AKA QUANDO ALICE RUPPE LO SPECCHIO, WHEN ALICE BROKE THE MIRROR
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 86 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Lester Parson is a cannibal psychopath who regularly abducts and kills women with deformities, eating certain cuts and disposing the rest in his backyard to his horde of pigs. He converses schizophrenically with himself via tape recordings of his own voice, and is addicted to gambling and being hounded by Randy, a shady loan shark whom he owes money to after accruing bad debts. Then things get even worse when an imitator leaves incriminating evidence at the scene of his crimes that points to Lester….
So at last I’ve found the time to watch and review another Lucio Fulci film, and considering that Aenigma proved to be okay, I decided to brave another of the director’s late films, made when his career was in serious decline and he only had tiny budgets at his disposal. And I’m not entirely sure what to make of The Touch Of Death, or indeed whether I liked it or not, though it’s certainly quite unique, if possibly a bit inspired by A Hatchet For A Honeymoon and Monsieur Verdoux. For the most part, it seems to be Fulci’s attempt to make a comedy about a serial killer, though it’s no American Psycho, the film not always seeming to know what it’s doing and humour not appearing to be Fulci’s forte [though he did make some comedies very early on his career], even if I did admittedly chuckle at a few bits even if I didn’t want to. And Fulci’s much remarked on hatred of women does unfortunately seem to show a great deal in this particular film which seems to be inviting us to laugh at females with deformities who have sexual appetites being murdered. If you’re familiar with my writing then you’ll know that I detest political correctness, but even I will admit that The Touch Of Death did make me uncomfortable with what it seemed to be inviting me to think and chuckle at [and I did chuckle on a few occasions though I disliked myself for doing so]- and if this wasn’t intended by Fulci then he should have adopted a more obviously ironic approach. The central performance by Brett Halsey doesn’t really work either because too often he often seems to be mugging just for the benefit of the viewer. Fulci’s skill as a filmmaker still shows in a few scenes though, and at least for the gore hound the first half contains some memorably extreme moments of grue, though the second half introduces some fantastical touches which then aren’t really followed through.
It was made at a time when the Italian film industry was struggling due to the growth of TV and the country’s horror boom had all but disappeared. Directors like Fulci often had trouble getting projects off the ground, and were rarely given enough money to adequately realise them. Fulci probably wanted to make more non-horror films, but was not allowed. The Touch Of Death, the only one of Fulci’s films that he wrote entirely on his own, was one half of a package deal for TV also consisting of The Ghosts Of Sodom. Because of the number of companies involved in producing or executive producing them, much of the money intended for the productions ended up in other hands. It’s really star Brett Halsey who was responsible for the film’s humorous aspect because Fulci’s original script was very serious until he and Halsey rewrote it. As he often did on his later films, Fulci suffered from really bad diabetes during shooting, and was further distracted when his daughter Antonella broke her arm in a motorbike accident. Aside from the shortage of money, Fulci was hampered even more from fully realising some scenes by equipment not always arriving at the locations, some of which the film crew were refused entry to – though they went ahead anyway and sometimes even broke in. The two and a half week shooting schedule was extended to three weeks as there was no way that everything could be completed otherwise. Then, despite Italian TV being far more relaxed about such things than that of many other countries, the film was deemed too violent and shelved until it came out on video three years later, while thereafter only video sources existed for it until the original negative was found in 2017.
The film’s reputation as looking awful [which it no doubt did on previous releases] isn’t really justified when seeing it on the Blu-ray from 88 Films, where it’s evident that Fulci tried his best to make it look decent, right from the opening series of hand held tracking shots [though some are very smooth and some aren’t] that introduce us to Lester, sitting down to eat a lovely piece of steak in front of the TV. A zoom into one of his ears reminds us of who’s directing this until we are taken into the basement where a female cadaver lies on a table missing some flesh from its thigh. Lester enters, picks up a chainsaw and in graphic detail he chops off the arms, legs and head before slicing the body in half. It sounds incredibly gruesome, and I guess it is, but the fake body during the cutting is not at all convincing and none of the effects in this film come up to the quality of the ones in the glory days of the likes of The Beyond. A head melting in a microwave [yes, a microwave] is partly done with very obvious dissolves, and if you thought that arterial spray can only emit from areas of the body where arteries are located, then this film will prove you wrong. When a head is bashed in and an eye is somehow totally knocked out on to the floor, one wonders if Fulci is taking the mickey a bit here, maybe sending up his reputation as the Godfather of Gore.
So Lester likes to seduce and kill rich widows. The first one has some facial hair and seems as hard to kill as Rasputin in what is admittedly kind of funny if you like your humour dark. Repeated attempts to poison her fail because she spills her glass, mixes up his glass of wine with hers, and vomits, and even hitting her so hard that her skin rips off the side of her face, fails to do the job. Even after she’s dead she causes trouble for Lester because her body doesn’t fit in his car’s boot and he he has to chop off the corpse’s feet [possibly inspired by a moment from Lisa And The Devil?]. I shamefully admit I was rather enjoying the film at this point, despite the annoying light-hearted waltz that plays over and over again and Brett Halsey’s irritating acting where he almost seems to be breaking the fourth wall. Then Lester goes for a woman who can’t stop singing opera in a crib from the 1972 version of Bluebeard. Then he genuinely seems to feel something for a female who initially seems beautiful to him, but every time he tries to really fall for her he’s repulsed by the deformity on her lip which Fulci’s camera insists on showing in close-up. As written, this might sound a little bit funny, but the seeming total cynicism of the whole exercise soon begins to leave a bad taste in the mouth and Halsey’s ‘to the audience’ mannerisms get very wearing. Halsey rarely seems to be trying to get under the skin of the character. Meanwhile the plot is largely moved forward by TV, radio and phone calls as an imitator begins to make trouble for Lester. I don’t think any commentary on the increasing dominance of technology is intended here. And a subplot involving Lester and a loan shark just seems to be there to get Lester out of the house.
Yet Fulci is still able to give us some memorably odd staging like one woman talking on the phone while suggestively stroking the neck of a model swan, and we’re reminded of the days when he was able to craft Hitchcock-worthy scenes of tension in films like Seven Black Notes when Lester is at some racing stables and seems to be stalked by his own shadow, but when we’re told that Lester has no shadow yet we still see that he obviously has one, and somebody runs away from a pursuing vehicle while remaining exactly in the middle of the road, one just can’t help but feel saddened at the carelessness on display. The doppleganger theme, probably inspired by Poe’s William Wilson as Fulci was a great Poe lover, is interesting but needed some more development to really work and perhaps a suggestion that it’s a figment of Lester’s messed-up mind, while a photograph of presumably Lester’s wife on the door of his safe seems to be a crass, out of place attempt to create some sympathy for him that isn’t present anywhere else in the movie. And towards the end the thing seems to run out of steam and barely seems bothered to give us a climax, let alone answer some questions we might have about the weirder things that appear to be going on. At least the Italian locations do pass off reasonably well as Miami apart from some obviously hand painted signs, and even the English dubbing [most of the cast members seem to be speaking the language] is quite good as these things go, Halsey being able to record his own voice too.
The saddest thing is that the thought of a movie about a serial killer from the serial killer’s point of view [something I guess like Maniac] from the director of the likes of The New York Ripper is an exciting prospect as long as you’re prepared to watch something really vicious and disturbing. But instead of attempting to get inside the mind of his killer and maybe do a bit of self-analysis along the way, Fulci just seems to want to get us to side with him, which is a different thing and something that requires careful handling – something that judging by this film Fulci was just not capable of in this stage of his career. There are certainly some flashes of inspiration here and there, a few signs of his talent, but he mostly he just blows it. I couldn’t help but laugh when, for example, Lester passes off one of his dead victims as a passenger in his car, and she keeps falling sideways and her mouth keeps dropping open giving her a really moronic expression. I admit that it’s the kind of thing I find funny. But when stuff like that is what I liked most from a film about a psychopathic murderer from one of Italy’s greatest horror filmmakers, something is seriously wrong. And was that a real cat being kicked across a room? Being curious about such things, I rewatched the scene several times and even in slow motion – and it sure looked like one!