“A man’s home is his castle.”
I’ve heard that phrase all my life and I’ve never liked it. The home is supposed to be a place for the family to gather and feel secure against the darkness of the world, but so often we invite the darkness in or, worse, we are the darkness. We cling to this idea that behind the walls of our ‘castle,’ we will be okay. We will survive. Thieves and murderers put the lie to that every day, but that’s something that happens to other people…until it happens to us.
The horror movie has long delighted in turning a happy home into a house of horrors. And even long before the invention of the film, literature, and plays upended the notion of being safe within your ‘castle.’ Consider Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a literal kingdom spiraling into a hell full of murder, betrayal, and a spirit that leads a young man to his doom and takes everyone with him. Or Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, where a sickly young man and his even more sickly twin sister’s psychosis seems to manifest itself physically on the house itself, or perhaps vice versa. In the early Universal movie, Son of Frankenstein, the people of the village that lived in the shadow of the Frankenstein castle feared what terrible madness may fall upon Henry Frankenstein’s grown son, Baron Wolf Von Frankenstein, who has returned to his family home with his wife and child to rehab the family name. Let’s not forget that one house in nearly every neighborhood that all the kids are afraid of, because it’s haunted, or because a witch or a crazy person lived(s) there. It’s usually just a run down, old house, but it always had the potential to be something so much more sinister.
You could spend all day rattling off great titles of haunted house movies, but I want to talk about two of my favorites: one, a modern classic of Italian cinema by the godfather of gore Lucio Fulci; the other, Ted Geoghegan’s chilling, Upstate New York indie shocker debut.
Released in 1981, Quella Villa Accanto Al Cimitero aka House by the Cemetery was the third and final entry in Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy, which included The Beyond and City of the Living Dead aka Gates of Hell. Of the three films, Cemetery is certainly the most reserved and subdued as far as gore goes (not that it completely lacks some really harrowing and brutal scenes), and instead goes for more of an atmospheric creeping dread. Fulci wanted to make a Lovecraftian film, without basing it on any actual existing story. With the screenplay by Dardano Sacchetti (and touch-ups by Giorgio Mariuzzo and Fulci) and the Boston, Massachusetts setting, I think he succeeded beautifully.
While I still believe The Beyond and City are ultimately better films, in the last few years Cemetery has really grown in power in my opinion. Maybe it’s my taste maturing and being able to more openly accept a slower-moving piece, but Cemetery is a minor masterpiece.
Debuting at SXSW in 2015, Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here has some similarities to House By the Cemetery, but functions as a more pure ghost story with bloody good twists. Shot near Rochester, NY, but set in New England, it is in Lovecraft’s neighborhood with House. I always recommend WASH to Fulci fans, because if you like House, WASH moves at a faster clip and plunges the viewer into a deepening dread filled world faster, with a spectacularly bloody finish.
In House By the Cemetery, the Boyles are moving into the Oak Mansion, also known as the Freudstein House. The father, Norman (Paolo Malco), is studying old houses. This particular house used to be the residence of his former colleague, Dr. Peterson, who committed suicide in the house after murdering his mistress. But the house has darker roots reaching back into the previous century. The mother, Lucy (Katherine MacColl), has a number of reservations about moving into the house and has a number of experiences independent of Norman that put her on edge. Meanwhile, the son, Bob, befriends the ghost of a young girl named Mae, who guides us into a weird world of forbidden medicine and black science.
In We Are Still Here, Ann (Barbara Crampton) and Paul Saccetti (Andrew Sensenig)’s son has died and the couple has moved into a new house to start over. Ann is deeply depressed and barely able to go on. Paul hopes that a new house will help her come back to him. Things start to go awry when Ann starts to feel Bobby, their son’s, presence in the new home. To make matters worse, they get an evening visit from neighbors who act totally sketchy and reveal that the house used to belong to The Dagmars, who ran a funeral parlor out of the house. The family was eventually run out of town when they were caught selling the corpses. As the paranormal activity in the house increases, Ann invites their friends, May and Jacob Lewis (great cameos by Lisa Marie and Larry Fessenden), who are spiritualists, to help them communicate with the spirits in the house to figure out what’s going on. This goes badly and, at this point, in the movie everything ramps up to a fever pitch, getting crazier by the moment.
Both films have families in various stages of crisis finding them on shaky ground in unfamiliar territory. I’m not sure if it was ever really intended, because it seems like a narrative thread left hanging at the end, but Norman seems to have cheated on Lucy, possibly with their new babysitter. Twice, Norman is asked about visiting Peterson at his home, where we know Peterson was cheating on his wife, and Norman denies it both times-the second, at the library, the librarian remembers Norman visiting Peterson “with his daughter.” Norman reacts awkwardly in both scenarios, almost embarrassed, and of course, he has no daughter (was this the babysitter?).
The Saccettis are reeling from the loss of their son, something that can do any number of horrible things to a marriage. In their case, Ann and Paul have become lonely islands. Paul seems to be coping better with their loss or he’s just better at burying his emotions. Either way, there is a void and a vulnerability that pulls at the heartstrings as you see these two beautiful, broken souls step into a trap.
Both Oak Mansion and the Dagmar House are indeed traps set by fate. The Oak Mansion is a spider web indiscriminately catching whoever dummies in. The Saccettis are unwitting lambs at the Dagmars’ slaughter. In either case, by the time our protagonists realize they need to escape, the trap has sprung and all hell breaks loose.
I think the gold standard of haunted house movies would likely be found in three films: The Haunting of Hill House, The Changeling, and The Shining. But both House and WASH have an element that none of these prestige films have – a reckless disregard for not being a horror film. One thing that the latter three films have in common, aside from ghosts, is a reach for legitimacy, to be “real” films deserving of an award. Fulci always felt slighted by not being respected as a real director in Italy just because he made horror movies. Geoghegan certainly possesses the skills to make a high-quality art film, and he did, but didn’t let the ghettoization of the horror genre stop him from fully embracing the genre in all the best ways.
As I said, House keeps getting better the more I return to it. The first time I saw it was on VHS with a muddy picture on a small TV set. I’ve seen it on a cheap DVD that barely looked like a step up from VHS. But now we have high-quality transfers with clear audio tracks. The film probably didn’t look or sound this good in the theater. Earlier this week, I sat down to watch it again and Fulci gets shots that are downright Hitchcockian. Fabio Frizzi’s main theme is iconic. And while Bob’s bad overdubbing is, well, bad, the overall film has such an eerie charm. (Side note: Eibon Press/Fulci Comics have adapted House into a three-issue series written by Stephen Romano with art by legendary Deadworld artist Vince Locke, and it expands and deepens the story beautifully).
Only being four years old, I obviously haven’t lived with We Are Still Here as long, but it went straight into my list of favorite films. With an amazing performance by Crampton and truly scary visuals, I love it more with each subsequent viewing. Geoghegan’s follow up, Mohawk, is even better. Though it is set during the War of 1812, it speaks to modern-day America, because like Geoghegan said during a Q&A in Syracuse, “We Are Still Here was about the sins of the father and in Mohawk, these are the fathers.”
Home is where the heart is and we are vulnerable when it comes to love, so the home will always be ripe for horror stories. This October, I recommend making these two house horrors a double feature.