Manhattan Baby Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
A young girl on vacation in Egypt is given a mysterious charm, causing her archeologist father to be struck blind inside an unexplored pyramid tomb. But, when the family returns home to Manhattan, a plague of supernatural evil and sudden violence follows. Can this ancient curse be stopped before it is unleashed on the streets of New York City? (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)
Note: This review was originally written alongside my review of Arrow Film’s Black Cat Blu-ray, so there is some overlap.
In the early 1980s, Lucio Fulci was riding the highest high of his entire career. Following a successful run of spaghetti westerns, gialli, farcical comedies, and a particularly violent period melodrama (Beatrice Cenci, aka: The Conspiracy of Torture, 1969), he had his first international mega-hit in 1979 with Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2; aka: Zombie Flesh Eaters). Zombie’s graphic violence became the one thing a new legion of viewers expected from his work. This offered him an unusual chance to cut loose with increasingly surrealistic horror movies, culminating in a trio of fan-favourites – City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi; aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980), The Beyond (Italian: ...E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà; aka: Seven Doors of Death, 1981), and House by the Cemetery (Italian: Quella villa accanto al cimitero; aka Zombie Hell House and Freudstein, 1981). Fulci made two other movies during this three year period and they tend to be overshadowed by these more elaborate masterpieces. The first, Contraband (Italian: Luca il Contrabbandiere; aka: The Smuggler and The Naples Connection, 1980) is understandably neglected, because it’s not a horror movie – though it is an exceptionally violent poliziotteschi – while the other, The Black Cat (Italian: Gatto Nero, 1981), is slighted because it’s the least gory of his gothic horror movies.
Arguably, House by the Cemetery was Fulci’s last great movie, but it didn’t quite mark the end of his prime era. In 1982, he unleashed his cruelest film, The New York Ripper (Italian: Lo squartatore di New York), and a comparataively intimate mummy movie (without a mummy) known as Manhattan Baby (Italian: Il malocchio; aka: Eye of the Evil Dead). Soon after, his films lost much of their patented visual flair. Even the creatively interesting ones – namely his adult fantasy, Conquest (1983), and sci-fi action flick, New Gladiators (Italian: I guerrieri dell'anno 2072, 1984) – lacked the atmospheric allure of his best work. So, while I would not count Manhattan Baby as classic, must-see Fulci, it is on the short list of movies that I’d recommend to Italian horror neophytes and detractors strictly for its visual and tonal qualities. It’s more or less a companion piece to Black Cat. Both are built upon the look of the gothic zombie movies – minus the work of cinematographer from Sergio Salvati, who was replaced by Guglielmo Mancori – but disappointed horror fans with their comparative lack of gore when released (note the word “comparative”).
Fulci’s films have their unique qualities, but, like many B-Italian movies of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, they were reactionary. This is a nice way of saying that most of them were, on some level, rip-offs of other movies. During this era, Fulci tended to mix & match his influences until thievery wasn’t discernible from homage. For example, he considered The Beyond a philosophically progressive Artaudian horror film, but wasn’t above stealing the killer seeing-eye-dog set-piece from Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977). Manhattan Baby is a bit different, because it is an almost straight-up remake of an established property – Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars (originally published 1903). More specifically, Fulci and (credited) screenwriters Elisa Livia Briganti & Dardano Sachetti were basically remaking Hammer Studio’s Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971), as directed by Seth Holt & Michael Carreras. Producer Fabrizio De Angelis’ interest in the project was probably stoked by Mike Newell’s The Awakening, a very boring, big-budget Hollywood version made in 1980 (the Stoker novel was also the basis of Fred Olen Ray’s The Tomb, 1986, and Jeffrey Obrow’s Bram Stoker's Legend of the Mummy, 1998). For good measure, Fulci, Briganti, and Sachetti stir in some vague references to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968, based on Ira Levin’s 1967 book), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973, based on William Peter Blatty’s 1971 book), Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976), Richard Franklin’s Patrick (1978), and Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Similarities to Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) are apparently coincidental, considering the films were released about a month apart (besides, Hooper already exhibited a smattering of Fulci influence in that particular film).
Unofficial adaptation aside, this is very much the Italian version of this story, especially the second half, where it takes a sharp turn into patented Fulci surrealism and, eventually, even a little nonsensical graphic violence. Manhattan Baby adheres more to storytelling conventions than, say, The Beyond, but it still operates on a sort of dream logic, where atmosphere and tone take precedence over logic or narrative. As in the case of The Black Cat, the familiarity of the base story may be the reason it doesn’t feel quite right for the early ‘80s Fulci canon – at least not at first glance. Having not seen either film in quite some time before their 2016 Blu-ray debuts, I was pleasantly surprised by how much more I enjoyed each of them. Black Cat’s major advantage is that it rarely tries to mimic the maestro’s earlier movies, while Manhattan Baby’s most enigmatic moments tend to retread ground already covered during the Gothic Trilogy. On the other hand, with Manhattan Baby, Fulci embraced his nasty side a bit more often, culminating in a particularly juicy, show-stopping sequence towards the end of the film where a medium (Fulci regular Cosimo Cinieri) is ripped to shreds by the reanimated corpses of taxidermied birds.
Like most of Fulci’s films, Manhattan Baby culled its cult audience on home video. In the US, it was released on pan & scan VHS via Lightning Video (a Vestron imprint) in 1986. In 2001, Anchor Bay released a 2.35:1 version on anamorphic DVD and widescreen VHS. Since that transfer was supervised by Bill Lustig, it was reused by Blue Underground for their anamorphic DVD in 2007. Similar 2.35:1 DVDs appeared in the UK (via Shameless Entertainment), France (via Neo Publishing), and Germany (via Astro), while badly cropped versions appeared in Germany (1.85:1 via Laser Paradise this time) and Japan (1.33:1 via Creative Axa). Blue Underground managed to maintain the rights to Manhattan Baby (along with other Fulci releases Zombie, City of the Living Dead, The House by the Cemetery, and The New York Ripper) and was able to create a brand new transfer from a 2K scan of the original camera negative for the film’s first 1080p Blu-ray release. The results are impressive.
This increased sharpness is expected, given the capabilities of HD over SD (note the fidelity of the textures in the close-ups of the evil eye prop), but the DVD also now appears incredibly noisy and blocky in comparison. The only thing I would say in the original disc’s favor is that I prefer the slightly more yellow tint and general brightness. The Blu-ray’s color timing is fine in terms of natural skin tones and subtle variations (not to mention more realistic blood), but looks a bit washed out where golds and yellows are concerned. Manhattan Baby also exceeds expectations in comparison to other HD transfers of similar Italian movies. A few scenes may appear overly soft, but, considering the amount of natural grain and all of the soft focus/diffused lighting that Fulci & cinematographer Guglielmo Mancori had used, I don’t think there was any major DNR enhancement. The dynamic range is impressive, too, with clean blacks and subtle gradations. There are some bouts with dirt and shimmer, but this is far from the CRT artifact-covered mess of too many other Italian-born scans. Other artifacts include minor blotches (these lighten a few spots on the screen) and quite a few hairs in the gate (this is Mancori’s fault, not Blue Underground’s).
Blue Underground has long been a proponent of audio make-overs and have taken this re-release as an excuse to give Manhattan Baby’s English dub a 5.1 upgrade. Fortunately, they’ve also included the original mono dub (in 2.0) and are presenting both in uncompressed DTS-HD on this Blu-ray. As per usual, this movie was shot without sound and the international cast appears to be speaking different languages. All possible language tracks were dubbed in post-production and the producers tended to cater to the English-language market, so the lack of an Italian track is not a big deal (young Giovanni Frezza is dubbed by an actor that actually sounds like a child this time, too, unlike House by the Cemetery, where he was dubbed by a awkwardly deep-voiced woman). The 5.1 remix has some advantages in terms of centering the dialogue, depleting some of the hiss/distortion, and separating some of the flatter aural elements. Otherwise, there isn’t much reason not to listen to the single-channel track. There are some fun, supernaturally-driven sound effects strewn throughout this otherwise dialogue-heavy film and, while the music benefits slightly from the stereo enhancement, few of these are spread throughout the stereo or surround channels in 5.1. Fabio Frizzi’s original soundtrack is in the style of his other Fulci horror scores, especially the synthesized vocal patterns and ‘plinky’ scar sounds. He even recycles a few of cues from Zombie, City of the Living Dead, and Zombie (sometimes alternate versions of familiar tracks that otherwise only show up on soundtrack albums). The original (or at least exclusive) themes are poppier, including relatively complex melodies, sexy saxophone breakdowns, and a more prominent beat.
Fulci & I: Interview with Composer Fabio Frizzi (55:49, HD) – Fulci’s long-time collaborator (who I just saw perform in Chicago and it was one of the best experiences of my entire life) discusses his training, career, and working relationship with the maestro, before diving headlong into dissections of each of his Fulci movie compositions. Friend/musician/collaborator Franco Bixio also shows up to lend his two cents on Frizzi’s earlier years, too. These interviews are intercut with footage of his current band practicing/performing and clips from the movies in question.
For The Birds (8:51, HD) – Actor Cosimo Cinieri talks a bit about his appearance in Manhattan Baby, which led to appearances in a number of other Fulci movies.
25 Years With Fulci (11:15, HD) – Makeup effects artist Maurizio Trani runs down all of his collaborations with the director, sometimes under the supervision of Giannetto De Rossi.
Beyond The Living Dead (8:17, SD) – Long-time Fulci co-writer (and occasional enemy) Dardano Sacchetti talks about several of his films, but tends to stick to the production/writing of Manhattan Baby in this ‘legacy’ extra from the Anchor Bay and Blue Underground DVDs.
Stephen Thrower on Manhattan Baby (12:42, HD) – Expert and the author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci outlines the making of Manhattan Baby, its strengths and weaknesses, and the movie’s context within the latter Fulci canon.
Manhattan Baby Suite (8:35, HD) – A live studio performance by Frizzi and his band.
Poster & still gallery
Manhattan Baby Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by Fabio Frizzi (CD extra)
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.