By rule, horror movies are filled with cliches, it's just a matter of how well they're utilized. One of the more prolific horror cliches is the cemetery as a dominant location. It makes for an easy eerieness and is a device for terror such as zombies and grave digging (or nude dancing in the case of Return of the Living Dead). With perhaps thousands of cemetery scenes existing on film, there are some who stand above the rest, and I give you some of my favorite cinema cemeteries:
Easily the scariest scene in a movie full of them. Gregory Peck and David Warner (in familiar territory as a kook) find themselves in a ghostly Italian cemetery looking for evidence that Peck's child is the anti-Christ. Of course the skies are black and full of lightning, but how director Richard Donner really ups the tension here is having his characters stalked by a trio of demon dogs. Peck and Warner thought they were alone until they find themselves being tracked by the eyes of three ghastly dobermans. This sequence plays out perfectly and I've watched it dozens of times, I even stopped to watch it when I noticed the Spanish channel was showing 'The Omen' one time.
Not only does 'Phantasm' have two handfuls of cemetery scenes, but this is one HELLUVA cemetery and accompanying mortuary. Vast and chilling, with the Holy Shit-freaky Tall Man presiding its grounds, this is not your average cemetery. The mortuary is even more spooky, with a magic flying orb/killing machine waiting for any sneaky kids who are the main characters in a horror movie. Stay the hell out of this cemetery and the whole town in general, and be sure to watch until the very end (goddamn that Tall Man!)
The Leopard Man
A rusty thriller, but nonetheless home to a pair of the scariest sequences I've ever seen. Both of them involves a leopard, and the scarier of the two takes place in a cemetery. An unlucky girl in a terrorized New Mexico town finds herself locked inside a claustrophobic, moon-lit cemetery -- the kind with a big gate and high stone walls. What the girl does not notice is that in the big oak tree overhanging the cemetery is a hungry panther. The scene is nearly silent and the pacing is note-perfect for some genuine chills.
I've seen this movie so many times, and I am still patiently waiting for a real DVD release. The movie really kicks into gear when Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis meet our title character after being shrunk down to size and exploring the miniature town in their attic. Beetlejuice is buried in the cemetery and the couple has to dig him up in a beautifully-twisted Tim Burton trademark scene where Baldwin and Davis stick shovels into the fake grass of the cemetery and find Michael Keaton back when he could still find work. It's a simple scene, but it -- like the rest of the movie -- has the perfect look to it, in the way only Burton could do it.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
I realize this is Horror Month and all, and that this post is about cemeteries in horror movies, but I couldn't let myself publish this without mentioning the greatest cemetery ever caught on film. A mammoth finale setpiece, the endless expanse where 'Unknown' is buried along with the treasure is unconscioubly beautiful and impossibly grand. It's also when the best theme of Morricone's classic score kicks in, leading to the fulfilling tri-duel climax. I have no idea how they made this cemetery (was it already like that? is it still there?), but man I love looking at it.