in a terrible 60s movie (which is why I can use that word) but that sense of wrongness again helps to give it all a nightmare fatalism. The dad's declaration after dragging the family away from comfy upscale NYC, proves a smug dismissal of their needs and concerns ("you're gonna love it, smell that country air")  is also strangely unconvincing --carrying no authority and raises suspicions he's woefully inadequate as a father. You could be coming to him bleeding and on fire and he'd wave it away as new school jitters. It can drive viewers insane but that's part of why it works as a nightmare logic parable -simple buildups from normal tiny incidents seeming slightly out of joint --the way no one in the family really hear what one another is saying - which is why Anna's ominous silence carries such a charge and says way more than all the generic small talk of the mother. If it gets too frustrating to see a whole, one-armed family helpless to escape a limping armless dead man who can barely shamble, to see them all preferring to cower and die helpless and screaming when it would be a simple thing to chop off his other arm (or at least use more than one of your own) well, that's how nightmares are and who knows how we'd really act and maybe that's where the horror is -- the realization that if the shit got heavy enough we'd crumble into a sweaty sobbing ball. At least, in this case, we can imagine the terror really is overwhelming - that this thing has been living below them all the while and has been for over 70 years, repairing itself through limb replacement until all that's left is walking death - this is the first time they see it, and the last--as if the full horror of Freudstein's shambling maggoty cadaver is so overwhelming it paralyzes the prey, it jams the record so bad it hops a groove and leaves you screaming on an eternal skip--a kind of instant repression black-out back to the beginning, when old doc Freundstein was still really alive.

That's why the film's chamber piece momentum works so well, almost like a three-act opera, as all the paranoid 'almost' sub-plots evaporate in the cold finality of the basement, the illogic that a row of corpses could be strung up down there without the smell carrying upstairs through the same crack in which Bob crawls for his own escape (trying to fit his head through that narrow crack provides one last nerve shredding moment that stretches forever) into Mae's and Mother Freudstein's sympathetic decades-departed arms--is so startling, original and final. There is no death but what we make for ourselves, which is called waking up, the alarm clock of your tender throat raw from claw-choked screaming, pulled up from the pillowy grave like sluggish screaming Lazarus Jr. by a girl who died before your grandmother was born, to a world with its own set of rules, but the same damned house. Or to put in layman's terms, it's the end of The Shining if its Danny who wound up at the party in 1929, or at least upstairs with a babysitter and those cool creepy twins... forever... and ever... but way cooler, even in those fusty old corsets. 


NOTES
1.(since it's going to be dubbed and subtitled in about 20 different languages, Italian film tradition is to shoot MOS (without sound) or silently - each actor in the international cast speaking his or her own language and then dubbing their part for that country's track, ideally, and voice actors in that language doing the rest, which is why nearly every character in Italian horror sounds like one of two or three different voice actors. No one knows their names or where they are - the invisible heroes of the business- as a voiceover actor myself I say their stories must be told!

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