Released in 1982 Manhattan Baby is a film which may, in retrospect, be seen as the beginning of the end for its director, Lucio Fulci.
In the preceding three years, beginning with Zombie, Fulci had formed a successful partnership with producer Fabrizio De Angelis. Though that film was more of a work for hire for the director, he subsequently developed his own vision, particularly with the trilogy begun by City of the Living Dead, continued by The Beyond and completed with The House by the Cemetery.
If all Fulci’s films during this prolific period (the others being The Smuggler, The Black Cat, and The New York Ripper) have their moments, it is fair to say that the trilogy remains at the core of his critical reputation.
With this in mind, what really emerged for me on watching Manhattan Baby again was how far it seemed to represent an alternative grouping of Fulci’s films, much in the way that John Martin suggested Phenomena could be considered the (Heavenly) conclusion to a Dante-eqsue triptych in Argento’s work.
What also makes this comparison worth considering is the way in which Manhattan Baby now seems to be Fulci’s Phenomena, a greatest hits package of moments culled from his previous films, most notably City and The Beyond.
Indeed, the film can also be called a greatest hits package in a more literal sense insofar as much of its score is drawn from Fabio Frizzi’s work on these films, with countless cues creating a sense of déjà vu.
The big question here is how far this intertextuality was present in Fulci’s and screenwriting couple Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Livia Briganti’s original version or imposed by De Angelis’s refusal or inability to commit the resources he had originally promised.
The early scenes of the film take place in Egypt, where archaeologist Professor George Hacker and a native assistant enter a lost tomb bearing a curse. The curse predictably leads to the death of the admirably, if foolishly, non-superstitious assistant via an Indiana Jones-esque spiked pit trap, with the use of Beyond cues as the two men enter the formerly sealed, subterranean space foreshadowing their doom; the fall onto spikes also being found in The Black Cat.
Hacker is then blinded with two Conquest-like blue laser beams to his eyes at the exact moment as his daughter Susie is given a mysterious amulet by an blind woman who had clearly been waiting for her…
If all this is already pretty weird, and marked by Fulci’s ocular obsession, it only gets weirder as the Hackers return to New York. There, alongside their neighbours and friends, they fall prey to random manifestations of killer snakes; unexpected portals emerging into an otherworldly desert; a lift which inexorably conspires to deposit its charges into the abyss, all culminating in a battle for Susie’s very soul.
At this point we also get two of the film’s wider intertextual allusions as the occult expert Exorcist type happens to be called Adrian Mocata in reference to Rosemary’s Baby.
What also makes Manhattan Baby such a Fulci compendium is its casting, with roles for Giovanni Frezza (House), Cinzia De Ponti and Cosimo Cineri/Lawrence Welles (Ripper), Carlo De Mejo and Martin Sorrentino (City) and, yes, Fulci himself, as yet another doctor.
Overall, not a film for the Fulci newbie, nor those who would prefer more extreme gore – although there is still probably more than enough by most film-makers standards – but one which the fan should get something more out of.