Saturday, 23 February 2008

Lucio Fulci

“The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying-glass” – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life

“A cry against a certain sort of fascism” – Lucio Fulci, explaining a notorious gore scene in City of the Living Dead

Lucio Fulci was born in 1927 and studied medicine – a revealing first career in the light of his famously gore-drenched horror films – before enrolling in film school. Working as a screenwriter and critic on graduation, Fulci made his directorial debut in 1959 with the youth oriented musical Ragazzi del juke box. The film was not a success at the box office and led to a temporary change in career as Fulci became the lyric writer for a number of Italian pop singers of the time.

Encouraged to return to cinema by his mentor Steno, Fulci established himself something of a comedy specialist with a succession of vehicles for Franco and Ciccio such as I due evasi di sing sing (1964) and 002 Operazione luna (1965). This was not ideal for the cineaste seeking to establish himself, however. The stars of the show were the comics themselves and it was almost a given that critics would find nothing good to say about their or the directors' work in any case.

What the filone cinema gave with one hand it thus took away with the other. While work could be found it was hard to imbue it with personal qualities of the sort encouraged auteurism and, more importantly, to have this recognised by the critical tastemakers. If the constant flow of the filone cinema with its short lived cycles of spaghetti westerns one year and Bondian spy thrillers the next afforded the director the opportunity to try their hand at a wide range of genres and styles, it also tended to discourage longer term commitment to any particular genre, as with the likes of Mario Bava and Sergio Martino, or else constrained the filmmaker to work in it long after he had lost interest, as with Leone's later spaghetti westerns and epic struggle to realise Once Upon a Time in America.

At this time, however, this filone gave Fulci the opportunity to try his hand at something different and thereby demonstrate his versatility. 1966's Massacre Time cannot be considered prime Fulci, however, though has its moments and hints at an affinity with and facility for the violent and grotesque.

The first blossoming of Fulci's talents really emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s through the anti-clerical historical drama Beatrice Cenci, which the director often identified as his best film, and a series of hard-hitting thrillers all'taliana. Having written Double Face (1969) for Riccardo Freda, Fulci reworked the same Hitchcockian material for his own debut in the filone, Perversion Story, a hippie-era reworking of Vertigo that saw him make the first of an intermittent series of US excursions. Unfortunately if Perversion Story (1969) shows that Fulci's grasp of filmmaking technique was up to the minute, it also hinted at a certain uncertainty regarding the younger audience and its counter-culture.

This generation gap also helps explain how it was Dario Argento who would really establish this filone with his “animal trilogy” of 1970-72. Being of a younger generation, Argento better understood the new audience, their attitudes and forms of life.

Yet if the sound-alike titles of Fulci's subsequent gialli A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971) and Don't Torture a Duckling (1972) position them as imitation Argento and their writer-director as an also-ran, the actual style and content of the films again indicates a filmmaker keen to further establish his own identity and reputation. Thus Lizard inverts the structure of Argento's debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and presents ambiguous dream images in lieu of its thesis-cum-model's concrete flashbacks, while Duckling features a rural southern Italian setting instead of a Roman or northern urban one and a strong anti-clerical streak.

Fulci's talent for provocation and distinctive style were again to the fore in another 1972 film, The Eroticist. A comedy about a sexually repressed senator whose political ambitions threaten to be undone by his compulsion to pinch women's bottoms, that the film found many enemies and few friends indicates just how successful its shotgun blasting of church, state, military, left and right alike was and Fulci's talent for provocation in word and deed alike. (“Argento is an artisan who thinks he's an artist”)

If anything the one-two of Duckling and The Eroticist would seem to have worked too well, insofar as Fulci became somewhat persona non grata for the next few years, which saw him work on a children's adaptation of White Fang (1972) and a sequel Challenge to White Fang (1974), along with comedies such as the largely self-explanatory Dracula in the Provinces and an unusual western, Four of the Apocalypse (both 1975).

The importance of Argento to Fulci's career was confirmed by his next films. The Psychic (1977) presented his response to Argento's Deep Red (1975) by way of introducing a supernatural element into the hitherto naturalistic world of his thrillers while simultaneously pursuing a more restrained, less visceral approach curiously at odds with his rival's trajectory at this time through Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). Perhaps on account of this The Psychic failed to find an audience, resulting in yet another return to the now all but moribund western filone with Silver Saddle (1978).

Then in 1979 came Dawn of the Dead and Zombie. Released in Italy by Argento, Romero's gory horror comic satire had proven a great success with Italian audiences and, as such, producers saw the prospect of a new and profitable filone to exploit. Fulci was not the first choice to direct Zombie, however, only getting the job after Enzo Castellari passed on it and suggested his name; for perhaps the first and only time in Fulci's career his luck was in.

Astutely described by genre critic Kim Newman as less an imitation Romero than a bloodier return to the B-movies of the thirties and forties, Zombie outdid its part-model in gore and at the international box office whilst providing the defining moment and image of Fulci's career: the once seen, never-forgotten skewering of a woman's eye on a foot-long wooden splinter; hence one side of the Adorno quote with which we introduced this profile.

Directing the underappreciated violent gangster entry The Smuggler (1980) around the same time to further demonstrate his generic breadth and now-established predilection for the visceral, Fulci was rewarded by Zombie producer Fabrizio De Angelis with the opportunity to quickly make three further zombie horror films over the next three years. Often grouped as a loose trilogy on account of their US settings and the constant presence of actress Catriona MacColl, City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981)and The House by the Cemetery (1982) continued Fulci's moment in the spotlight.

While certainly drawing inspiration from Argento in their structure and gore set-pieces, with a rain of maggots in City and the evisceration of its owner by a seeing eye dog in The Beyond obvious lifts from Suspiria (1977), these hallucinatory fever-dreams again foreground Fulci's own style above that of his younger rival. Where Argento favours two or three jump cuts closing in, Fulci will use a zoom; where Argento cuts to a detail, Fulci will rack focus onto it; where Argento make the sweeping operatic camera movement central to his set-pieces, Fulci will fix his camera in place, all the better to see that-which-should-not-be-seen.

The tragedy for Fulci, however, was that in thus continuing to consciously differentiate his approach to horror from Argento's he also laid himself wide open for critics to mistake his stylistic choices for incompetence and a dubious fixation with the abject and unconscionable. Few, except that rare horror enthusiast who could see beyond the gore, cared that he had conceived of The Beyond as an exercise in absolute cinema inspired by Artaud's theories of the Theatre of Cruelty or that the killing of a retarded man with a drill through his head might be justified as “a cry against a certain sort of fascism”.

Rather than being different but equal from Argento, Fulci was merely inferior – just as at the wider level the Italian filone cinema tended to be read as inferior to rather than merely different from its Hollywood genre counterparts.

Nor did Fulci's return to the more naturalistic world of the thriller help matters. Released in the same year as Argento's relentlessly self-reflexive – and thus more safely distanced – Tenebrae, 1982's nihilistically bleak The New York Ripper was fundamentally the wrong film at the wrong time, representing male psychosis and female victimhood in ways that seemed all too real in the context of feminist arguments against the slasher film, moral panics about video nasties and a renascent conservatism across most of the western world.

Famously escorted out of the UK by the police after the BBFC had refused to even consider the film for certification, the film lost money for De Angelis.

This perhaps contributed to a compromised budget and vision for Manhattan Baby (1982), a surprisingly restrained horror that nevertheless forms a recognisable companion piece to the absurdist trilogy preceeding it and, corresponding with the ever more precipitous decline of the Italian popular cinema, the effective end of Fulci's brief but brilliant flowering.

Never one to give up without a fight, Fulci nevertheless continued to attempt to adapt to the flow of the filone and second guess audiences and his erstwhile rival throughout the 1980s with such films as the post-apocalyptic Mad Max styled Conquest (1983); the slash-and-dance Flashdance inspired Murderock (1984); the Nine and a Half weeks-esque erotic drama/thriller The Devil's Honey (1986); and an out-and-out rip off of one of Argento's messiest and least appealing films, Phenomena, entitled Aenigma for extra obviousness (1987).

Though having their moments, films like these remain strictly for the already converted, the kind of texts where much of the pleasure comes from that often dubious game of spotting the auteur's signature touch.

An official sequel to Zombie in 1988 offered Fulci the chance to kick-start his flagging career but was scuppered by the illness that was to dog him for the remainder of his life and career. Remaining keen to keep working till the last, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw few willing to take the chance on Fulci, with the result a series of ultra-low budget horror movies like A Cat in the Brain and Voices from Beyond (both 1990) which could only really be sold to undemanding video gore fans and/or the small but growing cult around the director.

Having spend over 20 years sniping at one another Argento and Fulci then remarkably became reconciled with one another in the mid-1990s with the younger director agreeing to produce and bankroll his former rival's comeback picture, an adaptation of Leroux's oft-filmed tale The Wax Museum.

Unfortunately as the film was in pre-production Fulci died. The circumstances were characteristically ambiguous: a diabetic, he either forgot to or declined to take his medication. We were thus left to wonder what might have been and a distinctive cinematic legacy whose generic diversity and stylistic and thematic consistency have too often gone under-acknowledged through an at times regrettable, if understandable, fixation on one particular gore subset of this whole.

As much as a damaged life – to again return to the Adorno quote with which we introduced this profile – Fulci’s was thus a damaged career, doomed to be misunderstood at the time it mattered, when he was alive.

Yet, like one of his famous zombies, Fulci's cinematic legacy has an undeath through the enthusiasm of high-profile fans like Quentin Tarantino, whose Rollling Thunder imprint re-released The Beyond theatrically in 1998, and lovingly restored by-the-fans-for-the-fans DVD releases exploring the breadth and depth of his filmography, which I would urge everyone reading this to rediscover.

[As part of a writing on film class I'm doing we had to do a profile of a film personality who interests us, so I chose Fulci; I'm not sure if Ragazzi del juke box is really a musical...]


herman said...

good work keith.

But I disagree with your appraisal of Cat In The Brain. You describe it as

"which could only really be sold to undemanding video gore fans and/or the small but growing cult around the director."

Personally I would see it as part of a common thread that has run through Fulci's 80s. Okay Cat In The Brain is a bit laboured but there is no doubt that it is Fulci- once people stop repeating the phrase "Beyond is a classic" they may look and see that Touch of Death or DEmonia or even Cat In The Brain have merits.

Okay The Beyond is a classic, but that spider attack could have been set up by Ed Wood, on the other hand Cat In The Brain could be seen as toying with his new found audience a bit.

It is also a film that is far more overtly political than the Romero effort Dawn Of The Dead. Romeros politics in that effort was little more than shoppers look like zombies, then again Fulci challenged the whole video recordings act. I would argue that Fulci was more successful in this than Deodato in Cannibal Holocaust.

In ways Cat In The Brain is parody- but it aims its sights at the ferman type censor. Not only do you see graphic violence but you see people get driven nuts by it- and aside from the giallo type middle section you see the final answer- Fulci sails away on a boat, we see a camera crew, it screams- IT IS ONLY A FUCKING MOVIE..

Not Fulci's best by any means but certainly a middle finger being shown to thsoe who would have buried him decades ago.

K H Brown said...

Thanks for the comments Herman; insightful and helpful as always.

I think my difficulty here might have been not wanting to get too far into qualifying what I said about New York Ripper vs Tenebrae on the whole reality / representation kind of debate in a summary / overview piece that is probably already too long.

I agree with you that Cat on the Brain is consistent with Fulci's other work in attitude and complexity. I suppose what I was trying to say is that it's only the rare fan - yourself / myself if we're allowed a bit of self-congratulation - that would look beyond the gore to consider the message and its challenges and that unfortunately at this point in his career Fulci had become largely typed as a gore-monger. His early 80s films and the VRA-era reaction to them largely fixed the way his films were understood, for better or worse.

What was the name of the boat in the film - is it Perversion Story?

herman said...

Thwe boat is the Perversion keith. Same one that anchored Al Clivers head in Demonia.

Despite the failings of later career Fulci I believe that Cat in the Brain was a stern answer to the critics- a man driven mad by his films. Definately echoes of 84 there or even the Bulger case, of which I have doubts about the film influence.

Personally I think that Fulci did two things with Cat In The Brain- he gave the gorehounds what they wanted and at the same time challenged the critics. I must admit that I am more interested in the challenge rather than the spoonfed gore.

After all as he sailed away on a boat we see the camara crew- Lucio has left us with a key point. In some ways you could call it the ultimate giallo - the villain has after all been left until the end, but Fulci even turns giallo on its head and we come to brecht and alienation. The filmmakers are the killers- maybe there were no killers.

I don't want to labour the point but fulci has played a blinder with Cat In The Brain- he made a lot of his fans look like idiots, especially those who think the gothic age wa the golden age, and in a different way he did exactly what he did with The Senator Likes Women

It is the same questioning of authority

K H Brown said...

I think it is fairly well established that the Bulger killers didn't watch the Child's Play film, although sadly the tabloids have never been ones to let the facts get in the way of a good moral panic and scapegoating, especially when it provides a convenient distraction from the failings of their preferred politicians, be they of the left or right. (Which in the UK over the past 30 years all too often means much the same thing as far as I can see...)

I had forgotten about the crew at the end of the film - it's like Kiarostami's Through the Olive Trees, which makes for a weird juxtaposition that I never thought I'd see myself making!

I was seriously impressed with The Senator Likes Women as you can probably tell, and I think your comments on it a few months back were spot on. How Kim Newman could describe it as Fulci at his lowest, or similar, as he did in Nightmare Movies, is beyond me.

herman said...

The Senator Likes Women was definately a great piece of political satire. In a funny kid of way it was not unlike the cp films such as Violent Rome as it too questions the constitution that was largely created to keep the commuinists away from elected office- I am a fan of proportional representation and we have it to a degree in Wales now but italy is the perfect illustration of how taken to extremes it can lead to weak an inefective government- the centre left (Prodi) in Italy cannot gain office without the communists and the right (Belusconi) cannot really get office without the far right including fascists. So its a system that is built on massive compromise- almost painfully so.

I can see for example how during the seventies when cia backed groups such as the red brigades and the mafia were creating holy shit in Italy how in there was frustration with a political system that was based on backroom deals 9the coalitions) would not be (to borrow a phrase) fit for purpose. Thus in much of genre cinema we have emphasis o the vigilante hero, and in The Senator Likes Women we see the other side of the political coin- for example where it is suggested that Puppis may be gay, the church believes this but are not only prepared to compromise on this but also cover this up to protect "their" man.

I think the problem with fulci in britain is that those of us who got to see his stuff at all in the 80s really base our judgments on Zombie Flesh Eaters and The Beyond (and its sisters) which wre probably in every video shop in Britain at the time. So it is fashionable to describe The Beyond as a masterpiece and to parrot the phrase that later films show I director past his best. A view incidentally I do not share firstly because I prefer ZFE to The Beyond and because films such as Demonia to me are classics in their own right (though demonia stylistically does owe a debt to Jess Franco at times),

Back to cat in the brain I have seen it classified as a Giallo at times (I think the book Blood And Black Lace) classifies it as such. But that final scene (camera crew) even knocks that on the head- it does say ITS ONLY A MOVIE. Which is something the censors didn't get with fulci's films - New York Ripper marked the guy out as a public enemy rather than what he was, a film director.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Well, I certainly can't add anything to this discussion. But because I take every chance I can to do this, I'd like to point out that Fulci and I share a birthday. And, strangely, I am also diabetic. I wonder if there's a connection?

slizwiz said...

I really enjoyed reading this. As usual, your posts are pretty dang fascinating. I also got the same sense of tragedy in regard to Fulci's life and career from Stephen Thrower's Beyond Terror book.