The Psychic (1977)

FEBRUARY 16, 2012


No matter how much you love them, you'd be hard-pressed to defend any of Lucio Fulci's more famous movies as having really good scripts; his films are barely coherent at best, with generic character motivations and erratic pacing being pretty typical flaws of even his best films. So I was surprised to find that The Psychic (Italian: Sette note in nero, or Seven Notes In Black*) was actually a well-written, involving thriller; the characters were still a bit "stock" but there was a real mystery at its core and even some minor poignancy.

Sort of like the crappy John Woo movie Paycheck crossed with a Final Destination movie, Jennifer O'Neill stars as a woman who has a vision of someone's death, but it's all very fragmented - she just sees various items (a pack of cigarettes, a magazine, a smashed mirror). After uncovering a body in her husband's family home, she believes that she had seen the murder as it happened, only to gradually realize that it wasn't a vision, but a PREMONITION of a death in the same room that she found the other body. So the film is about her putting those pieces together as she tries to find the murderer/prevent the death.

As you can guess, this isn't as violent as other Fulci films; in fact the body count is very minimal even for a thriller, and pretty much everything is off-screen. The only "splatter" type moment occurs in the very first scene, as the heroine's mother commits suicide by jumping off a cliff. Most directors would just show the person going over and maybe a quick shot of them on the rocks below, but Fulci opts to insert closeups of the woman's head scraping and smashing along the cliff face (not unlike Don't Torture A Duckling, albeit with less sparks). It's "anachronistically disingenuous" in that nowadays this would suggest to someone like me that we're in for a typically gory Fulci film (a Giallo, most likely), but at the time (1977) he wasn't yet the splatter maven we know him to be today - the zombie movies and House By The Cemetery and such came later. Yet another reason to watch movies in order! But either way, it's a bit odd to put your horror highlight in the first scene. If not for the supernatural angle and a few tense chase scenes in the 3rd act I'd have trouble qualifying this as horror at all.

But I dug it. It's rare to see a sort of "slow burn" Italian horror movie, particularly from that period where everything was a Giallo or a zombie flick, so that alone was novel enough to entertain. And I like the mystery, with her literally putting the pieces together (in fact the only thing I liked about Paycheck was finding out what purpose each of his little items served; when a John Woo film's only saving grace is Ben Affleck figuring out what to do with a paper clip, you know you're in trouble), even if the characters were often a bit slow to figure out some clues. One is a magazine, and even though it's new at the time the story takes place, someone has to point out to her that it couldn't have been around as many years ago as the person in the wall was murdered. Another breakthrough comes from a guy who apparently can't stop thinking about a minor question he was asked by a stranger several days before, which would be like if you went into McDonald's one day and the clerk was like "OH! You left your change here the other day, here you go." However, I expect a bit of silliness with the plotting, and this was minor compared to the wholly batshit nonsense of his other movies. And unlike The Beyond or whatever, I was never confused as to what was going on, so there's something.

And I also loved the somewhat ambiguous ending, in which we are left to decide on our own whether or not a major character was saved or not. I lean toward the more positive version; not only does it only seem to be moments later (said character is walled up, sans Amontillado) when the hero is alerted to their location, but the film was written by Dardano Sacchetti, who also worked on Cat O'Nine Tails, which also had an ending that wasn't so much ambiguous as it was just cut short - we know the little girl is alive, we don't need to see the rescue scene. Same thing here, BUT, if you're a pessimist or just a jerk, you can believe that the person is dead. Either way, it's not spelled out, and given the original nature of HMAD (to discuss horror movies), it's the sort of thing that can lead to fun debate.

Speaking of getting talkback, I'll cockblock some (likely anonymous) smart guy here: yes, the music on her watch was used in Kill Bill. I have nothing interesting to say about it, but I know the first comment will be "I'm surprised you didn't mention...", so there you go. Though it is kind of interesting that the little melody is what gave the movie its original name, so I'm curious why it was changed to The Psychic, which is pretty bland.

The Severin disc has two extras: the trailer, which oversells the movie to an insane degree, promising the most intense viewing experience of the past 15 years or something to that effect, and a phone interview with Sacchetti, editor Ornella Micheli, and costume designer Massimo Lentini. Until the end, it's much more pleasant than I'm used to for retrospective pieces on Italian movies - usually they're just explaining why the movie is so bad or why they personally hate it, and who they didn't get along with, and so on. But here everyone seems pleased; Sacchetti talks about the script's long development process (apparently it took them almost a year just to crack the story, as they were originally trying to adapt a book with similar subject matter), the others talk about the production, O'Neill, the editing, etc. It's all very flattering, and then out of nowhere Sacchetti just starts ranting about Fulci, how he stole credit for other's ideas, didn't care about his movies as long as he got paid enough to go sailing, etc. I did some digging (looked on Wikipedia) and discovered that Fulci apparently did not invite him to write his big budget 1983 film Conquest, and the two had a falling out over another project that Lamberto Bava directed. Apparently he's still pissed, over a decade (at the time this interview was produced) after Fulci's death. However, his lengthy monologue is followed by more positive reflections on the man to close the nearly 30 minute piece out. Severin did not include an Italian language track (and the transfer is marred with lots of digital artifacting), but the dubbing isn't too bad, and O'Neill (who is in nearly every frame of the film) is speaking English anyway.

If you're already familiar with Fulci but haven't seen many of his films, I wouldn't start here. It's good, but very different than the others (that I've seen anyway), and would give you the wrong impression of the guy (it'd be like starting your crash course on John Carpenter with Starman). I think it's best to wait until you've seen a bunch of his others, and then go in when you're in the mood for something a little different. Or, of course, do your best to watch his movies in chronological order, so you can see his career trajectory unfold in most entertaining fashion.

What say you?

*Another reported title is Murder to the Tune of the Seven Black Notes, which like Short Night Of Glass Dolls is an amazing almost parody of a Giallo title, used on a film that's not actually a Giallo. What a waste!


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