Monday, May 5, 2008

Hmmm, I saw that coming

The Psychic (a.k.a. Sette Note in Nero, Seven Notes in Black)

Italy, 1977

It's often noted how the media misrepresents American life. Recently, in a book called Affluenza, I was reading about how people can start to think everybody but them has a swimming pool, for example, because that's the way everyone on TV lives. Well, I've watched my share of Italian thrillers and slasher films, and as far as I can tell, everybody in Italy lives in an enormous mansion, usually ancient, and sometimes with a luxury apartment in the city on the side.

I first heard about Lucio Fulci's The Psychic as part of the Rolling Thunder Pictures line. In those giddy post-Pulp Fiction days, Quentintino launched the company to release influential cult films onto home video. An admirable goal, although the ads were hilariously self-aggrandizing: see for the promo that accompanied the releases of Chungking Express and Switchblade Sisters (both well worth watching, by the way). The release of The Psychic never materialized, and the the story at the online Quentin Tarantino archives has some interesting detail about the line and its demise, including the fact that they never actually got the rights to the movie...a small detail.

( . Warning: the Tarantino site contains four-letter words, which shouldn't surprise anyone who's seen his movies).

The Psychic begins with a very beautiful woman throwing herself off an incredibly beautiful cliff. This, by the way, is the only really bloody part of the movie, but the effects are totally unrealistic, so it's hard to imagine it disturbing anybody. Miles away, her little daughter is at school, but somehow witnesses the whole thing. The littlest clairvoyant grows up to be Scanners' poised and seemingly well-adjusted Jennifer O'Neill, who's recently married a suave Italian playboy. As a surprise, she decides to renovate his family's enormous, ancient palazzo, and almost immediately recognizes a room from one of her most recent and more disturbing visions, which includes a ripped-up wall and a murdered old woman.

Heeding the picture in her head, she finds herself a pick-ax and tears open the wall, finding a skeleton right where it should be. But she's confused when the dead woman turns out to be a pretty 25-year-old missing person. She's even more clueless about why the police are so suspicious of her husband, who admits he had an affair with the woman found dead in his house, so she used the clues from her vision to find evidence that will free him from custody.

This film looks like it's the basic template for a Bollywood movie called 100 Days, with Devdas stars Madhuri Dixit and Jackie Shroff. The premise is not completely original, however, so some other influences may have gone in as well. Which leads me to that other familiar aspect of Italian thrillers, besides the completely skewed impression their real estate situation. A common theme is how people can see things, "know" things, but if they can't understand and interpret them correctly, it's not helpful at all, and can actually put them into more danger than if they hadn't known anything. The context is everything.

This is a vision of prophecy and divination that goes back in Graeco-Roman history to the Sibylline Oracles and Oedipus Rex, and of course is familiar to the English-speaking world via Macbeth. Then, of course, there's Blow-Up (filmed in England by an Italian director, based on a story by the unjustly neglected Spanish writer Julio Cortazar) and the De Palma homage, Blow Out.

My personal favorite works in this vein are Argento's Deep Red (which contains both the supernatural, psychic-vision angle and the more realistic, Blow-Up-like storyline of the crime witness who doesn't understand what he's seen) and Don't Look Now (filmed in Venice by English director Nicolas Roeg). I suspect Fulci was going for a Don't Look Now vibe, but unfortunately, the film gets bogged down in its lack of, well, vision. A character will make a comment, or we'll see a cigarette in an ashtray, then it's a closeup of O'Neill's eyes and a flashback to a different detail from the same vision. How many times can one film reuse the same footage? After awhile I was rooting desperately for her to have another vision, or at least, please, see the room from a different angle.

Oddly, the film is hampered by its restrained quality. It's a fairly straight-forward mystery, apart from the random clairvoyance and perhaps the old hand of fate. It's nicely made; almost like he had something to prove. In retrospect, this makes me appreciate me the absolute nuttiness of The Beyond, a.k.a. Seven Doors of Death, a.k.a. (at my house) One Door of Death Out of Seven. I mean, where are the inexplicable tarantulas? That's the kind of thing that sets a film apart. Or even The House By the Cemetery. I think I mocked that one all the way through, but I have to admit, I didn't know where on earth he was going with anything.

But maybe in a movie about a psychic, the audience should know everything that's going to happen...

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