Ænigmatic and Œverlooked

by Arthur B

A look at a downright bizarre late-career Lucio Fulci movie.
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St. Mary’s College in Boston is a posh school for girls - specifically, girls of that late teen sort of age where they’re played by twenty year olds in movies like this so they can show their tits and their school has lecture theatres like a university but restricts their freedom in a manner more reminiscent of a residential high school and the headmistress, Miss Jones (Zorica Lesic), looks younger than some of the students. The school maintains a facade of tight discipline, but - perhaps because of Miss Jones’ incredible inexperience due to her being, like I said, startlingly young to hold such a senior position - the students basically do what they want and are occasionally utter shits to people.

For one thing, they are flagrantly disrespectful to Mary (Dusica Zegarac), a mute woman from New Orleans who works as the school janitor and who they like to refer to as being “retarded”. For another, they’re even meaner to poor Kathy (Milijana Zirojevic), Mary’s daughter, who is a student at the school (presumably by dint of her mother’s employment there) - they arrange for her to go on a hot date with studly Fred Vernon (Riccardo Acerbi), the ethics-free gym teacher, only to jump out at her when she’s getting all overexcited about him and embarrassing her. (Teenagers are weird: only they would consider “Ha ha, you got to make out with someone you are massively attracted to” to constitute some sort of hilarious joke.)

Then they chase her in their cars because they are incredibly irresponsible and there’s a nasty accident, which leaves Kathy in a coma in a hospital which, based on the incredibly cheap quality of the model work on exterior shots, might as well be Darkplace Hospital. Clearly there is only one reasonable course of action for Kathy to do: use her psychic control of both Mary and new arrival Eva Gordon (Lara Lamberti) to get bloody revenge on her tormentors, and perhaps joyride a bit as Eva exercises her personal priority of getting it on with as many hot dudes as she can - including Dr Rick Dagless Robert Anderson (Jared Martin), the doctor responsible for Kathy’s care. Sooner or later, though, Anderson comes to realise that strange spikes in Kathy’s vital signs happen whenever these nasty accidents happen at the school - but will he make the logical leap to suss out why this is the case, and can he really do anything about it once he pieces it all together?

This mashup of Patrick and Carrie is a 1987 Italian-Yugoslavian coproduction, directed by Lucio Fulci. Like much late-period Fulci, it’s a bit threadbare; it was made after the bout of ill health which left him laid up for much of 1985, and after the parting of ways between him and regular script collaborator Dardano Sacchetti (he co-wrote this one with Giorgio Mariuzzo); after these events his directorial career never quite back on track, and he struggled to get financing for his projects. Still, Ænigma at its best finds Fulci managing to do an awful lot within the limitations of a bare-bones budget, much of which is so fun it can’t be spoiled by the shortcomings of some of the special effects, makeup and props.

For instance, there’s a quite nice sequence in an art gallery where various bits of artwork come to life in a way intended to terrorise Eva’s chosen victim - like a statue of Perseus holding aloft Medusa’s head where the head abruptly turns into Kathy’s head. The imagery there is good enough that even though the statue that comes to life to strangle her is horribly fakey, it honestly doesn’t matter, because what Fulci was going for there was clever enough and well-communicated enough to forgive the shortcomings of the resources available to him. (The same is true of the bit where Fred’s own reflection presses its way through a mirror in the gymnastics studio to kill him.)

In other instances, however, the movie ends up spinning its wheels or having Fulci riffing on sequences he accomplished with much more flair in previous movies. (In particular, there’s a death-by-a-thousand-snails death sequence which is a really cheap and unbelievable riff on the spider sequence from The Beyond - which was the weakest incident in that movie besides.) A certain amount of plagiarism is inevitable in Italian B-movies of this era - it wasn’t a market that put a high value on originality - but self-plagiarism is less forgivable.

The script also has a number of awkward issues which makes me think it could really have done with a second pass. (Sure, Fulci in the past had absolutely no qualms about making movies that operated on total dream logic and made not a lick of sense, but I don’t get the impression that this was meant to be one of those.) For one thing, how are we meant to take the fact that Dr Anderson is cheerfully having an affair not just with Eva but with one of her schoolmates as well, who of course are both played by mid-20s actresses but diegetically are supposed to both be school-age girls?

By any measure this is all sorts of not OK, but I am entirely unclear on how much the movie realises it isn’t OK. At some points in the movie it looks like Anderson is going to step into sort of heroic male protagonist role… except he never quite does it beyond some malevolence. There’s a completely risible sex scene which I think is supposed to take place getting stabbed trying to defend one of the students he is banging against Eva/Kathy’s in the hospital, but Anderson and Eva are banging away on a bed in the middle of an otherwise totally unfurnished room whilst a red light pulses on and off in a manner entirely inappropriate to pretty much any room in any hospital anywhere.

It turns out to be a nightmare Anderson’s having where Eva eats out his heart, and I guess if you squint you could read it as a guilt thing, but based on the presentation it reads more like some sort of mental torment from Kathy, or perhaps Anderson subconsciously linking Eva with the deaths. On the whole, Anderson’s place in the story is uncomfortable and could do with clarifying (not least because he seems to partly exist solely to give an additional spur to having stuff going on in the hospital.)

Other aspects of the script suggest a rather more ambitious story than the one we get, but these strands are dropped mysteriously and simply don’t amount to anything. Most prominently, there’s hints dropped that Mary, Miss Jones, and other teachers have some sort of unusual regular behind-locked-doors rendezvous every Friday, which is raised in conjunction with a discussion about how nobody knows who Kathy’s father is. Likewise there’s the way Miss Jones encourages Anderson to take charge of Eva in such an eager manner that you wonder whether she knows that they’re getting intimate, or the way Miss Jones is talking like she’s got some sort of weird conspiratorial motive when she reveals that Eva has been sent away to a residential mental hospital due to being excessively naughty. Absolutely nothing comes of either of these plot threads.

It really feels like Fulci was going to throw in a Suspiria-esque angle where the school was hiding a clique of witches who summoned an incubus to sire Kathy for strange purposes of their own. My impression of this is only enhanced by the mysterious shots we have of a large portrait of an old woman who contextually was presumably a former head of the school or its founder or something, except this pretty much never comes to anything. The camera goes out of its way to draw our attention to this, but the movie subsequently does absolutely nothing with it. I wish I had enough confidence in the movie to interpret this as being a subtextual hidden story underneath the main tale presented, but I suspect for most viewers this will just come across as a dangling thread - it’s much less deftly handled than the various weird strands and hints at deeper goings-on that litter the Gates of Hell movies.

The conclusion has Mary cutting off Kathy’s life support to end her rampage and dispatch her soul to its eternal rest, though given the strong hints made across the movie that Mary has dark powers of her own and she has every reason to go along with what’s happening, it’s far from clear why she would do this, especially since shots we’ve seen earlier give us every impression that the two are absolutely in cahoots. Still, there’s something haunting about the final shot we get from the perspective of Kathy’s spirit as it drifts to oblivion, the shabby model work of Earth fading away in a puff of smoke, which means that the movie somehow stays with you even despite its shortcomings. This is a common thing with Fulci’s movies; he had this weird knack of making something which somehow felt like it was more than the sum of its parts even when the parts in question were pretty damn ropey and didn’t even fit together especially well. Although I would not put it on the level of The Beyond, I do think it doesn’t deserve to languish in total obscurity and am glad that 88 Films bothered to restore it.
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