Lucio Fulci had written and directed Italian comedies and musicals for almost fifteen years before trying his hand at other kinds of genre filmmaking: his first Western was Massacre Time (1966) with Franco Nero and George Hilton, and his first giallo thriller was the twisty and intriguing Perversion Story (aka Una Sull’altra – One On Top Of The Other (1969). He then took up one of his favorite lingering projects, the film Beatrice Cenci (also 1969). The late 16th century story tells of an arrogant and abusive nobleman, Francesco Cenci, who violently terrorized his wife and sons and sexually abused his daughter Beatrice. The nobility and ruling clergy of the time turned a blind eye to Francesco’s abuses, forcing his family to plot his murder in its own defense. It was a real thundercrack upon its release – walkouts and violent arguments were common at the early screenings, and the film was censured by the Vatican. It was almost impossible to find until a German DVD release in 2007. Beatrice Cenci revealed two things about Fulci that carried through most of the films he made from here on – his loathing for the Catholic Church and its hypocritical collusion with Italian politics, and a pretty hard personal misanthropic streak. Fulci’s films are always based on good ideas – he’s a good screenwriter – and his visual style is boldly straightforward. But I find most of them to be more admirable than entertaining. They can be abruptly, punishingly violent – he’s famous for that -and he’s got a pretty pessimistic view of human nature. There are a few tremendous films here, but we soon discover that the playfulness of something like Una Sull’altra is pretty scarce in most of his other work.
The reception that met Beatrice Cenci meant that Fulci had to do a little mainstream penance if producers were going to invest in him for any other projects. He returned to the giallo, following hot-on-the-heels of the release of Argento’s phenomenally popular The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, and created a good one; Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (Una Lucertola Con La Pelle Di Donna) (1971) features a few lurid murders, a tantalizing psychological mystery, some sex, nudity and drug use, and some notably psychedelic stylistic flourishes. As we’ll accustom ourselves to, this is another international cast: the fetching Florinda Bolkan is a Brazilian who already spoke four languages fluently when she arrived in Europe, reliable Frenchman Jean Sorel makes his second Fulci film, Stanley Baker and Leo Genn make up the British contingent (the film is set in London), and Italians Silvia Monti and Ely Galliani feature prominently. The film’s score, by the way, is one of Ennio Morricone’s weirder, cooler ones.
Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan) is the daughter of Edmond Brighton (Leo Genn), a prominent legal dignitary in London, and she’s married to Frank (Jean Sorel), a young lawyer who works for Edmond as well. Carol and Frank live in a pretty lush suite of apartments in a swank building with Frank’s daughter from a previous marriage, Joan (Ely Galliani). Carol sees a psychiatrist, and lately they’ve been working out some issues with one of Carol’s neighbors, Julia Durer (an uncredited and undressed Anita Strindberg), a wealthy hippie hedonist who regularly throws loud and wild parties. And even though she insists they’ve never actually met other than in-passing, Carol dreams of her regularly. Sexually. And Carol is fairly upset when one of her most vivid dreams moves past seduction to her actually murdering Julia. Carol’s shrink (George Rigaud, who also serves as Edwige Fenech’s doctor in Sergio Martino’s All The Colors Of The Dark), however, believes the dream is a good thing, a breakthrough. That is, until the actual murdered body of Julia Durer is discovered, under identical circumstances to Carol’s dream. Whhhaaaaaaaaaaa…? Inspector Corvin (Stanley Baker) investigates while Carol’s state of mind erodes; she’s understandably the obvious suspect, but, c’mon, really…?! Who else might have known about the dream? Who else had motive to kill Julia? How did they do that?
It’s a very nice mystery with a surprising and uncharacteristically logical conclusion, but Fulci provides many entertainments on the way. Rather than being terrorized by some trench-coated, black-gloved psycho, our protagonist here is primarily doing battle with herself, with her own state of mind, with her own sexual demons. What if the dream’s not a dream? She retreats to a sanitarium for a small stretch, but ends up being stalked there, chased inside, and encounters a ghastly vivisection experiment. But how much of that was real? No one believes her. And if she didn’t commit the murder, why would anyone try to kill her? She’s running interference as the prime suspect! There are big contrasts to the ordered life Carol is used to and the lurid, sexualized, illogical world that seems to be closing in on her. There was another hippie couple at the ‘party’ in the murder dream who may have witnessed something important… if they really were there when Julia died. Carol actually spots them on the street one day; Joan talks to them, but they don’t remember anything like that.
Fulci employs a little split-screen, his trademark sudden zooms (actually, most of the giallo directors will use the sudden zoom to death, I’m sorry to report…) slow-motion, jump-cuts, some interesting wind effects and even a little Francis Bacon imagery. Luigi Kuveiller is the cinematographer, and it’s good work from him – Fulci likes lots of evocative things in interior backgrounds, and Kuveiller has an unerring sense of when to open up the depth-of-field and when to focus back in. It’s tough to get how good Florinda Bolkan is here unless you see her in other things, but trust me, everything you need to know about Carol is here.
“…look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”
—Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Copper Beeches
Fulci and co-screenwriter Roberto Gianviti contrast the securely privileged urban life of Edmond Brighton’s ilk with the deliberately unmanageable free-form lifestyle of the newer generation, and it’s a pretty even match. In their next film, Don’t Torture A Duckling (Non Si Sevizia Un Paperino) (Italy, 1972), the deck is a little more stacked. The small rural Italian town of Accendura, chirpily populated by mischievous kids, scolding mamas and earnest young priests, is slowly revealed to be a vipers’ nest of ignorance, superstition, intolerance and bleak violence. A modern superhighway bridges far above the small town and surrounding woods, providing three local boys with decidedly novel recreational opportunities. Travelling prostitutes visit lonely farming locals, and the boys peep-in regularly. A chastened Milanese party girl returns to her hometown to lie low for a while, but she’s both flirty and furtive, and tough to miss. And a big-city reporter has arrived to investigate a child murder – young Bruno LoCascio has been beaten and strangled. The police investigation turns up a viable suspect, but the story’s not quite right. Soon after, a second boy’s body turns up, and then a third.
In standard giallo fashion, the entire film is populated with suspects – Giuseppe, a slow-witted farmhand (Vito Passeri), Francesco, the local pagan (George Wilson), his younger ‘witch’ protégé Maciara (Florinda Bolkan), Don Alberto (Marc Porel), the aforementioned earnest young priest, and his mother, Dona Aurelia (Irene Papas), who dotes on the deaf child- sister, Malvina – and, in standard giallo fashion, the reporter, with assistance from Patrizia, is always two steps ahead of the police. What’s not standard is that Fulci misanthropy we mentioned earlier. The reporter, Martelli (Tomas Milian), is dismissive of the locals, police and civilians, until he meets the comely party-girl Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet), whereupon he recruits her for his own inquiries, even when circumstances make her a viable suspect. Our own introduction to Patrizia involves her fully-nude teasing of a teenage boy, the son of the caretakers of her father’s home – in many ways, she’s kinda creepy. She’s also prone to long nighttime drives by herself, which make for a flimsy alibi when the police want to know what she’s up to when the murders take place. The first real suspect turns out to be far more opportunist than killer; he’s hauled off to jail anyway. When the witch Maciara is suspected at one point, she’s released, not guilty; but the men of the town don’t care – four of them (including the fathers of the deceased boys) put an extraordinarily hard-to-watch beatdown on her in the cemetery, below the highway. The sad-but-wise police Captain Modesti (Ugo D’Alessio) already knows how stupid and fearful the townspeople can be, but even he’s shocked at Maciara’s fate.
Fulci, like Sam Peckinpah, like George Romero, tends to use violence towards far more expressionistic purposes than most filmmakers. In Lizard…, Julia Durer’s knife wounds, the Francis Bacon dream sequence and the clinic’s vivisection-room experiment are all far more grotesque and exaggerated than they ever would be in real life, which ultimately expresses the extremity of Carol’s state-of-mind. The two starkly violent scenes here, Maciara’s demise and the concluding death of the real killer, are similarly over-the-top, but serve different purposes. Maciara is the victim of the squalid, stupidly evil society she must live with, and her lacerations seem pustulently infected the very second they’re delivered by her deliberate and self-righteous attackers. And I won’t spoil the ending, but I will observe that Nature delivers exponentially more damage to our anti-natural-ish perpetrator than the circumstances might realistically warrant.
Don’t Torture A Duckling is an excellent giallo. The killer is on the ‘moral’ crusade, while everyone else is corrupt or corrupting. There’s no shortage of lures, traps or grown-ups’ disdain for the kids in this movie. The title refers to a Donald Duck doll that Patrizia buys for the deaf child Malvina (“Paperino” is the actual Italian name given to Disney’s Donald Duck), since she beheads every doll her mother gives her. Sweet kid…
Ever the practical working filmmaker, Fulci picked up a number of non-horror gigs over the next few years – two loose adaptations of Jack London’s White Fang, the grisly western Four Of The Apocalypse, and two sex comedies, Dracula In Brianza (with Sylva Koscina) and La Pretora (My Sister-In-Law, featuring Edwige Fenech). For 1977, Fulci teamed back up with regular collaborator Roberto Gianviti, as well as seasoned giallo screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, whom had worked on Mario Bava’s Bay Of Blood and Dario Argento’s Cat O’ Nine Tails. After writing a number of poliziotteschi for Stelvio Massi and Umberto Lenzi, Sacchetti seems to have pulled Fulci and Gianviti more towards a conventional Alfred Hitchcock / Dario Argento story structure with The Psychic (Sette Note In Nero; Seven Notes In Black) (Italy, 1977).
Here we have Hitchcock’s classic protagonist, a normal person trapped in extraordinary circumstances; Mario Bava’s underlying theme of psychotic evil lying just below the surface of wealth, artistry and privilege (Blood And Black Lace, Hatchet For The Honeymoon), and an Argento-like episodic mystery populated with a variety of characters / suspects. Virginia Ducci (Jennifer O’Neill) doesn’t have visions very often, but when she does they’re undeniably powerful. Early in this story, she’s overwhelmed by a vision, or waking dream; a series of images that all relate to each other – a room with a hole in the wall, a Medieval painting, a burning cigarette, a broken mirror, a murdered old woman’s blood-smeared face, a guilty man limping away… Her therapist, Luca (Marc Porel) is an old friend as well; she’s had these visions before, but except for the vision of her mother’s suicide when she was a little girl, they’ve never proven to be real. Luca records Virginia’s recitation of the details, and encourages her to explore what they might mean, but he also cautions that these, too, may lead to nothing.
Virginia has married a fabulously wealthy and handsome businessman, Francesco Ducci (spaghetti western veteran Gianni Garko), and, in exploring one of his family’s houses as a design / renovation project, happens upon a few objects from the dream, which leads her to nosing around and, finally, knocking part of a wall down, behind which is a young woman’s body. The police are alerted, the body is identified, and, OMG, Francesco knew her! He’s quickly arrested, which normally means that, as giallos go, he didn’t do it. Now the game’s afoot for Virginia to solve the mystery and clear her husband, following the dream-clues to their real-life functions.
Fulci starts the film with young Virginia’s vision of her mother’s death, and he happily steals from himself to make her plunge down the cliffside as weirdly grotesque as the death of the perpetrator in …Duckling. (Car geeks will note that Mom is driving a very cool Nash Metropolitan *gasp*) But the rest of the film is surprisingly realistic. He’s always been good at building an atmosphere of impending dread – Lizard’s Carol Hammond is always waiting for the next shoe to drop, and …Duckling gets to the point where you think “Oh, no…” every time any child is on screen with any other adult. Here we’re not so much fearful of anything happening to Virginia as much as we share her dread of what’s really going to happen to someone else down the line. The “what does this list of things mean” structure is a good engine to run the story on, and clearly Sacchetti’s contribution (Cat O’ Nine Tails). I have to admit that the film rarely works its way past its formulaic plot devices – the some-dubbed-some-not international casting really doesn’t lend itself to suspending disbelief, and the introduction of the musical watch into the intrigue is very clumsy. (You’ll know what I mean…) And the musical score, credited to Bixio – Frizzi – Tempera, is pretty negligible. But the narrative moves along at a pretty good clip with very little wasted motion or marking time.
Overall, this is a pretty slick and entertaining giallo mystery with a truly surprising villain-reveal. There’s some deathbed-recitation nonsense about a conspiracy around a stolen painting, but I preferred things when they were just senselessly violent. Not only does this rationale dilute the atmosphere of dread, but it’s very badly recorded. It’s best ignored.
If The Psychic is a step back from Fulci’s occasional over-the-top tendencies, in pleasing fashion, then I must give full and fair warning that The New York Ripper (Lo Squartatore Di New York) (Italy, 1982) is one of his most repellent films. I was going to save this one for more 80s-related fare like Tenebre or Stage Fright, but I’m happy to get it out of the way now. The internet is full of apologists opining that Fulci must have been kidding, or that it must be a parody, or a dark comedy, or an elaborate metaphor for The Evil Force Which Is 42nd Street Invading Real People’s Lives. Bollocks. Maybe the four (!) credited writers delivered a nonsense screenplay, and led Fulci to figure I’d better rely on the gore I’ve been cranking out in previous films like Zombi 2, City Of The Living Dead, The Beyond, and House By The Cemetary. OR Fulci figured this over-the-top zombies thing is working out so well that we should try applying it to a giallo thriller. I really don’t care how the sausage was made; it’s not good.
Lt. Williams (Jack Hedley) is a cynical, worn-down homicide detective. When a disembodied hand is discovered, and he lands the case, he thinks it’s just a weird one-off. Unfortunately, other deaths occur matching the M.O. of the first, and he’s got a serial case.
The first girl’s landlady eavesdropped on the late first victim’s phone calls, and describes a guy using a screechy Donald Duck voice. We then follow a brash and outgoing bicycler who boards the Staten Island ferry after berating a VW driver whose car she scuffed. On the crossing, she enters the unoccupied VW to write a nasty note in lipstick, but she’s joined by another passenger whom then attacks her. Her screams indicate what has already happened as the camera pulls back to a long shot of the ferry. But Fulci’s not done. He needs the close-up stabbing, the slashed skin, the spurting gouts of blood amid the duck-quacks of the murderer – effects wizard Germano Natali goes to town here, immoderately.
Williams convinces his Chief of Police (Fulci himself, in a cameo) to ease back and let him handle it, and he recruits a Columbia professor, Dr. Davis (Paolo Malco) to help him with profiling. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to two other obvious targets – a 42nd Street sex worker performing onstage sex acts, and the conspicuously-aroused rich white woman in the audience whom, we learn, is recording the sounds of the performance for her husband’s later appreciation. And both of them are being observed by an obvious hard-ass type who is missing a few fingers on one hand. The sex worker repairs to her dressing room, where she’s attacked by the Duck-quacking killer wielding a broken bottle in the most disturbingly vicious manner possible. The effects are, umm, effective. Afterwards, Lt. Williams receives a phone call from the Quacker, letting him know that another one has bitten the dust. But he’s at the apartment of another woman, a call girl – how does the killer know he was there?
After another notes-comparing session between Williams and Dr. Davis, we once again join the conspicuously-aroused rich white woman, whose name is Jane (Alexandra Delli Colli); this time she’s submitting to the derisive under-the-table abuse of two male latinos in a neighborhood pool hall. Other than as another demonstration of her squalid sexual appetites, the scene seems to have no other purpose than voyeuristic titillation. (Which doesn’t necessarily need to be a bad thing… but sadly, here…)
We then meet Fay (Almanta Keller), an attractive student on a subway car late-at-night, who runs into the missing-fingers hard-ass (Howard Ross), jumps off the train, and is then pursued by him, directly into the clutches of the Duck-quacking killer. She’s badly cut, but seems to evade the killer in an abandoned theater, where she hallucinates that her loving boyfriend, Peter (Andrea Occhipinti, billed here as Andrew Painter), is her razor-wielding killer. Williams and Dr. Davis are relieved that she survived the attack, get some valuable information from her, and leave her in Peter’s care.
We then move on to the further adventures of Jane, another attempt or two on Fay, a truly gut-wrenching, turn-away-from-the-screen attack on another woman and a previously unknown bit of (actually, quite sad) information about one of our major male characters that cracks the case.
What’s frustrating about The New York Ripper is the well-structured, well-shot, technically proficient filmmaking chops on display that are in the service of probably the most misogynistic film I’ve ever seen. (Gordon Willis’ 1980 Windows is my gold-standard for misogyny, but it’s mercifully gore-free compared to this.) The ferry sequence, the sex-show episode, the pool-hall, the subway chase, Jane’s hotel scene – they’re all smartly orchestrated, genuinely dynamic set-pieces. But the parts of the story that are hateful just blend in with everything else, and some obvious slip-ups and incongruencies are too apparent to not distract. It’s OK narratively to make the male characters as much of a thematic target as the female victims, but when your visual narrative emphasizes the vicarious gaze of the attacker, or the attack itself, then plot mechanics will never excuse it. It’s just creepiness with no cathartic thrill or twist.
This is a very well-known movie exactly because it’s SO sleazy and SO hard-to-watch; if that’s the kind of thing you like to challenge yourself with, than be my guest.
Lucio Fulci is best-known for his late-70s – early eighties supernatural horror gorefests like the aforementioned Zombi 2, City Of The Living Dead, The Beyond, and House By The Cemetary. But I encourage you to check out Fulci’s earlier giallo work – Don’t Torture A Duckling being easily the best of them, followed closely by both Perversion Story and/or Lizard In A Woman’s Skin. The Psychic is well-done and entertaining; if you happen across it, you’ll be glad you saw it, but I can’t really encourage you to seek it out.