The Giallo Films of Lucio Fulci (Part 1)
Though he’s best known nowadays for his surreal and blood-soaked gothic horror films like The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery, Italian director Lucio Fulci had a long and varied career. Musicals, comedies, spy films, westerns, historical dramas — like many Italian filmmakers, he followed trends as they came and went, and so it was inevitable that Fulci would make a few giallo films. (If you’re unfamiliar with the term giallo, check out the two-part introduction to the genre I wrote on this very site last year.)
Fulci’s gialli are very interesting, and occasionally some of the very best the genre has to offer. They tend to be more ‘horror’ than most, with an emphasis on surreal psychosexual violence and nightmare imagery. The first two films I’m going to look at were made between 1969 and 1971 when the giallo was at the very peak of its popularity.
One on Top of the Other (1969)
One on Top of the Other, also known by the more direct title of Perversion Story, was Fulci’s first stab (sorry, I couldn’t help it) at the thriller genre. Fulci was reportedly a fan of Romolo Guerrieri’s magnificent The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968), and One on Top of the Other fits snugly alongside other late 60s gialli like the Umberto Lenzi/Carroll Baker collaborations. There are no black-gloved killers or razor murders here — these films were firmly rooted in the pre-Argento era of Italian horror. In fact, the most notable influence on the film is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, to which One on Top of the Other bears several similarities.
Set in San Francisco (of course), the film follows a handsome doctor (played by Sweet Body of Deborah’s Jean Sorel) who’s a bit of a jerk, to be honest. He’s having an affair, but when his wife (played by the striking Marissa Mell) dies, he stands to inherit a fortune. One evening, an anonymous phone call leads to him to a nightclub where a beautiful woman performs a striptease. The woman — of course — looks exactly like his dead wife.
Stylish and sexy, One on Top of the Other takes the template of Hitchcock’s classic but adds a spicier European flair. The film is positively filled with the kind of sex and nudity that Hitch only ever hinted at, and Riz Ortolani’s soundtrack is a jazzy, flute-heavy easy-listening score so prevalent in the genre. It’s a very sixties film, with psychedelic camera effects, including one marvellous moment where the film breaks into various small colourful frames each showing a different angle of Mell stripping.
In fact, the cinematography throughout is gorgeous, courtesy of Alejandro Ulloa, a talented director of photography who also shot the similarly stunning-looking Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion and The Fox With the Velvet Tail.
Where the film arguably slips up is in the second half. At nearly two hours, some scenes tend to drag, and the third act, in particular, drops the most fascinating angle of the mystery and reverts to a fairly bland police procedural. A suspenseful lesbian seduction scene between Mell and Elsa Martinelli keeps things ticking along, but the whole ‘wrong-man-convicted’ plotline of act three can be a bit of a drag.
Still, it’s a high-quality giallo, and well worth watching, though Fulci would kick things up a few notches with his next film…
A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)
Now things get really interesting. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is Fulci’s first giallo after Dario Argento revolutionised the genre with his hit The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, and Fulci ups the ante considerably in terms of style and horror. A darker film than One on Top of the Other, it’s an often nightmarish thriller where dreams play a major part, although it does fall prey to the pacing issues of his previous film.
Jean Sorel returns as the male lead, though this time the film hangs on the shoulders of Brazilian actress Florinda Bolkan. She plays a sexually frustrated wife, plagued by strange dreams in which she is seduced by her alluring neighbour, played by Anita Strindberg. In one dream, she murders Strindberg with a knife and wakes up to find that the murder actually took place, leading to the usual fiendishly convoluted twists.
Lizard is even more stylishly shot than One on Top of the Other. Utilising the sort of split-screen effects that De Palma would later popularise, the film is positively psychedelic at times. Dream sequences are infused with sinister, baroque imagery. Bolkan is attacked by black-magic geese (no, really!) and menaced by split dogs, while blank-eyed hippies watch from afar. The split dogs scene is so unnervingly effective, Fulci was actually almost charged for it, going so far as to get effects maestro Carlo Rambaldi to present the creatures in court to prove they were fake.
The violence, too, is more intense. The murder of Strindberg features close-ups of her bare breast as the knife is plunged in, imagery that Fulci would later take to its grotesque conclusion many years later in New York Ripper (which I’ll cover in part 3).
Behind the scenes, the film featured some important collaborations. The cinematographer was Luigi Kuveiller, most notable for Argento’s Deep Red, but who would return to Fulci giallo territory for the aforementioned New York Ripper. The excellent editing was by Vincenzo Tomassi, who would go on to cut all of Fulci’s best-known horror films. Ennio Morricone supplies the dreamy score, though sadly the two men would not work together again.
Unfortunately, issues with pacing continue to plague Fulci’s gialli. After a dynamite first half chock full of twisted goings-on, things settle down into procedural territory. It’s not quite as catastrophic as the previous film, but to go from surreal and psychedelic art-horror to cops-doing-the-cop-stuff do feels like a real come down.
Luckily, there’s a tremendously exciting chase scene in an abandoned church, and the final reveal is simultaneously obvious and clever, delivered in a curiously muted conclusion. You may wish to ignore some of the dated and somewhat puritanical sexual politics, however, though that arguably comes with the territory when watching gialli.
Together, these two films show a definite progression in Fulci’s style and confidence. Lizard feels more in line with Fulci’s later films, but the real jump into full Fulci style would come with his next film, the extraordinarily bleak and powerful Don’t Torture a Duckling, which I’ll be covering next time, along with Seven Notes in Black aka The Psychic.
KR: Part 2 of David’s The Giallo Films Of Lucio Fulci will be next month.
David Sodergren lives in Scotland with his wife Heather and his best friend, Boris the Pug.
Growing up, he was the kind of kid who collected rubber skeletons and lived for horror movies.
Not much has changed since then.
His first novel, The Forgotten Island, was published on October 1st 2018. This was followed by Night Shoot, a brutal throwback to the early 80s slasher movie cycle, in May 2019.
2020 will be Sodergren’s biggest year yet, with two new horror novels being published. Dead Girl Blues is a slasher-noir mystery, and it will be followed by a return to full-blown supernatural horror before the end of the year.
You can follow David on Twitter @paperbacksnpugs
To find out more about David please visit his official website www.paperbacksandpugs.wordpress.com
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A relentless folk-horror nightmare from the author of The Forgotten Island, Maggie’s Grave will disturb and shock in equal measure.
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Part noir mystery, part violent slasher, Dead Girl Blues is the latest twisted shocker from David Sodergren, author of The Forgotten Island and Night Shoot.
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