In the pantheon of Mad Directors we are slowly but surely building here at Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies, there's one man whose name cries out for greater inclusion: Lucio Fulci. I mean, besides sharing a birthday with your ever-lovin' Vicar, this is the man who gave us a duck-voiced killer, a full-on internal-organ extrusion, and the justly beloved Zombie vs. Shark! His statue should definitely be ensconced in our grand marble temple to Cinematic Madmen, which is even now being laboriously constructed on the barren hill that swells like a plague-blasted breast between the Duchy and the Vicarage.
The Duke has done his part, erecting two monuments to the maestro's achievement in the zombie subgenre with his reviews of City of the Living Dead and House by the Cemetery. (But then, every time Duke watches Fulci, something gets erected, IYKWIMAITYD.) It's true that many casual viewers know Fulci chiefly for his legendary zombie output, but that's only scratching the surface. Those who have probed deeper know that Fulci was much more than just a zombievangelist.
Case in point: Fulci's little-seen made-for-Italian TV* effort from 1989, The Sweet House of Horrors, aka La dolce casa degli orrori. Here the Maestro trades zombies for ghosts, and doorways to Hell for a creepy haunted mansion. Happily, though, he maintains the atmosphere, insanity, and ocular violence that we've all come to love and expect.
*Nota bene: don't let that "made for TV" designation put you off--I don't know much about Italian TV, but I do know they have it all over us Yanks. This is far and away the goriest MFTV movie I ever expect to see. Unless I move to Italy, that is.
We open with what looks like a classic giallo set-up: a masked, black glove-wearing figure breaks into a dark, palatial mansion, heading straight for the secret wall safe almost as if he's got inside info. Unfortunately the owners of the house pick just that moment to return early from a party, surprising the thief mid-larceny. Edging into one of the poorly balanced, vase-bearing tables that rich Italians favor as ultra-effective thief-detectors, pottery is ruined and the clumsy crook is discovered.
Even though the homeowners are stunned motionless and the path to the front door is completely unobstructed, the thief apparently decides that, since the whole home robbery career path isn't working out, perhaps he'll try his hand at BRUTAL DOUBLE MURDERY. And wouldn't you know it, the kid's a natural! First he bashes the husband's head repeatedly into the sharp corner of a pillar, until his brains are oozing down the support's surface and a grisly flap of skin hangs loose from his scalp! Thereafter he chases the wife into the kitchen, pins her on the counter, and picks up a heavy meat tenderizer/ShakeWeight prototype. Bringing it down full-force on her zygomatic bone, he succeeds in rocketing her eyeball out of its socket like a New Year's Party Popper! Then he crushes the other eye like a grape, rather pointlessly--although let's be honest, how many times in life do you get a chance to do something like that, AMIRITE?
Anyway, the murderer loads the bodies into the couple's car and cleans up the mess. However, he misses two bloodstained stones on the driveway which begin to glow ominously, almost supernaturally...nah, it's probably nuthin! Later he drives out to a nearby cliff and pushes the (clearly empty) car over. And just like that: hey, presto! Perfect crime!
As it turns out, in addition to being filthy rich, the murdered couple were the parents of two adorable little moppets, Marco and Sarah. Fulci flexes his style muscles by giving us a long tracking shot from the kids' point of view as they walk through the graveyard to bury their parents, with adults looking down at them with heartbreaking compassion. The camera ends up in the grave looking up at the two kids, who weep piteously through the service--though strangely their tears don't stop them from chewing gum like a couple of cows and even blowing bubbles through their sobs! It's an odd directorial choice to say the least, but then we'll soon learn these tots are not your average rugrats.
Aunt Marcia (Cinzia Monreale, previously the famously blank-eyed Emily of Fulci's The Beyond) is now all the family them young'uns got left, so she and bland-to-a-fault hubby Carlo (Jean-Christophe Brétigniere, winner of the Frenchiest French Name Invitational 1987) move in to the family mansion with a view toward selling the place and putting the money aside for the kids' future. It's a sensible plan, but unfortunately one that neither bratty Italian kids nor prematurely disoculated parental spirits are likely to take lying down.
It doesn't take long for the creepiness to commence: her first night in the house, Marcia is awakened by strange noises, which she follows to the attic, never bothering to flip on a light switch. (ALWAYS a good plan.) Upstairs she finds the attic has been converted by the kids into a secret rumpus room, complete with freaky papier-mâché masks and an assortment of dolls hanging by nooses from the rafters! However, that's child's play (ba-dump) compared to the source of the noise when discovered: a giant glowing-eyed buzzing fly! WTF?
Mr. Colby (prolific character actor Franco Diogene), proprietor of Fat Sweaty Italian Realty, LLC. As the portly property purveyor breathlessly examines the house, wheezing to Auntie and Unk that they'll have to fix up the old place before they can hope to sell, the kids squeak defiantly, "This is OUR house!" Despite the fact he's wheezing like a vacuum cleaner sucking on a cat's ass, Colby decides to venture up to the attic to complete his appraisal. As he climbs, one of the steps slides away Scooby-Doo style, sending him tumbling a flight and a half to the floor! As the grown-ups tend his broken leg, the kids lighten the mood with a sing-song refrain, "Sausage is dying! Sausage is dying! Sausage is dying!"--that's really just as adorable as you'd think.
After a strange interlude in which the VERY SUSPICIOUS LOOKING gardener Guido (Lino Salemme of Demons, Delerium: Photos of Gioia, and The Passion of the Christ [?]) sees blood on a pillowcase and promptly quits his job (hmmm....), we find the children in their very Paperhouse-esque bedroom, mourning their parents sans bubble-gum. "Uncle Carlos and Aunt Marcia aren't bad people," Marco opines, "they're just idiots!" As he drifts to sleep on his tearstained pillow, the tot wishes his Mama and Papa would come back "from the Moon," where he figures they buggered off to, I guess. As if in answer to his prayers, two very badly superimposed candle flames appear, giggling demonically, which the kids immediately recognize as the spirits of their deceased parents! Huzzah!
Yes, the folks have been haunting the place ever since their murder, and thanks to their children's love have been steadily gaining strength, to the point that they're now able to materialize. After comforting the children, they decide to get revenge on their killer--no points for guessing who THAT turns out to be.
As Guido is collecting his last check from Uncle Carlo, he is suddenly overcome with a feeling of dread, which is only exacerbated when he starts spontaneously bleeding out the side of his face! Driven mad with fear, he starts shouting a 'Nam flashback-style confession, running from the house without his lire while screaming, "You've seen my face! I've got to murder you all!" The wheels of Supernatural Justice turn swiftly in Italy, as Guido is attacked by a huge black dog out of nowhere, which in mid-air changes into a speeding semi-truck! Once again Fulci takes this opportunity to crank the gore up to the "Ridiculous" setting, as we see both wheels traverse the gardener's torso, leaving him split open like an overripe casaba melon!
Say what you will about the stereotypical excitability of Italians, but when it comes to poltergeist activity, they're apparently cool as cucumbers. Even after all the weirdness up to this point, Marcia and Carlo pretty much shrug everything off as perfectly normal--even when Colby reappears, is blown around the living room by a phantom wind and burns his hand on a crutch superheated by the giggling candle flames! Similarly, when the children decide to help their folks along by putting on their strange masks, holding a necromancy ritual, and praying to "the spirits of the earth and air" to bring back "our Mama, our Papa, and if you can manage it, our little dog Bananas!" (?), Marcia tells Carlos it's no big whoop. "It's a very ancient rite--you mask up, you walk around, and you call out to whatever spirit you need to talk to." What, didn't you go to Catholic school, ya rube?
The ritual works like a charm: the parents fully re-materialize and promise never to split the family up again. Much like Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis learned to live with Wynona Rider at the end of Beetlejuice, Mama and Papa (and Bananas!) settle into a daily routine with the kids, picknicking, pushing them on the swings, and tucking them into bed in their attic/Dolly Dungeon. Marcia and Carlos can't see the ghosts, but know they're there--especially when they try to take the kids away, and the spirits levitate their Jeep three feet off the ground to stop them leaving!
But every Beetlejuice has his Otho, and in this instance the Otho character is played by Vernon Dobtcheff as perhaps the douchiest German exorcist EVAR. I mean seriously, just look at this guy:
Resplendent in his half-cape. pubey Amish beard, and beyond-gravelly German accent, the exorcist wastes no time calling the loving parental spirits "worthless" and "disgusting!" The torrent of abuse this guy throws at the spirits--who after all are only there because they love their kids so damn much--is really shocking, with lines like, "You will be thrown down by the force of my will!" and "Free the air of the stench of your miserable souls!" being among the nicest of the lot.
After a douchey seance ends in abject FAIL, the Exorcist returns with Colby and an excavator in tow--Colby agrees to buy the house, just to demolish it and sell the land. The spirits stop the excavator, but at great expense of power, and the Exorcist apparently succeeds in driving them away. Their goodbye scene with the house going nuts around them and other, less friendly spirits pushing at the gateway between worlds was pretty crazy, though I found it touching in the "Alec and Geena crumble in their wedding clothes" manner. The effects, though, leave something to be desired. In fact, any effect not involving lots of caro syrup and pig guts is pretty suspect in this flick.
With their parents gone for good and the Douche Lord triumphant, the kids are extremely depressed--however, they happen to find a couple of glowing stones in the driveway, the talismans of their parents' power. They quickly pocket them to bring along to their next home. Douche Lord sees them do it however, and demands they hand them over--leading a last-minute freeze-frame comeuppance that recalls in equal parts the last shot of City of the Living Dead and the Nazi deathstravagazna in Raiders of the Lost Ark!
Friends, this is a MAD movie of the first order, but it's also an extremely well made one. Fulci's flair for atmosphere and active camera work are in full effect, with wonderful fog-shrouded night shots, some beautiful color-scheme/composition work, and enough chunky gore to please even the most jaded hellbeast. As I mentioned, there are a few extremely cheezy superimposition effects, and an ill-advised cartoon "spirit" that looks like it came out of a Casper the Friendly Ghost short, and now and then the soft-focus seems to case a film of gauze over the screen, but overall I have few complaints about the technical side of the viewing experience.
Story-wise, it's an interesting hodgepodge of genre tropes, starting out in giallo territory, moving quickly into Gorehound Plaza, and finally ending up in Poltergeistville. In fact, the movie could have been made with almost no gore at all--the really juicy scenes are so over the top as to seem almost out of place. I kind of picture Fulci as having the directorial mentality of a shark--once the first drop of blood hits the water, he doesn't want to stop until everybody is torn to pieces! Whether that's a caveat or a recommendation will depend on your peculiar movie-watching tastes.
As is often the case, the acting here is the least compelling facet of the proceedings, taking backseat to visuals, atmosphere, and general weirdness. The kids are squarely in the "annoying Italian child" mold, which if you've seen House by the Cemetery will say all you need to hear. Their high-pitched, sing-songy dubbing does seem believably evil and sadistic when called for, however, so there's that. Everyone else is pretty bland (Marcia, Carlo) or overly broad (Colby, Guido)--though the Exorcist is so horrible and arrogant that he transcends his role and becomes a kind of minor icon.
Sweet House of Horrors a try. 3 thumbs up. Just be sure to brush your teeth after.
A few more images from The Sweet House of Horrors (1989):