“You can take my life with stuffed birds, but you shall not have my soul!” an ill-fated antiques dealer vows while being pecked to death at the climax of Lucio Fulci’s demented Manhattan Baby. The biggest surprise here—as if the sight of a man being set upon by sawdust-crammed fowl weren’t enough—is that this is practically the only gory set piece in an early-1980s Fulci film, at a time when the Italian filmmaker’s name was practically synonymous with squishy prosthetic pandemonium. In many ways, Manhattan Baby is a transitional film for Fulci, as he moved away from the practical effects that dominated his gore films toward a more extensive use of optical effects, owing perhaps to the popularity of films like Poltergeist. Not coincidentally, Fulci’s next two projects would be effects-laden sci-fi/fantasy films.
Manhattan Baby also marks the end of an era, closing out a cycle of horror films that opens with 1979’s Zombie and includes well-known works like The Beyond and House by the Cemetery—a period when the volatile Fulci maintained productive partnerships with producer Fabrizio De Angelis and screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti. Like many of the earlier films, Manhattan Baby focuses almost pathologically on the eyes and damage to them. There’s a surfeit, for example, of Leone-esque extreme close-ups on characters’ eyes. True to form, the film opens with American archeologist George Hacker (Christopher Connelly) being temporarily blinded while exploring a tomb in Egypt. At the same time, a mysterious blind woman bequeaths a strange, eye-shaped amulet to his young daughter, Susie (Brigitta Boccoli).
The ensuing storyline—assuming that this jumble of visual non sequiturs and oddball juxtapositions truly warrants such an appellation—involves the Eye of Habnumenor, the amulet now in Susie’s possession, which somehow contains the condensed sum of all evil. Mostly, the amulet allows Susie and her brother, Tommy (Giovanni Brezzi), to disappear from their bedroom on “voyages,” where they teleport themselves back to Egypt to collect statuary and other souvenirs. Eventually, the amulet takes possession over Susie, and all the medical attention in the world (including an obligatory cameo from Fulci as an attending doctor) can’t save her soul. What works? Dropping the amulet in the river, as it turns out. That’s not all though. The film has another two or three endings up its sleeve. And, in suitable fashion, the stinger in this tale involves the ineluctable reappearance of the ancient evil.
Manhattan Baby owes a hefty debt to a heterogeneous handful of earlier horror films. Most manifestly, its title echoes that of Rosemary’s Baby, from which the screenwriters have also lifted the name of the aforementioned antiques dealer, Adrian Marcato (Cosimo Cinieri). From The Exorcist they’ve borrowed the globe-trotting structure, as well as the symbolically weighted contrast between demonic possession and medical procedure. And they’ve plundered The Awakening for the Egyptology theme (which it had swiped, in turn, from Hammer’s Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb). What sets Manhattan Baby apart from the pack is its jaw-dropping display of pop-art surrealism. Characters transport around the globe by simply stepping through doorways; bedrooms are suddenly carpeted with desert sands. The film’s dreamlike logic is cannily signaled in the set design by the poster of Winsor McKay’s early comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland that hangs over Tommy’s bed.
The screenwriters also inject a measure of reflexivity into the film when they have Tommy innocently ask his sister, “Which are scarier: mummies or zombies?” As usual, it’s at the end of a cycle or subgenre, when the vein of distinctiveness is almost played out, that self-awareness begins to creep in. In this regard, Manhattan Baby points directly to Fulci’s final masterwork, Cat in the Brain, in which the director plays a fictionalized version of himself, a horror filmmaker tormented and driven to the brink of madness by visions drawn from his earlier works. Manhattan Baby isn’t quite so content to mockingly cannibalize itself. Rather, it shows Fulci and his screenwriters trying to push into new terrain, yielding a gonzo crazy quilt that occasionally works wonders in spite of itself, while offering a ridiculous last-minute glut of blood and viscera just for the gorehounds.
The new HD transfer really brings out the batshit optical effects in all their hallucinatory, neon-blue glory. Sometimes the image gets a bit soft and gauzy, especially in the film’s sand-blasted Egyptian settings, but that’s entirely by design. There are two Master Audio options: the surround gives some separation and depth to the ambient effects, while the mono track puts Fabio Frizzi’s delirious score front and center. Luckily, the voice artist who looped child actor Giovanni Frezzi (Bob in Lucio Fulci’s earlier House by the Cemetery) gives him a far less shrill delivery this time out.
Blue Underground’s three-disc set shines a light on an aspect of Italian horror films that devotees especially cherish: their magisterial, prog rock-infused scores. In addition to the soundtrack CD included with the set, there’s a live studio performance of Fabio Frizzi’s "Manhattan Baby Suite," and an hour-long interview with the composer. Effectively a career retrospective, Frizzi discusses his early education in music, his participation in the soundtrack supergroup Bixio, Frizzi & Tempera, and of course focuses extensively on his long-term collaboration with Lucio Fulci, from the brutal spaghetti western Four of the Apocalypse to their reunion on 1990’s insanely meta Cat in the Brain.
Actor Cosimo Cinieri talks about his theatrical training, working with the volatile Fulci on this and The New York Ripper, and how going under plaster for his outrageous murder-by-stuffed-bird set piece was made traumatic by suffering from claustrophobia. Makeup maestro Maurizio Trani discusses his apprenticeship on Don’t Torture a Duckling and his respect for Fulci as an outwardly brusque, yet cultured and often amusing person. Co-writer Dardano Sacchetti describes his love-hate relationship with producer Fabrizio De Angelis, explains the film’s problematic production history, and contrasts Fulci’s and Dario Argento’s attitudes toward women. Film critic Stephen Thrower provides some much needed context on the film’s place within Fulci’s body of work, its reliance on (and partial undoing by) expensive optical effects, and its motley crew of cinematic forerunners.
Blue Underground delivers Lucio Fulci’s Manhattan Baby with a gorgeous HD transfer, terrific new bonus features, and a CD of Fabio Frizzi’s glorious score.