Italian Grinders: Lucio Fulci Giallo Retrospective Part I – Psychological Dissonance
With some exceptions, Italy’s violent thrillers, dubbed giallo due to the yellow coloring of the pulp paperback jackets that the films were originally emulating, can more or less be divided between the locally popular films of the ‘60s, spawned from Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (Italian: La ragazza che sapeva troppo; aka: Evil Eye, 1963) and Blood and Black Lace (Italian: Sei donne per l'assassino, 1965), the boom that followed Dario Argento’s massively popular The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970), and the increasingly violent stragglers/tributes that followed throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s, and modern age. But neither Bava, nor Argento invented/reinvented the genre in a void. Bird with the Crystal Plumage, for instance, was a methodical combination of pop-art aesthetics, another author’s plot (it is a loose, uncredited adaptation of Fredric Brown’s The Screaming Mimi [Dutton Guilt Edged Mysteries, 1949]), and a film language that was being developed by Bava, Umberto Lenzi, Massimo Dallamano, Antonio Margheriti, Giulio Questi, and others. Among the many hardworking journeymen that jumped on the bandwagon just before Argento’s efforts changed the genre’s focus was Lucio Fulci, who completed a series of influential gialli, before spearheading the gore movie movement in the early ‘80s, then returning to make strange variations of the gialli formula as his career wound to an end.
Perversion Story (Italian: Una Sull'altra; aka: One on Top of the Other, 1969)
A general practitioner named Dr. George Dumurrier (Jean Sorel) attempts to juggle a busy business with his brother, Henry (Alberto de Mendoza), his chronically ill wife, Susan (Marisa Mell), and his fashion photographer mistress, Jane (Elsa Martinelli). One night, while George is away, Susan dies of an asthma attack, leaving him with a one million dollar life insurance policy. When his affair with Jane comes to light, the authorities grow suspicious and begin investigating Susan’s death as a possible murder. Further complications arise when an anonymous caller brings a local striptease performer named Monica Weston to George’s attention. He and Jane attend one of Monica’s shows, only to discover that she is a dead ringer for Jane.
Fulci is now known almost exclusively for his hyper-violent Gothic horror movies, but, at the end of the 1960s, he was busy churning out comedies (many featuring the popular duo Franco & Ciccio) and dabbling in westerns (like pretty much every director working in Italy during the ‘60s). Until Perversion Story, the closest he came to making a thriller was a story credit on Riccardo Freda’s Double Face (Italian: A doppia faccia; released as a faux-Edgar Wallace krimi in Germany as Das Gesicht im Dunkeln), which was released only a few months before Perversion Story in 1969. Soon after it finished its international theatrical run, Perversion Story was mostly forgotten. Even when the home video era rolled around and fans of the director’s zombie movies discovered that they had been missing out on literal decades of material, it was sometimes assumed that, based on both of its known titles, Perversion Story was a sexploitation comedy. A surprising amount of writing on the subject of Fulci from the ‘90s actually marks the brutal historical drama, Beatrice Cenci (aka: The Conspiracy of Torture), as his first brush with horror, not realizing that film was actually released a couple of months after this one (in 1969). While Perversion Story doesn’t hint at the buckets of gore we’d see in Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2, 1979), it definitely was a warm-up for the more Fulci-esque gialli that immediately followed it.
Fulci sometimes touted a supposed rivalry with Argento that seemed to be largely one-sided, because Argento rarely acknowledged other contemporary Italian filmmakers, period, unless he was working directly with them or they were among the international elite class, like Sergio Leone and Michelangelo Antonioni. However, Fulci’s assertion that Bird with the Crystal Plumage snagged some ideas from Perversion Story is probably more accurate than not. In an interview for Luca M. Palmerini & Gaetano Mistretta’s Spaghetti Nightmares: Italian Fantasy-Horrors As Seen Through The Eyes Of Their Protagonists (Fantasma Books, 1996), he breaks down a couple of similarities – some probably incidental, like the “mystery maturing with the characters” and others more convincing, such as the failure of police to do much of anything, in spite of their superior experience and technology at their disposal. The latter became an ongoing theme throughout the rest of Fulci’s gialli and a number of Argento’s films, leading up to Tenebrae (1982), where the lead police detective does solve the case, but is almost immediately clobbered to death with an axe before he can arrest the guilty party. During the same Spaghetti Nightmares interview, Fulci credits Romolo Guerrieri’s The Sweet Body of Deborah (Italian: Il dolce corpo di Deborah, 1968) as the progenitor of Italian thrillers. This may be a mistranslation based on he and co-writers Roberto Gianviti & Jose Luis Martinez Molla possibly basing their script on Guerrieri’s movie. As Tim Lucas notes in Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci (FAB Press, 1999), the two movies share common themes and other narrative elements. Either way, Fulci has referred to Perversion Story as ultimately a failure, calling it “too mechanical.”
The director expressing disappointment at his work being too cleanly plotted when being interviewed in the 1990s is emblematic of how quickly attitudes towards gialli changed in the wake of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Regardless of the delayed impact of Blood and Black Lace, in the brief period between Perversion Story and Argento’s film, it was not unusual for storylines to revolve around a single crime, instead of the misdeeds of a serial murderer, nor was the driving purpose of gialli to design the most elaborate murder set-pieces. Perversion Story’s focus on scenario, structure, and character are all strengths that would be seen as irrelevant in the years to come, as plots grew ridiculously convoluted, characters became fodder for the bloody body count, and style generally overtook any substance outside of opaque allegories. Not to imply that The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an act of substance-free storytelling – it’s just that, in the rush to reproduce its conventions, these things tended to be left by the wayside, as filmmakers struggled to one-up each other with increasingly abstract and exploitative exercises. Given this soon-pervasive disinterest in narrative sense or focus, Perversion Story actually feels kind of refreshing in retrospect. Coupled with Beatrice Cenci, it paints us a picture of a director in-flux, as he learns how to tell a dramatic story using the skills he acquired making stiflingly formulaic comedies.
It’s not hard to understand why modern audiences don’t react as strongly to Perversion Story as they do to Fulci’s other gialli, his esoteric horror movies, or even the sleazy STV junk he was churning out before his death in 1996. As you may have gathered, a lot of the film’s appeal is found in comparing it to other movies and such comparisons aren’t always flattering. At worst, it will only be remembered as a possible first step towards Fulci completely unleashing his mad id in the years that followed. For those that really just want to enjoy Perversion Story on its own merits, it’s easier to approach it as a mainstream romantic thriller. Fulci makes this easier by dialing back on the gore, social commentary (there’s a built-in anti-death penalty statement, I suppose), and hallucinatory elements, but the key component is that he goes out of his way to disguise every ounce of the film’s Italian heritage. There are no ritzy villas, no Eurotrash villains, no downtrodden, whitewashed rural communities to confuse international audiences – just external location shots of California/Nevada landmarks, interior footage of San Quentin’s real life gas chamber (no idea how California state authorities allowed that to happen, but it was a huge part of the advertising), and over-the-top, yet non-region-specific, late ‘60s interiors. I’m guessing some American audiences were tricked, assuming they didn’t notice the dubbing. For what it’s worth, Perversion Story succeeds in this regard much more than Fulci ever did for the supposedly New York-set movies he made in the ‘80s.
A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Italian: Una Lucertola con la Pelle di Donna; aka: Schizoid, 1971)
Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan) is the frustrated wife of Edmond Brighton (Leo Genn), a successful London lawyer and politician. Lately, Carol has been suffering strange, erotic dreams about her free-loving, orgy-throwing neighbor, Julia Durer (Anita Strindberg). One night, during a particularly rowdy, drug-fueled celebration, Carol dreams of stabbing Julia to death, then wakes to discover that her neighbor has, indeed, been murdered. Now, she and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Corvin (Stanley Baker) are following the evidence to discover if she has been framed… or if she is having nightmares of her own forgotten crimes.
Though not as esoteric as his Gothic zombie movies – specifically City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella Città dei Morti Viventi; aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980) or its follow-up, The Beyond (Italian: ...E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà; aka: Seven Doors to Death, 1981) – Lizard in a Woman’s Skin might be Fulci’s most outrageously arty film, thriller or otherwise. Technically, he was simply following the trends, as gialli had already started to embrace the concept of dream logic in the early ‘70s. This was, in part, a reaction to the role that subjective flashbacks played in Bird with the Crystal Plumage. In Argento’s film, the protagonist keeps recalling the attempted murder he witnessed at the beginning of the film, hoping to remember something he missed. The impressionistic editing, slow-motion inserts, and enigmatic focus-pulling Argento and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro had made famous was then mimicked by the workhorse directors who had found a niche in the giallo boom and became a mainstay of the formula. Lizard in a Woman’s Skin was not the only dream-logic giallo, but it was among the best in this regard, joined by the likes of Sergio Bergonzelli’s In the Folds of the Flesh (Italian: Nelle pieghe della carne, 1970), Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark (Italian: Tutti i colori del buio, 1972), and Pupi Avati’s The House with the Laughing Windows (Italian: La casa dalle finestre che ridono, 1976) – all films that managed to tie their psychedelia to their plots and themes, rather than using them strictly as visual flair.
Fulci and cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller rarely give the audience a chance to observe the film objectively. When they aren’t shifting focus and crash-zooming, they’re still implying perverted paranoia with more subtle editing techniques. Even expositional and procedural sequences are skewed by the maddening juxtaposition of wide angles and extreme close-ups. And, when Lizard in a Woman’s Skin directly engages in nightmare sequences, Fulci pushes the dream-logic to its illusory limit with dizzying geography (the nightmare locations make no visual sense and appear to stretch into infinity), overlapping images, skipped frames, split-screens, and bloody, surrealistic special effects. Though he hadn’t yet scored an international breakthrough with Zombie, Fulci was still experimenting with extreme gore and, in its uncensored form, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin was one of the most graphic films of the early ‘70s slasher boom. What sets it apart is probably the fact that so much of the violence is tied directly to hallucinations, rather than the murder sequences as they happen. Sure, there is a relatively long chase scene that ends in a (non-fatal) knife slashing, but, for most of the movie, the audience is left to wonder if the bloodletting is real or imagined. Even the stabbing murder at the center of the plot is only viewed from the perspective of Carol’s nightmares. We never quite get an authentic, straight-forward version of what occurred.
One sequence actually got Fulci and his producers into legal trouble for animal cruelty. In the scene, Carol hides from a stalker in a sanatorium and stumbles across some kind of grotesque experiment in which four living dogs have been strung up with their insides exposed. Tubes carry their blood to parts unknown and they whimper as their hearts continue beating and their guts leak gory sludge into stainless steel basins. Italian authorities charged the director on suspicion of animal cruelty. Actors were forced to testify on his behalf and, when that didn’t work, special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi (the future inventor of the E.T. puppet) appeared in court with the dead dog props to prove that Fulci hadn’t actually tortured innocent creatures for his movie (though, for the record, the effect was achieved using previously tanned coyote hides).
Speaking of plot, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin definitely won’t please the critics that complain about the giallo genre’s penchant for form over function. The storyline, credited to Fulci himself, Roberto Gianviti, José Luis Martínez Mollá, and André Tranché, is pretty unsatisfying in terms of narrative function, mystery, and a satisfying climax. It is told largely from the point of view of a narrator so unreliable that she can’t even trust herself and the denouement is pretty obvious from the outset (and semi-recycled from Perversion Story). In addition, Fulci and company don’t even really engage with the bodycount formula that basic gialli operated on. So much of the danger is explained away as delusion that I can imagine even genre fans might be disappointed, similar to slasher fans’ original reactions to Fred Walton’s April Fool’s Day (1986), in which (spoiler alert) the entire movie is revealed to be an elaborate prank. However, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is a special case where the mechanics of typical giallo plotting – police procedure, murder mystery, multiple suspects, et cetera – are merely window-dressing around the more potent themes. It’s a film about the loss of identity, where nothing can be trusted as real as long as we’re in the mindset of our lead protagonist, who is also her own antagonist. Other gialli featured criminal cabals attempting to gaslight women into committing murder or suicide, but few featured emotionally ill women haunting themselves.
Don’t Torture a Duckling (Italian: Non si Sevizia un Paperino, which directly translates to Don't Torture Donald Duck; aka: The Long Night of Exorcism, 1972)
A big city journalist named Andrea (Tomás Milián) journeys to a sleepy rural village in order to investigate a gruesome series of child murders. When he arrives, he discovers that the superstitious locals – including the police force – have rested blame on a local witch, Maciara (Florinda Bolkan), who confesses to the crimes. When it becomes clear that Maciara isn’t the guilty party, Andrea teams up with another community outsider, a spoiled rich debutante named Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet), to unravel a mystery that is tied to the very heart of the small town.
While the title Don’t Torture a Duckling recalls Dario Argento’s “Animal Trilogy” (made up of Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’ Nine Tails , and Four Flies on Grey Velvet ) naming convention – in that it is an abnormally long-winded reference to an animal that eventually turns into an obscure plot point – Don’t Torture a Duckling isn’t a typical psychosexual-obsessed murder mystery. Instead, Fulci chose to paint a melodramatic rural tragedy, colored by painful violence, grim death, and the director’s most depressing statement on the nature of religion and authority. Throughout his career, Fulci had an axe to grind concerning the moralistic and conservative sides of Italian society and expressed discomfort at his own lapsing Catholic faith. This antisocial behavior is most apparent in his spoof comedies (The Eroticist/All'onorevole piacciono le donne, 1972, in particular), his ultra-violent period melodrama, Beatrice Cenci, and his first western, Massacre Time (Italian: Le colt cantarono la morte e fu...tempo di massacro; aka: The Brute and the Beast, 1966); the latter two of which deal directly with the consequences of corrupt class systems. But his horror films and thrillers were usually too wrapped up in atmosphere to clearly state any social/political opinions. Aside from the same generalized fear of Catholic theology and mythology seen in hundreds of supernatural horror movies, only City of the Living Dead makes any kind of explicit point. In that film, the literal evils of Hell are unleashed on a small coastal town and the locals see fit to blame a social misfit named Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) for every impossibly violent act that occurs. Bob meets his end when a worried father crams his head into a power drill.
Plot spoilers follow.
Bob’s scapegoatism seems absolutely absurd on its own merits (to make matters sillier, Fulci claimed that the drill scene was a "a cry [he] wanted to launch against a certain kind of fascism”), but that’s because it lacks the context of its roots in Don’t Torture a Duckling. In the film, reporter Andrea (portrayed by Tomás Milián, who also worked with Fulci on Beatrice Cenci and Four of the Apocalypse [Italian: I quattro dell'apocalisse, 1975]) arrives from ‘the city’ (Rome, in this case) to investigate a series of child murders in an isolated southern Italian village. The only suspects are people that don’t meet the town’s archaic ethical standards – a (probably) mentally impaired man, a celebrity socialite with ‘loose morals’ and a mental disturbed pagan “witch.” The “imbecile” (as the authorities dub him) barely escapes mob justice as he is moved from police custody to jail, but the witch is less lucky. After she’s released due to a complete lack of evidence (she confesses, because she believes that she has killed the boys using magic), outraged townsfolk murder her in cold blood. The reporter and socialite combine their efforts and discover that the actual culprit is a beloved Catholic priest, who is killing the children as a mercy, in order to prevent them from growing into morally corrupt adults. In short, an enduring culture of righteous indignation killed the children and a blind spot for religious malfeasance allowed the killer to continue killing.
Fulci’s portrayal of the countryside as a den of superstition and ignorance is tied to his anti-Catholic, anti-bigotry message, but may have also been fueled by old-fashioned classism. Regardless of his greater point, Don’t Torture a Duckling does stand out as one of the earliest examples of rural human monsters in a horror film, pre-dating Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) by two years. Again, while it isn’t as esoteric as Fulci’s Gothic zombie movies or as mind-bending as Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Don’t Torture a Duckling still gorges itself upon stark widescreen images of brutal, painful violence, often lovingly photographed in slow motion. Cinematographer Sergio D'Offizi’s captures Sergio Leone-like compositions capture the lush countryside locations, then Fulci cleverly contradicts the beauty with his savage portrayal of the rural population. Gialli films are built on a foundation of contrasting lurid beauty and grisly violence, but few incorporate the tradition into their thematic context, outside of maybe The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, in which a work of art is the catalyst for violence.
Speaking of violence, most of Don’t Torture a Duckling’s bloodshed occurs between the frames. The killer bloodlessly strangles his victims and almost all of his crimes are only revealed after they’ve been committed. This serves a thematic function for Fulci, who reserves graphic mayhem for the deaths of the witch and the killer himself – neither of which are fun or attractively shot in the traditional giallo fashion. In the first, the innocent woman is savagely beaten with chains and 2x4s as the camera’s lens crash-zooms into her blistering, oozing skin. In the second, jagged rocks scrape huge chunks of flesh from the depraved priest’s face as he tumbles down a high cliff. Both scenes still rate high on the list of Fulci's most vivid depictions of brutality and both were reproduced in Fulci’s later films. The Psychic (see below) reused the cliff death with a bit less juice and The Beyond stretched the chain-beating into an elongated pre-credit sequence, complete with crucifixion and a skin-peeling lye bath. Arguably, each sequence has more impact in the context of Don’t Torture a Duckling, because it is a film that is at once more violent than The Psychic and more realistic than The Beyond (which is ostensibly a movie about decay and death).
The Psychic (Italian: Sette note in nero; aka: Seven Notes in Black and Murder to the Tune of the Seven Black Notes, 1977)
Years ago, a girl living in Italy named Virginia (Fausta Avelli) had a psychic vision of her mother’s suicidal death across Europe on the cliffs of Dover, England. Virginia grows up (and is now portrayed by Jennifer O'Neill) has moved to Rome to live with her wealthy Italian husband, Francesco Ducci (Gianni Garko), when she has another vision; this time of an elderly woman being murdered. Later, while renovating an abandoned mansion owned by Francesco, she recognizes a room from her vision and finds a skeleton inside the wall. Considering that the body was found on his property, the police arrest Francesco. Virginia enlists her friend Luca (Marc Porel) to prove her husband’s innocence and hunt down the real culprit.
After a short break from murder mysteries to dive back into the rigors of comedy and westerns, Fulci returned to gialli one last time, before breaking into hardcore horror with Zombie. Ironically, The Psychic ended up being his least violent giallo since Perversion Story and the least salacious in the entirety of his thriller catalog. This relative lack of objectionable content, his return to classic giallo storytelling, and a recommendation from none other than Quentin Tarantino (who used parts of Fabio Frizzi’s main title theme for Kill Bill Volume 1 ) makes The Psychic an easy recommendation for Fulci newbies who want to get their feet wet, but not that wet.
Considering its low-key violence, as well as its avoidance of elaborate murder scenes and large bodycounts that were redefining gialli in the latter ‘70s, The Psychic works so well as a bridge between Perversion Story and Lizard in a Woman’s Skin that it’s genuinely kind of surprising that it came out after Fulci had already taken the form to such extreme limits for Don’t Torture a Duckling. At the same time, it isn’t really a step back for the director, because he’s still experimenting with the concept of dream logic. In fact, his version of dream logic evolves quite a bit from Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, where the nightmares represented a psychological aberration (since both films, along with the later Cat in the Brain and entirely non-giallo City of the Living Dead, in one way or another involve a protagonist’s relationship with their psychoanalyst/psychiatrist). Here, the dream has a supernatural slant, because the character suffering from the visions is experiencing genuine divinations. These visions hide the key to a murderous plot (and an ironic twist) in an extension of the foggy memories that obscure important details in almost every one of Dario Argento’s mysteries. In Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci, Tim Lucas points to Nicolas Roeg’s gialli-esque Don’t Look Now (1973) as a possible inspiration, but Fulci essentially makes the trope his own and does it in a way that few other gialli filmmakers had and which tied into his upcoming horror movies, especially City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, where literal Hell bleeds into the real world, trapping characters in a world of terrifying apparitions and nonsensical geography, and The House by the Cemetery (Italian: Quella villa accanto al cimitero, 1981), where ghosts show the protagonists images from the past and future.
In his book, Italian Gothic Horror Films (1970-1979) (McFarland & Company, 2017), Roberto Curti quotes co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, who claims that producers Luigi and Aurelio De Laurentiis asked him and the director to adapt occult-themed mystery novel, Terapia Mortale (Deadly Therapy) by Vieri Razzini (Fratelli Fabbri, 1972), only to discover that Fulci had already been developing a version of the book “for some time.” This version of the project dated back to at least the middle of 1974 and it gestated in pre-production for quite some time. Having read Razzini’s novel, Curti asserts that it has almost nothing in common with the movie that was eventually released in 1977 and that Fulci likely borrowed most of his plot from Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes (Dell Pub, 1945), which had previously been made into a movie by John Farrow in 1948, starring Edward G. Robinson, and the same author’s The Black Angel (P. F. Collier & Son Corporation, 1943), which was adapted to film by Roy William Neill in 1946. The evolution of the screenplay over a series of years and the final film’s emphasis on Gothic traditions is likely the result of Fulci’s evolving process as he headed into the 1980s. Perhaps if Terapia Mortale had gone before cameras back in 1974, the last Fulci giallo of this era would’ve played closer to Don’t Torture a Duckling or even Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. The Psychic may be one of his most refined films simply because he had more time than usual to perfect it.
The Psychic is also measurably more Gothic than Fulci’s other gialli (Don’t Torture a Duckling features a form of rural Gothic seen in American horror movies, again, like Tobe Hoopers The Texas Chainsaw Massacre ). Despite the absence of drooling undead creatures, writhing maggots, and writhing intestines, the mood conjured by Fulci, cinematographer Sergio Salvati, and the various production designers very nearly matches the decaying estates of The Beyond and House by the Cemetery (in all three cases, the buildings have been abandoned and are being refurbished to some degree by the new residents). Furthermore, Fulci draws upon the Gothic Romance traditions – Jennifer easily fits the archetype of the Distressed Heroine, she’s involved in a one-sided marriage and, while I’m not sure Luca counts as a secondary love interest, his relationship with Jennifer more or less matches that of a secondary love interest in the Gothic Romance tradition. The story isn’t limited to a single spooky location, but the bulk of its narrative is tied to the abandoned mansion. Then there’s the matter of victims being entombed in walls – a common obsession of modern Gothic forbearer, Edgar Allan Poe. Other gialli fit the mold – such as Emilio Miraglia’s The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (Italian: La dama rossa uccide sette volte, 1972) or Sergio Martino’s Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Italian: Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave, 1972), which is loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat (United States Saturday Post, 1843) – but few meet so many of the Romantic subset needs.