AKA SETTE NOTE IN NERO, SEVEN BLACK NOTES, MURDER TO THE TUNE OF SEVEN BLACK NOTES, DEATH TOLLS SEVEN TIMES
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 92 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 1959 Dover, England, a woman commits suicide by leaping from a cliff. At the same time, her daughter Virginia, living in Florence, Italy sees this death – which is actually of her mother – in a vision. 18 years later, an adult Virginia lives near Rome, and has married rich Italian businessman Francesco Ducci. When Ducci leaves on a business trip, Virginia experiences more visions including an old woman being murdered. When visiting an abandoned mansion in Siena she plans to renovate, she finds a room with many of the objects in her visions and then a skeleton walled up, evidence of a murder committed many years ago. The police link Ducci to the crime and arrest him, but then Virginia sees the supposed victim alive and well…
For my next Lucio Fulci review, I was going to do A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin which is probably his best giallo after Don’t Torture A Duckling, but then I realised that the old DVD which I had of that film was not the full uncut version so I opted to order it on Blu-ray so I can view it exactly as Fulci intended. For now then I’m going to review Seven Notes In Black [though I wasn’t sure what title to review it under as it’s been released under several variant monikers] which was another Fulci that I did a short-ish review of back when this website started but always intended to improve on it. Quentin Tarantino thinks that this is Fulci’s best film and I wouldn’t go quite as far as that – its essentially a very simple tale which is told in a convoluted way, and in retrospect it seems stretched out – but it’s certainly one of the more interesting examples of the giallo that were made at a time when the subgenre had sharply declined in popularity and filmmakers tried to keep it alive by varying the format. This one doesn’t have the usual giallo array of murders, but it’s certainly a most intriguing and clever mystery that brings in elements of Don’t Look Now and The Black Cat [which Fulci went on to make a strange version of in 1980], and which is crafted with care by a director who later became rather careless. It probably deserves to be better known, though its talkiness, downbeat nature and bleak fatalism have meant that it’ll never become one of his more popular pictures.
It was initially based on a 1972 novel called Terapia mortale [Deadly Therapy]by Veiri Razzini, and was originally intended to be directed by Alberti Pugliese and called either Pentagramma in nero [Black Pentagram] or Sinfonia in nero [Black Symphony]. Ernesto Gastaldi wrote a treatment, but the film was in development limbo for over a year as producer Luigi De Laurentiis wasn’t sure what kind of film he wanted it to be. Eventually Fulci was brought in with writers Roberto Gianviti who’d collaborated with Fulci on several previous films, and Dardano Sacchetti who would be Fulci’s main screenwriter for the next few years, resulting in hardly any of the novel remaining in the film, while Gastaldi went uncredited. It was shot under the working title Dolce come morire [Sweet As Dying], with little studio work, being shot chiefly at Arezzo, Siena in Italy, and briefly in Dover. It was released to little interest in Italy and indeed wasn’t seen much overseas [the first time I saw it was on a bootleg video in Italian language with no subtitles], no doubt partly due to its relative shortage of exploitable elements, though the low key US cinema release entitled The Psychic even omitted the opening sequence. It wasn’t all bad though – it was said opening sequence that caused producer Fabrizio de Angelis to choose Fulci to direct Zombie Flesh Eaters, the film that finally gave him some worldwide fame – or should that be notoriety….
I’m talking about the sight of a woman’s head being bashed several times on a cliff when a woman commits suicide, something which is in fact a recycling of the finale of Don’t Torture A Duckling. Again, the head of the dummy used isn’t exactly realistic, but, what with the excellent editing in the lead-up so it really does look like young Virginia is present at the ghastly occurence, it does get the film off to a highly dramatic start. I must say right now though that it’s a bit of a misleading opening, because there’s only a small amount of blood and violence in the rest of the film, a film which would probably now get a ’12’ rating in the UK if it wasn’t for the beginning. And it’s immediately followed by a soppy love song sung by a ‘Linda Lee’ which really does seem out of place, though some other Italian films did the same thing, and I have to say it’s a rather pleasant tune. The fragments of Virginia’s vision form a dreamlike mosaic and are edited together with some rythmn – an old woman murdered, a red-dominated room, a wall being built, the limping legs of the murdered, a letter hidden beneath a statue etc. And you have to admire the cheek of a giallo that throws most of its clues at its heroine and us all in one go. One thing that soon becomes apparent is how good Jennifer O’ Neill is in this film. While undoubtedly a beauty and the provider of much lovely dreaming to myself and I’m sure many other younger teenagers who saw Summer Of ’42 and wished that she would be the one to take our virginity away just like Hermie in the film, she’s not somebody one tends to rate as an actress. Yet her odd haunted quality suits this film and she shows her character’s confusion, fear and eventual realisation of the dreadful truth quite convincingly. What a shame that one of her best performances is so little seen.
It’s all very dialogue heavy until over half way, but the story is so interesting and there’s a twist every 15 minutes or so, so boredom is averted unless you really are crying out for lots of elaborate murder set pieces. Virginia is convinced that the skeleton she discovers is that of the woman in her vision, but the police charge Ducci with the killing and the body turns out to be that of an old ex-girlfriend of Ducci’s. Virginia, determined to exculpate her husband, contacts her ex-boyfriend Luca Fattori, a researcher of psychic phenomena, and his investigation eventually leads to the wealthy Emilio Rospini, who may be the true culprit. Much mystery revolves around a magazine that Virginia buys, and which seems identical to one she saw in her vision, eventually revealing that Virginia was actually seeing into the future rather than the past, so she now has to try to prevent a murder from happening. To throw viewers off the track, the script and Fulci have to do a lot of clever things: he often shows clues but omits one important detail, shows other clues which actually don’t end up mattering very much and, although the film is mostly from Virginia’s point of view, occasionally shows us things she couldn’t have seen, giving us the impression we are being told more and are therefore ahead of her…an impression which is usually false! This mostly succeeds, meaning that it really is a punch-to-the-gut shock when the revelation of what is really happening reveals itself. SPOILER Fulci seems to want us to expect Luca to get to the house in time to save Virginia from death, but doesn’t allow us to enjoy that, and the film is all the better for it, especially in the way it gives us a cheeky variant on the ending of The Black Cat, a watch’s musical chime taking the place of a cat SPOILER END.
This may very well be the best shot of all of Fulci’s films, at least out of the ones I’ve seen. Cinematographer Sergio Salvita ensures that the camera never stops moving, something which aids the viewer’s disorientation immensely without it seeming too obvious. Aerial shots add an oddness to some of the well chosen interiors and enhance the feeling of characters unable to escape the destiny that’s been chosen for them, trapped in a macabre game. A simple conversation in an art gallery is made ominous because the characters have been shot mostly in silhouette. And, while Fulci doesn’t feel the need to add any more suspense scenes than the story absolutely requires, he does treat us to one truly edge-of-seat sequence set in a dilapidated church where Virginia is hiding from the killer [or is it?]. The use of space, shadow and silence is really masterful and ought to be shown to those who dismiss Fulci. When he was good, he was very good, and it seems to me that it was tiny budgets and therefore equally tiny shooting schedules, plus declining health, that caused most of his later work to not be of much quality – though I haven’t explored enough of that yet to make an informed opinion on this!
The idea of having most of the Italian cast members speak English with their actual voices is a very commendable one and I don’t know why other films of a similar nature didn’t do the same, though there is the odd moment where it’s hard to understand everything that is being said due to the accents, a flaw in a movie where new information is being given out all the time. Ida Galli, better known under her pseudonym Evelyn Stewart, manages to make a strong impression as Virginia’s vulgar sister-in-law despite being obviously dubbed by someone else. Also very good is the score, largely played on a carillon, by Franco Bixio and Fabio Frizzi who would return to work on some of Fulci’s greatest hits. The watch chime theme later turned up in Kill Bill but perhaps even more memorable is a clock-like piece that evokes a sense of people moving inexorably to their fate. Several other diverse tracks including even some muzak make up the rest of a nicely diverse soundtrack that’s also quite different from typical giallo scoring of the time. While it probably just misses being in the Fulci top five [though may very well belong in the top ten], Seven Notes In Black is still an extremely well made effort in which the director manages to restrain himself considerably in terms of brutality and blood, yet still come up with something which is very chilling and even downright harrowing in its final act. It’s probably a film that many critics would praise very highly if it were better known and not from a director chiefly associated with gruesome horror movies [even if actually he did a great deal else]. Why is it that I get the feeling that this may be remade soon and that the result will get a positive reception?