Over the years, I’ve gotten more and more into the trashier, more exploitative side of horror, thanks in no small part to the guided curation of the genre by my friend Ryan. And among those dark, nasty side streets, one of my favorite discoveries has been Lucio Fulci. With the one-two punch of Zombie and The Beyond, Fulci won me over; while his plots are nothing to write home about (to put it mildly), his imagery, mood, and visual style are to die for, resulting in some nightmarish, haunting shots that I can never forget, and scratching the itch for me that Argento scratches for so many.
So when a local theater did a Fulci double feature, there was no way I wasn’t going, even if I’d seen one of them before, and recently at that. Luckily, City of the Living Dead (originally titled The Gates of Hell) is worth seeing twice. No, the plot still doesn’t make sense, except on some primal, archetypal level, on which the idea that a priest’s suicide could open the gates of Hell somehow works. (It feels, especially given the nod to Lovecraft in the town name, that Fulci was going for something of that nature; that being said, old Lucio was never one to spend more time than he had to on little things like exposition or story.)
But honestly, that doesn’t matter, because what you go to a Fulci film to see are the images, and Fulci delivers them in spades. From a premature burial gone nightmarishly bad to bloody tears streaming down a face (one of my favorite moments in the film, and a favorite Fulci image, period), from fantastic use of fog to brutal scalpings (and then some), Fulci is in fine form here. And as the movie builds towards its apocalyptic finale, Fulci’s excesses build to gleefully nightmarish effect. Sure, it doesn’t all make sense, and yes, there are some longer dead patches than in Fulci’s masterpieces, and yes, there’s that wonderfully dumb final moment that’s laughably odd. But honestly, when the end product is this unsettling, vicious, and astonishing, it’s hard to complain too much or get caught up in some of the flaws, because for the most part, this is a blast. Rating: ****
Of course, you could make similar comments about The House by the Cemetery, and yet, there’s no denying that this one doesn’t hold up nearly as well as City. Part of it comes from technical issues – more specifically, dubbing issues that result in one of the most distractingly bad child voices I’ve seen in a Fulci movie…and since the kid is a big part here, that’s an issue. Nor does it help that the plot is bewildering even by Fulci’s loose standards; there’s an undeniable sense that there’s at least twenty minutes of explanation cut out of this that might help to make sense of a mystifying clean-up scene, or a comment by our hero during the climax that otherwise comes out of nowhere. But the biggest issue comes from the fact that Fulci has restricted himself to one environment, and a repetitive structure, which denies him the freedom to go for broke and just throw things at the wall to see what sticks.
See, the plot of House (such as it is) finds a researcher and his family living in the titular house, where a number of murders have taken place. Oh, and when they move in, the basement is boarded up and locked – can’t imagine if those two are connected. But what that means is that every kill, every sequence, involves the same elements – the basement door, the basement stairs, those strange hands, and so forth. And while Fulci stages every sequence to his utmost, it doesn’t take long before the movie starts to feel repetitive and boring, because Fulci hasn’t given himself the freedom to indulge in his surreal, nightmarish excesses, his apocalyptic visions, or his more abstract, strange ideas. Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t great moments – setting aside some of those sequences, there’s a haunting image of a blood-drenched tombstone that I loved, the creature design is memorably bizarre, and I loved the bleak implications of the ending – but by and large, House manages to be the first Fulci film I’ve seen that I’d describe as “boring” – and given his imagination, that’s disappointing indeed. Rating: ** ½