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