The Italian film industry went through a boom in the mid-20th century and names like Michelangelo Antonioni, Mario Monicelli and Ettore Scola achieved worldwide fame. They were given massive budgets and produced works that won prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and received recognition from mainstream American critics. We tend to remember L’Avventura (1960), L’Eclisse (1962) and Divorce Italian Style (1961), while overlooking the wave of less acclaimed productions that resulted from this boom. Director Lucio Fulci was considered a specialist in the Giallo genre, but his gory, hyper-stylised films were seen as trashy two-bit junk at the time of their release. He has since been able to build up a cult following, but it is difficult to imagine The Psychic (1977) being considered an example of his best work.
Fulci is one of those directors for whom plot was secondary to stylistic flourish. He takes a bit of Hitchcock’s cold sensuality, liberally employs Leone-esque extreme close-ups, a touch of George Cukor’s focus on glamorous, troubled women, and throws all of these clashing sensibilities into a blender. He creates a Eurotrash aesthetic that can be extremely seductive, but undercuts the appeal of his beautifully crafted images with poorly written dialogue and an insistent, overbearing score that never seems to line up with what’s happening on screen. He has the talent to compose a shot that has the audience at the edge of their seats. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t seem to know when he’s onto a good thing, and quickly throws away suspense and tension in favour of dropping in an awkwardly placed shot of a dummy rolling down a hill.
He works with a ridiculous, overblown plot that involves the marriage between American trophy wife Virginia (Jennifer O’Neill) and oily Italian businessman Francesco (Gianni Garko). She is traumatised by having witnessed her mother’s suicide as a young girl and this leads her to worry that she is suffering from a mental illness as an adult. Francesco goes away on a business trip and Virginia begins to have visions of a mysterious old woman and a wall being torn down. When she travels to the summer home that her husband has recently bought, and finds a dead body hidden in one of the walls, she becomes very disturbed. Not knowing who she can trust, she meets up with Luca Fattori (Marc Porel), who studies instances of psychic phenomena. The two try to figure out what has happened, while Virginia fights for her life. Suddenly all of her acquaintances seem suspicious and she feels like she is constantly being threatened.
Virginia is a typical Giallo heroine, as she has a fragile mental state, struggles to trust men, suffers from sexual repression, feels like an outsider in Italian society and discovers that nobody trusts her statements about the visions that she has been having. Robert Gianviti and Dardano Sacchetti assemble all of the right ingredients, but they never work their way up to actually making a statement about shifting gender roles in Italian society or Virginia’s feelings of cultural displacement. Virginia’s character development is also limited by the way that O’Neill portrays her. As a director, Fulci seems to be aware of the fact that she was not an actress with great dramatic range, so he uses her like a beautiful doll. He drapes her in jewellery and the hottest fashions of the era, in an effort to disguise the fact that she’s not giving off much in the way of screen presence. The high key lighting serves to show off her exceptional beauty and she looks striking when placed in the middle of a well composed shot. Fulci’s techniques might have been more effective if the story hadn’t required a complex, well-defined heroine.
For all his shortcomings, it is difficult to argue that Fulci isn’t successfully in creating a believable setting. His version of the Roman suburbs is grimy and greasy. He populates ostentatious mansions with Nouveau Riche oddballs who lace every line reading with sinister intent. Everybody is draped in furs, silver pendants, skinny ties and black dress pants. They ride the line between elegant sophistication and trashy excess. Even their houses are packed to the brim with the type of tacky tchotchkes that rich people are willing to spend thousands on. Every corner is full of knick knacks and they seem overly willing to show off their wealth. Fulci also has an attraction towards locations that will give him an opportunity to highlight the fact that these people are sinking into depravity, despite owning so many expensive possessions. His unfailing devotion to formalism yields some out of this world imagery that is thrilling in its intensity. When O’Neill is suddenly drenched in red light and faced with a room full of bizarre sculptures, it is difficult to turn away. These are the touches that make Fulci such a beloved figure.
He has some inspired ideas, but that doesn’t mean that he always knows how to weaponise his ability to produce memorable images. The image of a young Virginia imagining her mother’s suicide is fairly haunting. We see an innocent young girl staring out at a nervous, malnourished mother who is ready to end it all. One wishes that Fulci had held on this setup for just a little while longer. Instead of drawing suspense and horror out of it, he undercuts its emotional impact by staging the suicide as a goofy, Roger Corman-y bloodfest. It immediately puts you in a bad frame of mind, as you expect the rug to be pulled out from under your feet whenever he manages to place Virginia in a tense situation.
This might have some nostalgia value for fans of 1970s cinema who just want to see Fulci use the filmmaking techniques that were popular during that time. Those expecting an engaging mystery should be encouraged to look elsewhere.