Written by: Elisa Briganti(screenplay), Dardano Sacchetti(screenplay)
Directed by: Lucio Fulci
Starring: Christopher Connelly, Laura Lenzi, and Brigitta Boccoli
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
It's looking at you... from hell!
By 1982, Lucio Fulci was coming off one of the most incredible filmmaking runs of all-time. It started gathering momentum a decade earlier, with 1971’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and culminated in an unbelievable stretch that saw the Maestro release Zombie, City of the Living Dead, The Black Cat, The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery, and The New York Ripper in a 4-year period. It was the height of Fulci’s creative fervor that saw him canonized as one of the genre’s all-time greats. No matter what came after, nothing could diminish this triumph of absolute hell-raising.
And there definitely was an after, and most Fulci enthusiasts point to Manhattan Baby as the turning point, the herald of a late-career period that was much less consistent than his creative peak. As such, Manhattan Baby feels like an oddity that’s defined as much by what it’s not rather than what it is: it’s not as transcendent as those gore-soaked, otherworldly nightmares; its lore isn’t as immediately evocative as the Gates of Hell campfire tales; it’s not effectively surreal so much as it often just feels nonsensical. It is, however, an odd little movie that almost feels like a coda to this chapter in Fulci’s career, or maybe kind of a threshold between eras, with one foot still firmly planted in visceral, grand guignol theatrics and the other hesitantly stepping into the more ethereal, mystical territory he would explore for the rest of his life. It is deserving more than the causal dismissal that many (including myself) have reserved for it in the past.
It opens not on the familiar American haunts of previous films but in Egypt, where archeologist George Hacker (Christopher Connelly) is exploring unknown tombs. His family is along for the trip, including his daughter Suzie (Brigitta Boccoli), who encounters an old blind woman with a mysterious amulet. When Suzie takes possession of the amulet, George goes temporarily blind, the first of many bizarre events that continue to unfold even when the family returns home to New York. Unbeknownst to the Hackers, Suzie’s amulet is a gatekeeper of an ancient Egyptian evil spirit looking to wreak havoc by possessing the young girl.
To be more succinct: an ancient spirit makes weird shit happen, constantly. Yes, this is essentially true of other Fulci movies, but Manhattan Baby is exceedingly fast and loose with its nightmare logic and garbled plot. People disappear down elevator floors and get transported to an Egyptian desert, where they die of exhaustion. Viscous animals are conjured from the ether and attack anyone who gets too close to stumbling onto the truth. Mind melds between characters are required to untangle the strange story. Polaroids and x-rays go haywire but hold cryptic clues to further unlocking the mystical secrets at play. While Fulci’s previous efforts were strange, Manhattan Baby takes things to an entirely different, almost impressionistic level. Plot is firmly secondary here, lurking somewhere beneath the unreal visuals and Fabio Frizzi’s haunting score on the list of priorities. Fulci himself says it best, appearing on-screen as Suzie’s doctor: “it’s inexplicable.”
But it’s definitely a different flavor of inexplicable here. Where Fulci’s most championed works blur the line between dreamy and lucid with a coat of blood-soaked paint, Manhattan Baby is a downright dry affair, relatively speaking. It patiently builds to the type of gory outbursts you expect from the Godfather of Gore, but, even then, it hardly tips the scale on the vomit meter. This one feels like some kind of waking nightmare without resorting to melting or rotting flesh; rather, its jangly rhythms and offbeat cadences keep the audience perpetually off-kilter with the suggestion that something is just off. The usual Fulci flourishes--the gangly camerawork, the otherworldly dubbing, the hallucinatory stretches of pure visual panache--are still present, couching the sensation of familiarity within an otherwise experimental effort.
A more cynical take might look at it the other way: this is Fulci essentially running on fumes, attempting to simply raise hell once again, this time with more ill-defined lore and an odd cast that doesn’t carry the same cache as his more beloved movies. You can almost imagine more stalwart Eurohorror staples infusing this one with a bit more presence, though it must be said that characters (or character development) are rarely a driving force in Fulci’s films. Still, there’s a decidedly B-team sort of vibe to Manhattan Baby that only emphasizes its status as one of the director’s minor films (and I’m sure many would say merely designating it as “minor” is being gracious). Appearances by the likes of Cinzia De Ponti and Giovanni Frezza further add to the b-side quality at play here, as both had more memorable appearances in The New York Ripper and The House by the Cemetery, respectively. The name “Bob” lingers on the tongue of any Eurohorror fanatic when discussing that latter film; less infamous is Frezza’s Tommy Hacker in Manhattan Baby, although the same wacky voice dubbing defines his performance.
It’s more rewarding to look at Manhattan Baby less cynically, though. Rather than seeing it as Fulci resting on his laurels, it’s fair to see it as his attempt to break the mold that had settled into place with his unofficial Gates of Hell trilogy. It’s less a throwback to the genre’s gothic roots and anticipates the more modern, urban (and suburban) horrors that would come to define 80s horror. In this case, a young girl’s possession feels less like an homage to (or rip-off of) The Exorcist and more like a close kinship to Poltergeist. (It’s noteworthy that many of Fulci’s films pivot away from New York to more far-flung or rural locations, whereas Manhattan Baby mostly brings exotic horrors to its titular borough.) Legendary screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti (collaborating with Fulci for the penultimate time here) has indicated as much in interviews, citing a desire to “bring horror in a different direction” by eschewing the “classic or traditionally gothic” themes of previous work. Debate the merits of the final product all you want, but he and Fulci were certainly successful in creating something that doesn’t just feel like the same old thing.
In fact, I’ll make the argument that Manhattan Baby feels like pure, unfiltered Fulci. His most revered work feels derivative, whether it’s taking inspiration from genre trends (like his gialli efforts) or riffing on specific titles (Zombie was, of course, infamously marketed as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead). But Manhattan Baby is unlike just about anything else: a weirdo attempt to vaguely mine Egyptian mythology for a possession story that involves lasers and mystical orbs as much as it does buckets of blood. Even if it isn’t completely successful, it’s a crucial (if not jagged) piece of the Fulci puzzle that deserves its place. Forgive the mixed metaphor, but if Manhattan Baby were an album, it’s the one where you could tell your favorite band was getting a little restless with their formula and were looking to experiment. Shades of the greatest hits remain, surrounded by bizarre interludes and cacophonic noise-rock sprawls that foreshadow late-career triumphs (in this case, Cat in the Brain and Door Into Silence). It’s not the album you listen to the most often, but it’s the one that winds up being a little more rewarding each time out. That’s Manhattan Baby.
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