AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 89 mins/ 85 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
St. Mary’s College, Boston. Kathy, the lonely daughter of the place’s mentally challenged cleaner Mary, has a cruel practical joke played on her in which she’s sent on a date with hunky gym teacher Fred then surprised by some of her classmates. She flees and is hit by a car, sending her into a coma. New girl Eva arrives and is given Kathy’s room. When some strange deaths begin to occur at exactly the same time as Kathy’s vital signs increase, it seems that Eva is being possessed by Kathy….
Having gone through the majority of Mario Bava’s output in the past, I’ve decided to do a similar thing for Lucio Fulci, another giant of Italian horror but also a filmmaker who dabbled in other genres and whose supposedly ‘lesser’ work I haven’t had much experience of. We already have reviews of Don’t Torture A Duckling, The Naples Conection, City Of The Living Dead, The Black Cat, The Beyond and House By The Cemetery on this website, the last two by writers other than myself, but what about some of his earlier work and his much-derided later output? Aenigma certainly falls into the latter quality though I used to have this one on video until my player chewed the tape. I recall it not being too bad, and I guess I have the same feelings about it now. Essentially a combination of Patrick and Carrie with a whiff or two of Suspiria and Phenomena [which had just come out], it sees Fulci trying to make a more conventionally 80’s American-style horror film and failing largely because of a story that makes hardly any sense and little attempt to make it seem as if we are actually in the United States. Sadly there are indeed signs of the ineptitute that is said to characterise Fulci’s late work, though by compensation there are some imaginative set pieces where the director seems to wake up even if they contain less gore than one would expect, plus a few odd touches here and there – while it all goes at a rather faster pace than Fulci usually managed.
There’s not as much background information on Fulci’s films as there is Bava’s, but I’ll do my best with what there is. Aenigma was written by Fulci and Giorgio Mariuzzo, and was an Italian-Yugoslav production with a mainly Yugoslav cast. It was shot in Sarajevo and supposedly Boston, Massachusetts where it’s set, though some cast members interviewed years later had no recollection of going to the States to film and it certainly doesn’t look like that’s where we actually are. Despite being obviously made to capitalise on the release of Phenomena, it was claimed by Fulci that it never appeared in cinemas, the producers doubting its commercial potential, though apparently showings did take place in Milan and Rome, meaning that it was the last Fulci film to get any kind of theatrical release. The export video release was shorn of four minutes worth of dialogue and – for some reason -a ten second flashback scene of Kathy sitting on a bench, though it bizarrely added a black and white photograph of the students that already appeared at the end of the film to the very beginning. The Blu-ray from 88 Films, which is what this review is based on, restores the cut chat but is still missing the flashback, which is disappointing really, considering that Blu-ray is supposedly the ultimate home viewing format.
One thing the Blu-ray does have though is the Italian language track, and thank god that it does because the English dub track on this film is truly awful. It’s probably not Fulci’s fault that the voices you hear on screen sound disembodied for much of the time [I know that dubbing never really sounds quite right because of its very nature but this example really is outstandingly bad], and maybe not his fault that the English dialogue is so awfully written [the translated subtitles on the Italian track are a little better], but if you’re going to watch this film than you need to be warned about this because otherwise you may find bits of it hard to sit through – oh, and the horrid ballad [called Head Over Heals but mis-spelt on the credits as Head Over Meels] that opens and closes the film. It and the titles play over two of Kathy’s supposed friends getting her ready for her date, lots of shots from the point of view of Kathy giving the impression that Fulci has at least thought this film through visually a bit. Their plan goes horribly wrong when she’s put into a coma by a speeding car, though that doesn’t stop them from saying horrid things about her cleaner mother who could be within earshot. We seem to take the viewpoint of Kathy’s soul as it floats above some very obvious model buildings. “No, I don’t want to die yet” we hear her say to herself, and one can’t help but think of Fulci’s passages of severe illness which were beginning to occur and which may have restricted the quality of his output. He looks ill during his obligatory cameo [as a doctor no less].
The fact that this soul now possesses the new arrival at the school is helpfully emphasised by cutting shots of Kathy into a scene of Eva walking up the school steps – but it wasn’t long after this that the major plot problem of this film entered my mind. The tormenters soon begin seeing hallucinations and are then found dead, beginning with the narcissistic Fred who’s seen admiring himself in a huge mirror before he’s strangled by his own reflection. However, it wasn’t clear to me exactly why Kathy was possessing Eva in the first place? Okay, it allows her to begin an relationship with Robert, the doctor who’s attending to Eva, but she never actually carries out any of the killings, and are we intended to believe that she also has the power to cause people to see things that aren’t there? Just a bit of clarification here would have helped. Anyway, at least things happen in quick succession, Eva reading allowed a letter she’s written to Robert heard over a montage of Robert romancing another girl Jennifer being particularly economical as well as nicely ironic. Jennifer is the Sue Snell equivalent, the only one of the bullies who shows some remorse, though it’s obvious that Eva/Kathy won’t be pleased when she finds out she’s been playing around with her boyfriend, and by the way isn’t it strange how this 40-something doctor has a thing for teenagers and nobody in the film mentions it? It’s even stranger how the film ends. It just seems to stop just as it was getting exciting. Did Fulci and Mariuzzo run out of time to finish the script and therefore had to think up the easiest way to finish things very quickly? Who knows? But then those two words “who knows?” can be applied elsewhere to this film, such as the frankly bizarre recreation of a hospital with just one member of staff and one security guard and seemingly unlimited access at night.
If it’s known at all, Aenigma is known for the scene where snails crawl all over a naked female victim, and it really is quite repulsive as it really does seem to be real snails for the most part, though unlike the spider scene in The Beyond it’s not clear how the snails are supposed to be killing her as all they do is crawl around extremely slowly. The next day the victim is found suffocated to death. Perhaps more successful – and the film’s nastiest scene – is a dream scene in which, amidst flashing red lighting, Robert imagines that Eva is biting chunks out of him during sex. The murders tend to avoid explicit bloodshed but are quite well built up to, in particular a lengthy set piece where one girl suffers blood dripping onto her face from a painting, sees a snake and a coffin torn open, then a statue of Perseus holding the head of her boyfriend in place of the head of the Medusa which is what it should be. Unfortunately the shot of another statue coming to strangle her just features a guy in a stupid looking suit that doesn’t much resemble the actual statue at all, and a falling severed head is so fake looking even Hammer would have rejected it. Aenigma is frustratingly like this throughout, potentially strong moments weakened by serious flaws in the execution. And there’s even a bit where the screen goes black for four or five seconds presumably just because of sloppiness, and nobody cared to fix it. And it’s rather bland looking throughout, even if at times the blue-ish look of Phenomena seems to have been half-heartedly replicated. There’s some nice camera work though, like the long, slow pan around some students early on, plus probably the zoom-loving Fulci’s most rapid zoom work when Eva has a fit. There also seems to be a lot of hand held shots – some well executed, some rushed and clumsy – and even some point of view ‘shakycam’. Fulci’s fascination with eyes is a bit present, the film opening with close-ups of an eye and later on showing the ending of one killing as a reflection in Kathy’s eye.
The mostly Yugoslav models hardly convince as American students and most of the acting is quite poor, if sometimes funny like when Riccardo Acerbi as Fred nods a ridiculous number of times. Miljilijana Zerojevic has to display a large variety of emotions as Eva, and does do her best, though of course scripting defects don’t help, such as the fact that we never get any impression of Eva’s character independent of Kathy. Carlo Maria Cordina’s score is okay, if a bit inconsistent as it veers from organ dramatics to heavy rock to moody synthesiser. Aenigma really is quite peculiar, often managing to be inept and inspired in the same scene – which makes it a strangely likable, even charming work if your taste leans towards the odd and the weird.