Thursday, January 12, 2017

Manhattan Baby (1982)

Manhattan Baby marks the end of an era, which was Lucio Fulci’s most prolific filmmaking period that included classics such as Zombie (1979), The Gates of Hell (1980), The Beyond (1981), and The House by the Cemetery (1981). This isn’t to say these were Fulci’s best films; they were just some of the most commercially successful, not to mention big hits with the general horror audience. 

With Fulci being synonymous with gore, zombies, and various sorts of gateways to hell, viewer expectations of Manhattan Baby were probably different than what they got, as it abandons the gothic, supernatural zombie film altogether. It was scriptwriter Dardano Sacchetti’s attempt at moving away from what he considered conventional horror, to try and close up the gates of hell and open new gates of time and space. Although there are obvious influences from The Exorcist (1973) and The Awakening (1980) (and surprising similarities to Poltergeist which came out the same year), Sacchetti wanted to create something different, and for the most part he succeeded.


There ends up being something undeniably Fulci about it, yet Manhattan Baby isn’t what you’d call top-tier Fulci. In fact, I was quite disappointed by the film when I first saw it. The nightmare logic is there, the gore is there, the visuals are fantastic, and Fabio Frizzi’s score is as mood enhancing as ever. So, why does the film end up falling flat? 


Most of the blame seems to be placed on script problems, but it’s not like any of the films from Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy were without narrative problems. In fact, for those who weren’t nitpicking, the peculiar brand of plot incoherencies had this odd way of enhancing the nightmare world these films created. The gore sequences in Manhattan Baby are perhaps less effective and memorable than some of the crowd pleasers that preceded it, with Daniela Doria’s gut puking, Olga Karlatos’s wooden splinter in the eye, and Schweick’s crucifixion truly being the stuff of filmmaking legend. But a lot of people, including myself, have found a lot to appreciate with Fulci outside of the gore. The gore worked, but it wasn’t the only thing to praise these films for. Also, the dialogue and dubbing in Manhattan Baby is pretty bad, but again that shouldn’t be anything new to Fulci’s horror fans.



With The Beyond and The Gates of Hell, Fulci took the zombie film to a supernatural hell on earth, and the result was spectacular. You felt really bad for anyone in Fulci’s nightmare world. With Manhattan Baby, it’s a little difficult to become invested in any of the characters’ plights, because the threat is a little less tangible and hard to resolve. I guess this is supposed to work in a fear-of-the-unknown sort of way, but it comes off as a confused creation, with even the writers probably not sure of what’s going on. A couple of the characters use the term “inexplicable” to describe the threat, which just seems like an easy way for the film to not have to really explain anything. The threat of an ancient obscure deity could’ve been terrifying, but any kind of fear or unease the movie is shooting for is lost in the tedium of vague references to an ancient Egyptian ruler that’s somehow responsible for everything bad happening. It might’ve helped if this “Habnubanor” showed himself in some sort of recognizable manifestation instead of being talked about (the killer stuffed birds or the cobra in the X-ray doesn’t quite cut it). I understand that the metaphysical threat is supposed to be an abstract entity, but this is Fulci, and we expect a wormy, maggot ridden monster. Remember, show-don’t-tell.



I’ve always enjoyed Fulci’s particular brand of child-themed horror, such as in The House by the Cemetery, Sweet House of Horrors (1989), and here in Manhattan Baby, which is probably the film’s strongest trait. The faux Henry James quote at the end of The House by the Cemetery, “No one will ever know if children are monsters or monsters are children,” didn’t seem to entirely relate to that film, but it does seem to foreshadow the brother and sister lead characters in Manhattan Baby, Tommy (Giovanni Frezza) and Susie (Brigitta Boccoli), who kind of serve as a bridge from the metaphysical world to the real world, where the unseen deity can wreak havoc on the innocent, having a particular prejudice for men with beards.



Fans of The House by the Cemetery should be happy to see creepy child actor Giovanni Frezza back again. He plays the bratty and offensive Tommy Hacker. His performance here isn’t quite as memorable as his role as Bob in House, but he does have that peculiar “punish me” moment towards the end that does succeed in being quite disturbing.


The children’s dialogue is generally bad, but Boccoli does impressively give it her all at times; it’s unfortunate her screams are in weak context, kind of like a good actor in a bad movie.


There really are hints of genius here and there. During the intro in Cairo Egypt, Susie’s mother, Emily (Laura Lenzi), loses track of her, and there’s a beautifully ominous sense of isolation in the desert when Emily calls out to Susie, with her reverberated shouts reaching no one’s ears for a moment, as the film cuts to a wide-angle panning shot of a soulless, desolate landscape of a pyramid, a tomb, and an excavated relic. This brief moment is probably my favorite part.


Lighting, ambiance, sound, and music are all ace here. Frizzi’s original theme to Manhattan Baby, an ear-grabbing electronic, multilayered piece complete with bells, does breathe a life and identity into the ancient Egypt / New York crossover element (which does make for one of my favorite DVD menus for the older Anchor Bay and Blue Underground releases). Tommy whistles it at one point. A number of sequences would be far less dramatic without it.


One of my gripes with the soundtrack was the recycled Frizzi score from The Beyond, and some cues from The Gates of Hell. I felt that the music for The Beyond was so powerful and characteristic that it belonged only in The Beyond. It isn’t generic enough to be shamelessly recycled. However, I have come to accept it over time. 

  
Fulci’s characters here are both nuanced and stereotypical. The children are bratty, with their noses in comic books, sassily chewing bubble gum, but at the same time they have this otherworldly strangeness to them. It’s uncertain if they are a threat or in any real danger themselves. The parents are perhaps the least memorable, pushing the investigational stuff along, not understanding what’s going on with their kids. The father, George (Christopher Connelly), has a subplot where he loses his vision in an Egyptian tomb after the cursed amulet shoots blue beams into his eyes. Blue is frequently the color used to symbolize the abstract deity that is terrorizing the family and those around them (in ancient Egypt blue represented birth, creation, and the universe). George regains his vision back home in New York just as inexplicably as he lost it. It ends up feeling a little pointless but is interesting for being a subtler exploration of eye trauma than what Fulci is known for. Fulci’s obsession with the eyes are of course prominent, with plenty of Fulci trademark eye close ups, reminding us that they are such precious, vulnerable organs that could so easily suffer irreversible damage. One character does get a spike through the eye and out the back of the skull unexpectedly in a cruel booby trap.



The most entertaining character is Andrian Mercato (Cosimo Cinieri) who’s a bit of a saving grace. Cinieri appropriately chews the scenery as an antique store owner and parapsychologist expert. He’s also a counterpart to the heroic exorcist figure. He has these red lines under his eyes that make it look like he rarely sleeps.

  
Carlo De Mayo from Gates of Hell is rather briefly on hand as an amusing man-child writer, Luke, who has a childlike tomfoolery about him and seems to have a thing for those cheap prank catalogue items. His death scene is the most out-there, being killed after teleporting to the desert from entering the kids’ bedroom (?!), a kind of space swapping with New York and Egypt, just because… desert sand in the kids’ room, why not?


Time travelling kids, Egyptian symbolism, and an eccentric parapsychologist substituting for an exorcist, it all sounds more intriguing than it really is. It’s fair to say, it’s one of those films that is more interesting to talk about than watch. 

The elements of Fulci’s direction, the lighting, Sacchetti’s script, and Frizzi’s score do still crystalize into a comfortable experience for those fond of Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy. Even given its flaws and inferiority to many other Fulci films, it’s still hard to hate it. I had my issues, but I eventually developed a soft spot for Manhattan Baby

(I originally wrote this article for Fang of Joy #4 Fanzine (an all-Fulci issue) released October 2016, and it is reposted here with Richard of DM’s permission. Be sure to click here and head over and order a copy.)



4 comments:

  1. Manhattan Baby has grown on me immensely over the years. As you have mentioned, technical execution is superb, and with gore quotient reduced to minimum one can freely drink in the atmosphere which is prime Fulci. Manhattan Baby features some of the most suggestive visuals in the director's long career (the mysterious bloodstain appearing on the wall, the sand trickling between Suzy's fingers). Palpable supernatural atmosphere and a memorable turn from Cosimo Cinieri as the exorcist make Manhattan Baby worth revisiting.

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    1. Hi Alex! Thank you so much for stopping by! This film's grown on me too. Its inferiority to most other Fulci films of the same era is probably what made it difficult for me at first. I wasn’t happy with it, but there were still a lot of little things I liked about it. The atmosphere is so great, and I do gladly absorb it every time. There’s something about those sandy shots, particularly the flowing sands that kind of has me mystified in a good way.

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  2. I only saw this myself for the first time when Shudder added it recently. I'd heard and read so many less than complimentary assessments of it over the years that I, too, had always avoided it. Because of that, I watched it with the sound turned down - like visual wallpaper. It's good visual wallpaper. lol I was also struck by the general technical proficiency - the opening scenes in particular. I think it's probably the prettiest Fulci movie I've seen. Weird thing to say about a Fulci movie. It's been years since I last watched Don't Torture a Duckling, though, and I remember that being technically polished, as well. Shameful admission: I really only watched that the first time because of the silly title.

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    1. Hi Brandon! Welcome back. I still need to get on to Shudder, lol. You're right, Manhattan Baby is easily one of the prettiest Fulci films, next to Duckling and Lizard in a Woman's Skin. The desert opening scenes in this reminded me of the opening to The Exorcist. There are some music cuts appropriate for the Egyptian setting, but Frizzi's main synth theme actually works in a strange way.

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