Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Italian Horror Blog-a-thon: Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes (aka The Psychic)

[Today I take a look at one of Lucio Fulci's most underrated films. I had never given this film a chance, but as I was preparing for this blog-a-thon I knew I wanted to write about at least one pre-Zombi 2 Fulci. As you will see I came away quite impressed. I'm still receiving submissions and will continue to update the links throughout the week. Thanks to everyone who has contributed so far.]

Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes (known as The Psychic in the states) is pretty restrained for a giallo, and especially restrained for Fulci. This was the one legit movie he tried to make, and it’s probably his best film that adheres to a linear narrative. The clues are clever, the musical watch is especially ingenious, and the story has kind of a hazy, dream-like ambiance to it. It meanders a bit in the middle, but it almost seems like it’s necessary for it to be that way, because the final 30 minutes is an intense nightmare.

The film oozes with the atmosphere of an Edgar Alan Poe story, and even though the film is classified as a Giallo it really owes more to the gothic subgenre associated with early Bava. The story begins with a young girl witnessing her mother throwing herself off a cliff. This brutal suicide naturally scars the young girl, and we’re not quite sure the relevance of the scene until we flash forward 18 years later and we see Virginia Ducci (Jennifer O’Neil) driving through a tunnel when she’s struck by a premonition. In her premonition she sees a blurry magazine cover with a beautiful woman on it, a broken mirror, a yellow cab, a limping man, and other bizarre images that don’t seem to link up.

Virginia enlists the aide of a paranormal doctor to help her decipher these clues. As she continues to have the premonitions she also has to deal with an odd feeling she’s getting in her new husbands house. She’s staying in is former residence and gets a weird feeling about a wall – she goes down into the basement and finds a pickaxe and begins hacking away at the wall. What she discovers is the skeleton of a young woman her husband used to be involved with. The police investigate the murder while Virginia tries to clear her husbands name with the help of the paranormal doctor as they both think that her premonitions will help find the killer and free her husband.

I dare not give away any more of the story. Half the fun of these kind of giallo flicks is the whodunit factor, and this is one of the best films of its ilk. Even though Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes isn’t a giallo in the psycho-sexual killer sense, it shares many of the plot devices and tropes of the subgenre. One of the key ingredients to any giallo film is to have an intricate plot that really only makes sense with a second viewing. Giallo films always have the protagonist trying to decipher clues from their fragmented memory – or in this case – a premonition. Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes seems convoluted as you’re watching it unfold, but a second viewing makes you appreciate the time and care the screenwriters put into making this an intriguing and enthralling detective story. The story is on par with what I think is the greatest giallo film: Deep Red.

The music is top notch, as it is with most Fulci films, adding an eerie otherworldliness to the film. This is something that is not uncommon in Fulci’s films as he usually employs the great Fabio Frizzi to conduct the main themes for his projects, and this is one of his spookiest. Here the theme at first just seems eerie in its subtlety (the title came about because of Fulci hearing the mere seven notes in the song), but as you watch the film you see that it becomes the films most important plot device.

One of Fulci’s flaws, however, is that he relies too heavily on reminding the viewers over and over at the end of the film that the clues that were presented in the premonition are indeed happening at the end of the film. It’s a neat effect at first as Jennifer O’Neil’s premonitions are shown through a blurry, funhouse mirror effect, but by the end of the film we really didn’t need to see it all again – it’s almost as if he wasn’t quite sure his audience was going to remember everything that came before the end. A minor quibble, though.

This film was Fulci’s baby. He spent nearly two years trying to get it made, and another two months overseeing the script meetings (which the screenwriters on one of the DVD extras claims was excruciating because Fulci didn’t write anything, he just told them what was good and what would cost too much money to shoot…or what would be good for a different film he would make), so by the time the film was made Argento had already released Deep Red (in 1975), and Italian audiences had moved away from giallo films and more towards the supernatural or cannibal pictures. The film flopped at the box office and forced Fulci into two years of television work. Of course things would work out for him as the writer of Zombi 2 saw this film and thought that Fulci’s talent was obvious and that he was the man to helm his zombie flick. I think that worked out alright for Fulci.

This is definitely a film that will not necessarily appease the Fulci fans who want the man responsible for the gore-infested zombie quartet of the 80’s. There’s nothing wrong with those films, in fact I think they’re all great (except I have to admit that Zombi 2 is the worst of the bunch…except the scene where the shark fights the zombie underwater....but I digress); however, there’s something criminal about the way Fulci’s early work is so flippantly dismissed. His early films have their fans, though, most notably Quentin Tarantino (who used the theme from this film in his Kill Bill Vol. 1) who said in an interview it was his dream to remake this film, and he considers it to be Fulci’s best. Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes doesn’t have the odd, ethereal charm of The Beyond; the ruthlessness found in his gialli Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Don’t Torture a Duckling; or the gore found in The House by the Cemetery and City of the Living Dead; however, I agree with Tarantino: it’s quite possibly Fulci’s best film.


  1. Man...another one to check out! This has so far been a fantastic education for me, and I'm looking forward to more recommendations in the days ahead!

    Great screen caps, BTW!

  2. Thanks, Chris. The screen caps are half the fun! Hehe. I really recommend this one. It's just a phenomenal horror film that has a plot and the pacing worthy of a Hitchcock film.

  3. This is a film I've heard a lot about but not got round to acquiring yet. It's definitely going on my must-see list now.

  4. Neil: should definitely be on every horror fans list. It's such an amazingly executed horror story, and now that the uncut version has been made available on DVD you don't have to worry about getting the butchered version entitled The Psychic, which I hear is just awful.

  5. I saw this one a while back and wasnt so impressed by it. Apart from its thrilling last 30 minutes the whole first half of the film is just one big boring set up.

    I was actually looking forward to it too! Its well shot and filmed, just not all that exciting.

  6. Francisco:

    Sorry to hear you didn't quite like this one. I think it's Fulci's best film. He would add a different flavor to his films after this one (mainly gore and nonsensical storylines), and sometimes that flavor tastes a little better than the deliberate pacing of his gialli...but I don't think he ever topped this film in terms of filmmaking ability.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  7. I always thought that The Beyond was his best film for me.

    I wanted to ask you something, I saw the version entitled "The Psychic", I read on an earlier post that this is not the best version of this film, is this true?

    Why is it butchered? Was it re-edited?

    Because maybe this is the reason why I didnt like it. Whats the difference between watching "The Psychic" and watching the other version?

  8. The butchered version is the if you saw the version on VHS entitled The Psychic then you saw a heavily edited version of the movie. However, about five years ago (I think) a DVD version of the movie came out in the states under the title The Psychic, but that version is the fully uncut one.

  9. Okay, then thats the one I saw. I didnt hate the movie, I just thought it was slower paced then your usual Fulci flick.

    It opens with a grabber, the little girl witnessing that death, but then goes back to slow mode.

    Still, the ending is well worth the wait, when everything falls into place.

  10. Francisco brings up a good point on many a giallo -- the procedural middle can get very bogged down and boring. The better giallo know how to introduce some atmosphere and suspense during the uncovering of the mystery, while the less satisfying ones seem to wallow in the investigation and exposition.

    I've not seen The Psychic yet, so I can't say how it does in this matter. Your screencaps make it look like Fulci did a swell job with his compositions and colors, though. It's got the same crew as his better films (as well as some of his bad ones...) -- Fabio Frizzi on music, Sergio Salvati behind the camera, Roberto Gianviti and Dardano Sacchetti co-writing with Fulci) -- so that's an encouraging sign in my book. I'll be sure to give it a try this week.

  11. Yeah...this one doesn't get bogged down, at least not in my opinion. It always has something interesting going that pulls you deeper and deeper into the story. I think it's Fulci's best attempt at a well rounded movie (read: aesthetics and narrative are superb in this film). I think you would really dig this movie. It definitely changed my mind about Fulci, that's for sure.