AKA THE POSSESSED, EYE OF THE EVIL DEAD
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 89 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Archaeologist George Hacker, his journalist wife Emily and their daughter Susie are on holiday in Egypt. While a strange blind woman gives Susie a medallion, George is struck blind by a blue orb while exploring a tomb and a helper falls onto some spikes to his death. Back in New York, George’s eyes start to recover when hit by the orb somehow reappearing in his home, but other bizarre apparitions begin to appear, such as scorpions, sand and an inter-dimensional portal through into which one of Emily’s colleagues is sucked whereupon he wakes up in the Egyptian desert and dies of dehydration. Then Emily and Tommy keep disappearing on trans-dimensional “voyages”. Antiquarian and mystic Marcato realises that the amulet is a symbol of ancient evil.…
“It’s useless that I explain, and you would never understand” says our occult expert Marcato at the end of Manhattan Baby, which probably seems as lazy an excuse not to give us a clearer insight into the strange goings-ons in it as you can get, though it somehow fits the film. Probably Lucio Fulci’s oddest work, I would imagine that it’s quite difficult for many to get a handle on, but I really like it. I recall buying a used copy from one of my local video shops, and putting it on during a hot summer’s afternoon. My interest wavered so much that I turned it off after half an hour. However, a few days later I put it on very late during a very warm night with the windows open and my favourite beverage at hand. I was immediately sucked into the strange atmosphere and stayed glued to this bizarre little film even though it was often hard to make out what was going on. It seems like both an Italian mishmash of elements from a great many American horror films which you can tick off as you watch it [Rosemary’s Baby, The Awakening, Poltergeist and The Exorcist first come to my mind], and an attempt to make a film in the vein of Fulci’s previous classics City Of The Living Dead, The Beyond and House By The Cemetery but without much in the way of gore or even fear, even though it does have the disjointed, nightmare vibe of those films, the H.P. Lovecraft feel, familiar cast members, even music cues from two of them, so I’d imagine that for many it seems like a half remembered echo from Fulci’s golden horror period. For me, it’s rather than that, coming across more as a culmination of the approach that Fulci took with those films and also his bizarre version of The Black Cat, pushing the weirdness even further and not even bothering much with audience pleasing extreme grue. While I haven’t seen anywhere near all of Fulci’s subsequent output so far, it seems to me that Manhattan Baby could very well be his last truly artistic and committed film, followed by work that was erratic in quality, sometimes very poor indeed, and hampered by exceedingly low budgets – and also, sadly, a certain disinterest by their director.
This was the last Fulci film to be produced by Fabrizio De Angelis, their collaboration having began with Zombie Flesh Eaters, another way in which it marks the end of an era. Screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti collaborated with his wife Elisa Briganti on a script originally titled Il malocchio [The Evil Eye]. Sacchetti has said that he tried to do something new with the film, something “technological” and “in a different direction”, though he doesn’t specify. The aghast response to the previous Fulci/De Angelis production The New York Ripper may have been one reason for this approach, and the decision to make a film that would not have much trouble with censors. That film’s commercial failure was probably why De Angelis decided to cut a whopping three quarters of the budget, which meant that some major scenes including much special effects footage could not be realised properly or could not be filmed at all. As some way of compensation, De Angelis wrote the beginning section in Egypt to open out the film and give it more of an international feel. As for Fulci, he’s said that he hated it but had to choice in making it as De Angelis was obsessed with the project – though one should always take Fulci’s comments with rather more than just one grain of salt. The last Fulci theatrically released in the USA [as Eye Of The Evil Dead], and the first one in a while to go straight to video in the UK [as The Possessed, which is how I first saw it and a rare Fulci uncut back then]. Manhattan Baby was not well received, but it’s the kind of film that art house critics would have probably lavished praise over if it had come from a “respectable” filmmaker.
So we open in Egypt, and George is ignoring the usual local warnings to explore a recently excavated tomb while wife Emily and daughter Susan are exploring more touristy places, though there don’t seem to be any people about until mother stupidly leaves daughter alone to go off and take some more photographs. The sudden appearance of the blind woman behind Susan creates a chill as she gives her an amulet and says ‘tombs are for the dead”. George, accompanied by the black policeman from City Of The Living Dead, enters the rather unimpressive [even Hammer did a better job] tomb and is blinded by lasers shooting out from a blue orb while his companion falls through some flooring and is impaled on some spikes, though first time modern viewers will probably be more startled by an obviously real snake being shot, even if we just see the aftermath. Then we’re back in New York as the sound of a solo saxophonist doing some jazz improvisation can be heard in the distance, and you’d better like it because this is then heard almost every time we go outside in what is one of the film’s strangest quirks. Even though this and other Fulcis of the time made use of American locations especially New York, the footage was probably done by the second unit with Fulci nowhere in evidence, so maybe he’d never been to the place and imagined that jazz musicians were everywhere, noodling away? Who knows. Our Lucio could be a strong filmmaker, but he was also a bit bonkers. We now meet the remaining member of the Hacker family Tommy, and he’s played by the unforgettable Giovanna Frezza aka Bob from House By The Cemetery, though dubbed with a less awful voice this time. He’s introduced calling his sister a “lousy lesbian”.
Strange phenomena then begins to occur, and I’ve often read that this film is really slow, though this is more down to the claustrophobic, somnambulistic atmosphere than any lack of [admittedly sometimes low key] stuff going on. You’re never more than a few minutes away from something like a scorpion scuttling from a draw, sand falling away from itself, a hand leaving a burning imprint on a bed, a photograph being thrown away because it hasn’t come out but then developing unseen with the amulet appearing prominently in the picture, somebody disappearing to another dimension and then reappearing, and so forth. The kid’s bedroom becomes the place where adults can be killed if they enter, and the children are rather relaxed about going on these “voyages” even if Susan is becoming increasingly possessed by the evil emitting from the amulet and the seemingly very knowledgeable Marcato, who tells us that the amulet is the Sacred Symbol of the Grand Shadow and the sign of an evil ancient cult, is required. While the climax is virtually surreal in its assortment of puzzling images like a splash of blood on a wall spreading across the screen with a life of its own and a wall splitting open to disgorge a pair of monstrous hands, it does seem especially obvious that effects footage here is missing and that they had to piece together what little they had. I would imagine that we were also originally intended to see exactly where the children went [probably ancient Egypt], while we are given hints as to the story being wider than it initially seems. Fulci and Vicenzo Tomassi, who was the editor on a great many of Fulci’s films from 1971 [A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin] to 1988 [Voices From Beyond], probably had a very hard job in making the film seem somewhat complete, and I’d love to know exactly what wasn’t shot. However, the vagueness that’s resulted has in an odd way worked in the film’s favour, making it even more enticingly puzzling than it probably would have been and enhancing the dreamlike feel.
It’s been said that Fulci wasn’t focused on the project which as I’ve said before he’s also dismissed, but the evidence that’s up on the screen suggests otherwise to me. It appears to my eyes that he gave it his all and tried hard to make up for the gaps left by things not filmed and the tiny budget, as did cinematographer Guglielmo Mancori, who gives us devices like the camera imitating the movement of a snake as it moves in to fatally bite someone before slithering away, and a terrific, twisting pan up one flight of stairs and down another revealing various toys scattered about. There is are still some quick shots of gore here and there, and finally we get a bloody assault by stuffed birds, but even that is more restrained than Fulci would have previously gone for. Another face gets brutally ravaged, but we then fade out just when it looks like the scene is going to go one or two steps beyond in the classic Fulci fashion. Subtlety is actually quite in evidence in this movie, not to mention perhaps a bit of teasing. When somebody is trapped in a lift, one really feels that this is the beginning of an elaborate death set piece, but instead the floor opens up and he just falls in. On the other hand Fulci’s fascination with eyes comes to full fruition with this film. In addition to even more close-ups than usual, we have a hero who’s struck blind [but who then mysteriously recovers when hit with more lasers], a person with cataracts, even Carlo De Mejo [from two previous Fulcis] messing around with toy eyes on springs. I think this is one especially notable example of Fulci being invested in the film.
The acting is pretty wooden with few of the characters seemingly bothered about what’s going on. Star Christopher Connelly is a minor Italian cult ‘B’ movie star, but he doesn’t seem at all committed here the way he seems to toss out many of his lines so he can go to the pub or something, while young Brigitta Boccoli seems awfully distant even if you allow for the dubbing [which isn’t bad actually]. Only Cosimo Cinieri as Marcato, billed as Laurence Welles, makes a real effort, showing the effect on him of the evil he’s combating with some pathos yet never going over the top. Fulci turns in another cameo as a concerned looking doctor. The familiar music cues usually work okay though are sometimes employed rather randomly, while Fabio Frizzi’s two main new compositions are excellent, really strong pieces in their own right while adding to the mood with a slight ‘ancient’ vibe. In conclusion, I wouldn’t really recommend Manhattan Baby to anyone unless they’ve seen a fair few of Fulci’s other films, as otherwise it may seem bewildering and even tedious. But to those more experienced with this flawed but interesting filmmaker’s work, people like me who were initially attracted to it at a young age principally because of the notorious gore in the most famous films but who came to find much else of interest, it’s really quite fascinating, an eccentric summing up of themes and motifs as well as a work of true experimentation – even more so than The Beyond which seems to be now generally held up as his masterpiece [it ties with Don’t Torture A Duckling for me]. I’d liked to have seen him continue in this style, but sadly it wasn’t to be, something perhaps understandable considering the lack of interest in what, despite its flaws, should now be seen as one of the last examples of genuine artistry from the Golden Age of Italian Horror, whether intended as such or not.