Monday, June 14, 2010

Imp of the Perverse

Here's the thing about Lucio Fulci. He's THE patron director for anyone who follows lowbrow cinema as a vocation. Fulci's films sum up the perils and rewards of trash movies. A dedicated student will sift through the trash hoping for one or two moments of transcendence. You'll hear them wax rhapsodic over some outre grace note in an otherwise dreadful film. I'm talking about things like Amy Steele's face-off with Jason in the second Friday the 13th movie or the prolonged, Rube Goldberg-esque death of Henry Silva's hit man in Ozploitation vampire movie, Thirst. Man, we live for that shit. Perhaps no other movie summarizes this masochistic relationship better than Fulci's Zombi 2, which brings you not one, but TWO indelible sequences that are memorable out of all proportion to the actual quality of the movie: The zombie versus the shark scene and the splinter in the eye scene. Hell, the zombie vs. the shark has showed up in a recent Microsoft ad campaign. It's THAT iconic. But, of course, Zombi 2 kinda sucks. Seriously. It does. But here's one further thing about Fulci: not only are his movies avatars of the risk/reward nature of crap cinema, so is his whole career! In this respect, he is a true auteur. His filmography mimics his movies. Its mostly crap, but punctuated by high notes.

One of those high notes is Una sull'altra (aka: Perversion Story in the USA, or more accurately, One on Top of the Other), a mostly fascinating film noir from 1969. This is Fulci's first thriller, made somewhat before the director's appetites turned more visceral. It makes an interesting triptych with A Lizard in a Woman's Skin and Don't Torture a Duckling, though I would argue that it's better than either of those films. What's most surprising about it is its coherence as a narrative, something Fulci had no real interest in during his most renowned period. This particular story follows shady doctor Jean Morel as he tries to piece together the death of his wife, the suspicious insurance policy she took out before her death, the relationship between her and her doppelganger, stripper Marisa Mell, and his relationship with his mistress (Elsa Martinelli). If the connection to Hitchcock's Vertigo isn't obvious enough, the movie is mostly set (and filmed) in San Francisco to boot.

Perhaps more surprising than the relative coherence of the narrative--relative, I say, because it's still not a particularly linear film--is the fact that the movie doesn't really depend on it. To my untrained eye, this is very much the most attractive of Fulci's movies, one that takes full advantage of its setting and its actors. San Francisco is one of the most photogenic cities in the world and the movie gives a striking tour of the city at a particular place in time. Jean Sorel's lead is a fairly handsome Alain Delon knock-off and is an impressive male fashion plate, but it's Marisa Mell who dominates the movie in her dual role. Her entrance as stripper Monica Weston, peeling while draped over a motorcycle, is as iconic in its way as her romp on the bed in a pile of money in Danger: Diabolik.

Is it wrong of me that I totally want this outfit?

Unlike most erotic thrillers, this one actually manages to BE erotic, thanks in part to the sheer beauty of its leads. And Marisa Mell's willingness to get naked. That's important, too. Also unusual for movies like this one, the filmmakers actually make something of the sexual content. In Sorel and Mell's first coupling--which is WAY sexy--Fulci crosscuts with images of Sorel's brunette wife stretched out on her deathbed. The implication of necrophilia is obvious, but striking none the less. The movie makes a great deal of the profession of Sorel's mistress, too--she's a fashion photographer--which gives the filmmakers ample excuse to put more naked women on screen, to say nothing of late sixties haute coture. In a lot of ways, this is the best Jess Franco movie ever made. Certainly, Fulci shows a superb eye for framing the scene in this movie; this is replete with interesting deep-focus compositions, a couple of arresting split screen arrangements, and odd dutch tilts and eccentric camera moves. Even shots cribbed from Hitchcock--one in particular involves filming from beneath a glass floor, while another seems to be shot from within a waterbed--are transformed into something uniquely the director's own. Finally, Riz Ortolanti contributes an arresting jazz score to the movie. On the whole, it all works.

All of which begs the question: why did Fulci subsequently abandon this mode of filmmaking? He was good at it, and one would assume that it would have provided the director with a more substantial measure of success (I mean, Brian De Palma once made a career of this sort of thing). Instead, Fulci pursued his own imp of the perverse over the cliff, and while it may have provided him with an enduring cult, it also engendered a body of work that can be charitably described as inconsistent. But, hell, I don't know. Maybe Fulci is a low-rent cinematic version of Picasso who, having proved that he could draw like Raphael if he so chose, demolished the conventions of art.

Fulci just can't stay away from rotting corpses.

As an epilogue: The otherwise ultra-highbrow Senses of Cinema places Fulci among their "Great Directors". Go figure.


cinemarchaeologist said...

I would argue that Fulci never "abandoned this mode of filmmaking." That would imply he had some talent for it in the first place, which his filmography makes it fairly obvious--brutally obvious, really--that any hint of skill one thinks one finds in his films was just a happy accident. Entirely unintentional. I haven't seen ONE ON TOP OF THE OTHER, and I'll take your word for it that it has some little something of merit, but from my experience with Fulci, I'd tend to chalk that up to a blind hog finding an acorn.

Which, if you think about it, maybe isn't so different than how you put it.

I don't like Fulci. I don't think he's any more deserving of the cult he draws than Roland Emmerich is deserving of the millions who throng to see his latest upbudget shit-fest.

It doesn't surprise me to hear that Fulci lifted from Hitchcock in this one--he made a career of that sort of plagiarism to far greater an extent than even DePalma, but the victims of his cinematic muggings weren't usually so high of brow as classics by Hitch. They were usually just whatever films were popular at the time--Fulci never made an original movie. Or anything close to a good one, either. He made something like 60 movies in his career, and there's a reason all but a handful have been entirely forgotten.

The films for which Fulci is most popular display an ineptness worthy of Ed Wood, minus any hint of Wood's charm, and I disagree with your assessment that he's "the patron director for anyone who follows lowbrow cinema as a vocation" (that title, I would argue, belongs to Jess Franco, who IS a director of great talent, who, nevertheless, doggedly works the lowbrow like nobodies' business). I fail to see how they can be of any interest to anyone looking for anything more than seeing women (whom Fulci clearly despised) horribly murdered. (I once suggested, on a message board, that some woman must have REALLY done him wrong at some point in life, and another poster chimed in and said that was, indeed, the case--it definitely shows). Marisa Mell was a stunning beauty indeed, and her presence alone couldn't help but elevate the worst bit of hack-work imaginable, but Fulci was a killer of women, not a lover of them.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

One on Top of the Other is too good to be chalked up to accident. There's genuine talent involved, and since Fulci is the writer and director of the film, I can't chalk it up to his collaborators. Indeed, some of the film's appeal comes specifically from its direction, which is inventive and surprisingly artful. I would also argue that some of this lingers in Fulci's work through Don't Torture a Duckling, though by then, he had discovered gore, and it was downhill ever after. Otherwise, I pretty much agree. I don't much like Fulci, mainly because of the misogyny you describe, but also because I'm not much of a gorehound and would prefer that violence have some kind of sensible context. Fulci's scenes of violence are like musical numbers: the movies themselves exist only as vehicles for ghastly images and if you're not into that, they don't offer much in the way of compensation. I've always been baffled by Fulci's cult following. I'm told that he was a pretty horrid person, too. That said, One on Top of Another is surprisingly devoid of violence, much to its benefit.

For the record, I don't much like Jess Franco, either. For all of Fulci's faults, he doesn't bore me to tears the way Franco does. If Franco has a film as good as this one in his filmography, I still haven't seen it (I am open to suggestions). Which means that, from my point of view, Franco doesn't provide me with a metaphor the way that Fulci does. But this is splitting hairs.

Neither director is as bad as Rollie Emerich, though.

cinemarchaeologist said...

Even Fulci's gore, though (which really is the basis of his cult following), is most remarkable in how utterly ineptly it is filmed.

I'm a huge Franco fan, but it's a fact that he could often bore a stone to tears. He has plenty of problems with focus (and not just with the camera, though that happens, too, sometimes). When something bores him, he bores the viewer, and when something really interests him enough to hold his attention in a sustained fashion but doesn't interest the viewer, you get the same effect.

As a rule, one needs to watch quite a bit of Franco to get a feel for his work, but even most of his mid-range movies tower over anything I've ever seen from Fulci like gods over ants. Like Rollin, he is, at his best, a poet of lurid romanticism, and that's how a lot of his movies play--like poems. That's certainly the case with things like A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD or VENUS IN FURS or FEMALE VAMPIRE (which is, I think, a mini-masterpiece of simplicity). I'd offer up EUGENIE DE SADE to doubters--that really is an amazing movie. MACUMBA SEXUAL is one of my faves, but that's another one where, if the viewer doesn't get into it like the director, it can start to bore (I got into every inch of it, and loved it). Last summer, I wrote a piece, over on my own little section of internet real-estate, about "Figuring Out Jess Franco":
Maybe it's really about my figuring out why I so love Franco's work, but I wrote it as an effort to explain Franco to people who seemed to have entirely missed the point.

He's certainly not everyone's cup of tea, but given your own affinity for this same ill breed of cinema, I'm really surprised you don't care for him. What have you seen?

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I've seen quite a bit, actually, but I can't really claim to have studied the man. Off the top of my head, I've seen:

Count Dracula (which wastes Christopher Lee's best performance in the role, and Kinski as Renfield)
The Awful Dr. Orloff
Justine (the sixties version, not the eighties version)
The Sexual Story of O
The Blood of Fu Manchu
The Castle of Fu Manchu
Oasis of the Zombies
Ilsa: The Wicked Warden
Vampyros Lesbos
Eugenie..The Story of Her Journey into Perversion a handful of others that I can't remember. In truth, a lot of them kind of bleed together. I went through a period of watching a bunch of De Sade and BDSM themed movies about fifteen years ago, so Franco got swept up in that. I don't think I made it through all of these, either. Franco is an excellent soporific.

cinemarchaeologist said...

Of the ones you list, the only ones that belong among his best are VAMPYROS LESBOS and, arguably, ORLOF. I really like JUSTINE and EUGENIE, as well, though I probably wouldn't rank them as top-tier Franco. Most of the rest are mid-range to outright awful. OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES is the movie I always use as an example of Franco at his absolute worst.

His DRACULA can't help but be a crushing disappointment. H. A. Towers was a skinflint who would slash the budget to ribbons after shooting was already well underway. That destroyed DRACULA and several of the other movies Franco made with him, including those Fu Manchus (and you should see what he did with THE GIRL FROM RIO! A crime). Still love Lee in the part (and it was still far better than Lee's contemporaneous Draculas at Hammer).

Seen any of those I mentioned before?

Anonymous said...

Falling to recognize Lucio Fulci as the great stylist director he was - and with a knowledge of the technical to boot, simply talks about the non-capacity of viewers to see beyond the splinters and the guts, your loss

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I haven't seen Eugenie de Sade or Venus in Furs, but I THINK I've seen A Virgin Among the Living Dead. For what it's worth, I hated Vampyros Lesbos, in spite of the fact that it has a killer soundtrack.