Perversion Story Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
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.
Lucio 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 (Italian: Una Sull'altra; aka: One on Top of the Other, 1969), 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 The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970) 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 (aka: Tenebre and Unsane, 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 Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace (Italian: 6 donne per l'assassino, 1964) 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.
Many obscure Fulci movies made the rounds on bootleg VHS during the ‘90s, usually duplicated from European videotapes and Japanese laserdiscs, then sold at conventions, from the back pages of fan zines, and in early internet forums. Unfortunately, Perversion Story didn’t make the cut and, as a result, was basically a lost movie outside of Europe, until Severin Films finally released it on anamorphic DVD in 2007. According to reviews available on Mondo Digital and DVD Beaver, this was called the English export cut, but was actually assembly cut, hobbled together from English/American, German, and French sources. Generally, the same version was used for German and Australian DVDs as well. This brings us to Mondo Macabro’s Blu-ray, which marks both the film’s HD debut as well as the debut of a new assembly cut that uses elements from original negatives and a 35mm print. This 108-minute, 1080p, 1.85:1 disc is now the longest version on record.
Interestingly, this transfer has more in common with Severin’s old DVD than not, aside from the fine detail and compression disadvantages of standard definition. The color-timing and overall grading is almost identical, which I suppose renders any arguments about Fulci and cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa’s intentions kind of moot. Fortunately, the new transfer has advantages in terms of patterns and details, though the wide-angle shots occasionally exhibit minor bleeding and/or haloing (negligible compared to the DVD). The differences between negative and printed sources are usually designated by a slight intensifying in black levels, a bit of crush, and a slight uptick in grain intensity. This is a predictable result and rarely distracting, especially since the condition of the 35mm source isn’t all that beat-up. The closest thing to a real complaint I have is that some of the finer textures (including grain) can appear over-sharpened, usually during higher contrast sequences.
Mondo Macabro has included both the original English and Italian dubs in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Here’s the part in every giallo review where I remind readers that these movies were shot without sound and starred international casts. All dialogue was dubbed in post and actors were often speaking their native languages to each other, so there is no official language track. In this case, the English dub comes out ahead, both in terms of sound quality and lip-sync. I’m not sure if any actors are dubbing themselves (Sorel says he was not during the interview on this disc), but most were speaking English on set and the voices match the faces/performances well. On the other hand, the otherwise muffled and flat Italian track has slightly more environmental ambience, especially during outdoor sequences. In both cases, there are brief dips in quality, where dialogue or music sounds a bit rough/hissy, but these straighten out quickly enough. The score was provided by the second most popular Italian composer at the time, Riz Ortolani. Along with Ennio Morricone, Ortolani helped to define the sound of gialli for the next decade, though he clearly hadn’t quite sussed out a trademark at the time. The music is divided (somewhat clumsily) between brassy, Vegas-style lounge, spooky woodwinds, and sultry romantic sax parts.
On Death Row (29:47, HD) – Star Jean Sorel discusses his career, the dynamic between the French and Italian filmmaking communities during the ‘60s, his desire to play against type, regional censorship rules, and shares anecdotes from the set of Perversion Story, going into particular detail about Fulci and the other actors.
The Last Diva (9:58, HD) – Co-star Elsa Martinelli begins by mentioning that she doesn’t enjoy horror movies, but then goes on to praise Fulci as a filmmaker and person. She also says nice things about the rest of the lead cast and recalls parts of her own career, but doesn’t remember much from shooting Perversion Story.
Stephen Thrower on Perversion Story (38:22, HD) – Critic and author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci contextualizes Perversion Story in the pantheon of Fulci’s larger canon and the early giallo cycle. He also explores the film’s themes, its inspirations (Hitchcock’s Vertigo being an obvious one, but there was also a true crime case of a death row inmate), breaks down the production process, from locations to advertising and the differences between regional versions of the film.
Trailer and Mondo Macabro promo reel
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.