Monday, October 29, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon: Aenigma



To watch a Lucio Fulci film post-1981 is to see a film by a once visionary genre director totally devoid of effort or care. It is with much sadness that I write this review for the Italian horror blogathon. I always try to get in one film from a major contributor to the subgenre that I haven’t seen, and this year I picked a late(r) era Fulci. Aenigma is the most clich├ęd kind of Euro-horror flick: shamelessly ripping off other movies (most blatantly Carrie and Patrick), straining to appeal to American audiences (for example, Fulci finds a way to get images of Snoopy, Sylvester Stallone, and Tom Cruise in his movie), and even lazily reverting to famous gore setpieces from his own films (the spider scene from The Beyond is used here, only this time with snails). I don’t know if Fulci’s health was declining by this point or if he was just disillusioned with the whole lot of it, but Aenigma is a depressingly pointless movie that is uninspired, boring, and just plain hack filmmaking.



The opening lets us know we’re watching a ‘80s movie as the absolute shit-worst generic ‘80s soundtrack plays over the action of two people at an All Girl’s College make-up an Ugly Duckling type character named Kathy. Any horror fan with half a brain knows where this is headed as Kathy is fooled into thinking that the man she is with likes her as the most generic group of Snobby Rich Girls snicker from a car not too far off in the distance. You see, they’re listening via a microphone that’s in the car, and this all leads to a prank gone wrong as Kathy is horribly injured as we cut to her lying in a coma. Have you seen Patrick? Then you know what happens next: Kathy gets revenge with her mind as she possesses another schoolgirl named Eva who through the power of telekinesis begins killing the girls responsible for Kathy’s condition.

There’s a lot to snicker at here (and even some stuff that, with the right amount of beer and some good company, is pretty damn funny if you were a child of the ‘80s) but mostly I just feel sad watching Aenigma. Gone is the visionary who favored ethereal and gory setpieces over narrative coherency. When you see a character decapitated in Aenigma, it’s not just that Fulci cuts it together so quickly that we hardly get a sense of the danger to the body (compare that to the unbearable tension in the injury-to-eye scenes from Zombi 2 and The Beyond), or that we can so obviously tell he didn’t care about the payoff as we see the cheesiest bit of blood followed by a mannequin’s head falling to the ground. No, what’s frustrating is that it’s the perfect encapsulation for everything that is lacking in the film. Fulci deprives us of the things he was best at: an unflinching camera that showed all of the visceral gore, narratives that unfolded like deliriums, and, above all else, beautiful cinematography and set design. Here, the set is boring, the cinematography is drab, and the camera is too schizophrenic.

The depressing hits just keep on comin’ when Kathy kills one girl by covering her in snails. Yes, snails. You know, I’m okay with the ridiculous notion that snails could kill someone; after all, it’s a Fulci movie. However, it’s done so poorly here. Not only is the scene horribly lit so we can barely tell what’s happening, but the snails just sit there (with the exception of the few that Fulci probably made the poor actress put in her mouth) posing no apparent threat to the girl their covering. They make weird noises like the spiders in The Beyond – which is what Fulci is the effect Fulci is tyring to duplicate – but they just look so silly. Yes, they look sillier than those out of focus, fake spiders being held up by strings in The Beyond. That’s the difference between 1981 Fulci and 1987 Fulci. Eventually, she just stops moving and we are left to assume she’s been suffocated (?) by the snails; it’s hard to tell because Fulci doesn’t give us any detail in his shots, and then he just moves on to the next scene.

And then there’s the end…I have no idea what is going on here. I mean I know we have a girl who stumbles upon all of the dead Snobby Rich Girls; it looks like their heads have been removed; and there seems to be some blood, but it’s all so damn murky that you can’t see anything clearly (unlike Fulci’s other films). To make it less comprehensible, Fulci cuts away so quickly before we can even begin to understand what the girl is really freaking out about. Again, this is very unlike the Fulci that I know and love; there’s no patience for the scene to develop, to revel in the visceral gore, to savor the opportunity to properly light the make-up effects; no, none of this is there because there’s nothing in the film to highlight. And I wonder if Fulci knew this – as if her were almost ashamed to properly showcase the paltry budget he was given to work with – and that’s why we get the half-assed effort. However, there’s other evidence here to the contrary.

After The House by the Cemetery, Fulci was at the acme of his career. His run of films from 1979-1981 were masterpieces in evoking the kind of ethereal Italian horror that his name is now synonymous is for. However, something went horribly wrong with his 1982 Manhattan Baby. Perhaps trying to eschew the notion that he was only good at making gore features, Manhattan Baby is a plodding, bloodless slog of a movie; a low-rent Omen meets Rosemary’s Baby. What followed were more bad copies: New York Ripper (which has its supporters, I should add) is nothing more than William Lustig’s Maniac; Conquest was his Conan; Warriors of the Year 2072 was his Mad Max; and Murder Rock was his attempt at mixing the giallo with the popularity of Flashdance. All poor attempts at cashing-in on something that was already popular. This wouldn’t be the first time Fulci did this as his most profitable film was promoted as being a sequel to a movie it had nothing to with (he was later urged to film small bits that very loosely linked his film to Romero’s).

Perhaps Fulci was burnt out on the idea that he could only make zombie/otherworldly gore movies (it was not Fulci’s idea, it should be noted, to put zombies in the end of The Beyond), so he tried his hand at other genres to see if he could have the same success he had with Zombi 2 (this may be the most likely theory since the last film he made was Zombi 3 in hopes of one last grasp at making money off of the Zombi name; however, his health was so poor on the set that he couldn’t even finish the movie and the rest of the film was finished by the hackiest of hacks Bruno Mattei (his buddy Claudio Fragasso was the screenwriter). Fulci tried to get his name removed from the film, but it never happened. And this, I think, is what did Fulci in. After the debacle of filming Zombi 3, Fulci’s career petered out along with the entire Italian horror industry.

Why bring this context up? It helps to know that Aenigma was not an anomaly, and in fact, isn’t even the worst of the late-era Fulci films. It’s downright harmless compared to some of the aforementioned titles. It’s not even that he’s ripping off material from other people that makes Aenigma (or his other films) bad because that’s something every Italian horror filmmaker did; no, it’s the fact that he’s doing it almost a decade too late and two years after Argento’s Phenomena. Either he thought the movie he was making was better than his Italian contemporary, or he was just totally oblivious to the domestic success of Argento’s 1985 film. Whatever it was, the film he released is just shocking in its laziness considering what the man was making a mere six years prior.  

And thinking about what we’ve covered here, it’s not too crazy to think that it was at least partly due to his disillusionment with not being able to find the same kind of financial success he had with Zombi 2 (this helps explain the strained attempts to appeal to American audiences). It’s really too bad. I don’t think that Fulci forgot how to make movies, and it’s not like he wasn’t adverse to evolving with the genre (his ‘70s gialli are quite good), so I think we chalk this up to something psychological – either burnout or fatigue or just a general disillusionment – and that’s really too bad because I would hate for the uninitiated to stumble upon one of these late-era Fulci’s and think that this is what the subgenre is all about; something so hackneyed and daft and horribly presented. Fulci is not bad in the way Mattei or Fragasso are bad, but it was really hard to tell the difference at this point in his career.

8 comments

  1. I think you are unfair in your dismissal of New York Ripper as a rip-off of Maniac just because it's a slasher film set in New York City. Ripper is the more unique film, with a bigger cast of characters and, unlike Maniac, it's a mystery.

    I have yet to see Aenigma, although I plan to watch it soon because I'm writing a book about the making of "Carrie" and I intend to include it in a chapter about the imitations. It can't be any worse than Manhattan Baby!

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    1. Ryan, you're not the first person to tell me I'm way too harsh on Fulci's New York Ripper. I know that simply casting it off as nothing more than a Lustig rip-off is a tad hyperbolic, but everything I remember about that movie is that it tried so hard to be grimy and ultra-violent but had the wacky duck-voiced killer thing just making it all so unbearable. I also remember it being Fulci at his misogynistic worst. However, it has been at least five years since I've seen it, so perhaps I should try to give it another shot for next year's blogathon.

      And you're right, I don't know that anything could be as bad as Manhattan Baby, especially considering that it came out just a year after The Beyond. What the hell happened there!?

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  2. I have a bunch of late-period Fulci (including this) sitting on my hard drive waiting to be watched, though it won't be in time for this blogathon. To be honest I'm actually more of a fan of his 1970s gialli than I am the zombie films (just watched The Beyond again the other night, still don't get the appeal), but for some reason I have a masochistic desire to find out just how bad he got. (I've seen Zombi 3, but obviously he wasn't totally to blame for that.) It still amazes me that Fulci started out as a comedy director (as did John Woo, another purveyor of ultra-violence, albeit of somewhat different kind).

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    1. Yeah, Fulci kind of did a little bit of everything. I love his gialli, too, I just think the man was at his peak visually with those four films between 1979-1981. Be warned, though, his late-era stuff is all kinds of awful.

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  3. Fulci also ripped off a fair bit of Argento's Phenomena here. One needn't look too closely. As for his later work, I somewhat enjoyed Voices From Beyond, though I'm likely in the minority there.

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  4. Train of thought derailed there... he ripped off a LOT of Phenomena, from the cover art to the music, as well as the new girl's arriving at an unfamiliar school, getting caught smoking, telepathic control of slugs (instead of bugs). All that's missing are a chimp and Daria Nicolodi.

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    1. Indeed, Giallo Guy 82. I only make the briefest of mentions to it, but I think Fulci may have underestimated how popular Argento's film was in Italy. Aenigma "borrows" heavily from Argento's film in all of the ways you mention. Mentioning that chimp makes me want to go watch Phenomena now...

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  5. There seemed to be traces of old Fulci in a few places (a few of the tracking shots, the setpiece where the girl sees the painting come to life, maybe even that strange ending that just confused me more), but his execution is pretty much terrible throughout. So either he lost his touch at some point or the budget restraints really hit home here. Probably a bit of both.

    Seriously though, I was so confused with what happens at the end -- perhaps I wasn't paying enough attention, but when Eva goes to the other school I can't tell who is possessed by who and who is really in love with the doctor. If I cared enough, I guess I could watch it again or read the Wikipedia entry.

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