THE PSYCHIC (1977)
A clairvoyant woman discovers a skeleton in a wall in her husband's house, and seeks to find the truth about what happened to the victim.
Lucio Fulci’s The Psychic is an elegant, highly effective giallo, yet it’s rarely spoken of with the same reverence as his three earlier forays into the genre. This is why Shameless Screen Entertainment’s lovingly restored Blu-ray is a timely release. It’s a chance to reassess a ‘forgotten film’ that ranks alongside the cult director’s best work.
Things have changed over the last few years, and most film fans now know what a giallo is, and those who appreciate the form have been relishing its renaissance with a plethora of restored releases. As an aide-memoire then, the central signifiers of the genre include a puzzle plot that doesn’t have to be wholly believable but does have to be cleverly contrived. No matter how strange the story, an astute audience, capable of following the cryptic clues amidst a shoal of red herrings, can work it out.
A good giallo is an intellectual game of director versus viewer which should, ideally, end in a ‘draw’ mere seconds before the end credits roll. The Psychic certainly ticks that box. In fact, the last move is only made after the final frame! The plot of a giallo should also follow the classic whodunit format with the focus on an amateur sleuth, often an independent woman forced into the role by circumstance. When ironing out any plot problems, Fulci was known to ask “what would Christie do?” referring to author Agatha Christie, mother of the whodunnit, whom he greatly admired.
There can also be plenty of misdirection with added weirdness which, though suitably uncanny, should not be supernatural. And it’s here The Psychic blurs genre boundaries because the concept of premonition is its central premise. However, in the staunchly Catholic culture that Fulci grew up in, visions and miracles were part of a consensus reality for many, and he was said to be almost cripplingly superstitious. In fact, it was his bone-deep belief in omens and fate that finally set this project in motion, after months of struggling with the screenplay…
The project began as an adaptation of Vieri Razzini’s 1972 debut novel Terapia Mortale / Deadly Therapy, a complex psychological thriller with supernatural overtones and a layered narrative. Fulci collaborated on adapting it with Roberto Gianviti with whom he’d co-written his three previous gialli—One on Top of the Other (1969), A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), and Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972). Neither could find a way into the story and it failed to resonate with them, so producer Aurelio De Laurentiis called upon the services of Dardano Sacchetti, whose first produced screenplay had been The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), with Dario Argento, followed by Bay of Blood (1971) for Mario Bava.
Sacchetti asked Fulci what element of the story aligned with his personal obsession, and Fulci reputedly replied that the idea of foreseeing fate fascinated him. If one knew what might happen, could it be changed, or would that knowledge become a curse? The 12-page treatment that Sacchetti thus delivered retained hardly anything from the novel except for having a suicide be the starting point and having a clairvoyant be the central character, and the script was worked up from that.
In a brief sequence of parallel events, we see a woman (Elizabeth Turner) driving her rather dinky Nash Metropolitan two-door along 1950s British roads to the cliffs at Beachy Head, and a schoolgirl (Fausta Avelli) walking through Florence with her classmates. As the woman steps off the white cliffs and falls to her death, the girl is suddenly horror-stricken and cries out for her mother.
Although a potentially potent moment, the dummy used to convey the skull-smashing brutality of the long fall is woefully unconvincing. The use of a mannequin does add a sense of the surreal, however, and one could excuse it with various theories relating to being doll-like as it’s seen through the mind’s eye of a child… but it’s more likely just a poor effect. What’s more, it’s not necessary and jars with the subtler tone of the film to follow, which doesn’t put a foot wrong from then on. It was probably intended to create a sense of unease, for if things that nasty happen in the first few minutes, then what’s to come?
The mood immediately shifts gear with a title sequence where Linda Lee (a.k.a Rosanna Berbieri) sings the hauntingly melancholic “With You” as we jump forward to the 1970s and another woman driving another car, this time a two-tone Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. There’s a nice showcase of classic cars scattered throughout and it’s worth taking note of, as their marque and manufacture dates will provide an important clue! The little girl who witnessed her mother’s suicide in a vision turns out to be Virginia (Jennifer O’Neill), who, on her way back from dropping her husband off at a private airfield, has a sequence of increasingly intense visions as she drives through a series of tunnels. Freud would be having a field day!
She ‘sees’ the bloodied body of a woman, the shuffling feet of the killer, a shattered mirror, toppled ornaments, a ticking-over taxi, and two distinctive red lights. Kudos to Fulci for a beautiful set of still life tableau shots, and for imbuing a lampshade with such a sense of dread. Of course, his favourite cinematographer, Sergio Salvati, must share the praise. From the point of view within a wall cavity, she witnesses the last few bricks put in place to wall her in, accompanied by a tinkly tune of just seven notes. Then darkness. Hence the original Italian title is Sette Note in Nero / The Seven Black Notes. Apparently, composer Fabio Frizzi tried out innumerable combinations before settling on those seven significant, indeed noteworthy, notes. They’d be sampled a quarter-century later as the main melody in the rap track “Ode to O Ren Ishii” by RZA for the original soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003).
Virginia decides to check out the neglected family palazzo in the countryside that’s been mothballed for years. Being an interior designer, she welcomes the challenge of doing the place up as a surprise for her husband on return from his business in London. The caretaker lets her in and lets slip a few details about her husband’s seemingly chequered past prior to their wedding, just six months earlier.
Left alone to explore the villa, Virginia finds a familiar room. There’s an ornate mirror that matches the one she saw in her vision and, under the dust sheets, there’s that same sinister lampshade. On closer inspection, she finds a crack in the wall outlining the place where she felt the cavity had been. She’s so convinced this is the place where the murder happened that she takes an axe to the wall in a frenzy of fearful, tearful apprehension and uncovers a skeleton.
Jennifer O’Neill is great at quietly emoting and Fulci exploits this talent with plenty of extreme close-ups throughout. The American actress was still in Italy following her role in Luchino Visconti’s L’innocente (1976) and landed the role after starring with James Mason and Franco Nero in The Flower in His Mouth / Gente di Rispettoa (1975), a thriller with a hint of giallo.
Of course, Virginia’s husband, Francesco Ducci (Gianni Garko), is recalled from his foreign trip in England to aid the police investigation but is soon arrested when the body is identified as a young woman he’d had a casual affair with some years ago. Still reeling from the traumatic events, Virginia doesn’t want to believe her husband is the killer and, stranger still, the dead girl isn’t the same older woman Virginia saw murdered in her vision. Of course, the police dismiss her as hysterical at best or complicit at worst, but she’s convinced that not all is as it seems.
Parapsychologist Luca (Marc Porel) has been studying Virginia’s clairvoyance for a while and there’s clearly an unrequited attraction between them, so she turns to him for help in clearing Francesco’s name and, together with Luca’s unexpectedly astute research assistant, Bruna (Jenny Tamburi), conduct their own investigation. This trio of amateur sleuths would’ve been fine fodder for a spin-off series!
The clues they piece together as the meticulously plotted narrative unfolds connect the events to a high-profile art theft of a Vermeer painting, “The Love Letter”, which was painted around 1670 and was stolen, for real, in 1971 when it was used as leverage in an unusual ransom demand for humanitarian aid to be sent to famine-ravaged Bangladesh. Well, that’s a different story just waiting to be filmed, but would’ve rung true to an audience of the time and got them thinking. But is this just more masterful misdirection from a master director of suspense, dipping deep into his Hitchcockian bag of tricks?
The clues seem to lead to contradictory solutions: either one murder was used to cover up another or there were two parallel killings in spookily similar circumstances… and things take a stranger turn when Francesco’s sister, Gloria (Evelyn Stewart), gets involved and, as a token of friendship and trust, gives Virginia a classy watch with a musical alarm tone that plays… the same seven notes heard during her clairvoyant episode. The assured plot then steadily unravels with the precision of clockwork and every second counts. There are no superfluous details, and everything is laid out for the viewer to consider in a superbly crafted thriller. Chances are that most will have a good inkling around the mid-point, but only those who actively keep up have any chance of fully solving the puzzle until that final seventh note plays out.
The Psychic didn’t fare too well on its initial release, but that was at a time when political turmoil in Italy was sporadically erupting into violent protests and domestic terrorism. The economy was suffering, and box office sales were down across the board. Also, the giallo genre was tiring from over-exploitation since the unexpected success of Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), and audiences were on the lookout for the next trend.
In many ways, The Psychic is truer to the format laid down by earlier giallo classics, but audiences had grown accustomed to pastiche that relied on sex and violence rather than plot. The Psychic is a more subdued, cerebral affair with no on-screen extremes of bloody brutality after that initial plummet from Beachy Head. What is shown remains short, sharp, and suitably effective, but that’s mainly because we become invested in the characters and involved in the story.
Fulci would compensate for this lack of violence when he returned to the giallo with the infamous slasher movie, The New York Ripper (1982). By then, he’d earned his reputation as the ‘Godfather of Gore’ with his extreme sequence comprising, Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981), and The House by the Cemetery (1981)—all co-written with Dardano Sacchetti. Although they were a game-changing tour de force of horrors films, Fulci’s gialli are equally deserving of critical scrutiny and have a broader, timeless appeal.
Quentin Tarantino has more than once mentioned his desire to buy the rights for Sette Note in Nero and, according to Sacchetti, Sony pictures have recently contacted him about a remake. It wouldn’t be the first, as it was remade in Tamil as Nooravathu Naal / The Hundredth Day (1984) which, in turn, was remade in Malaysia as Aayiram Kannukal (1986), and then given the full Bollywood treatment with added songs and comedy (the mind boggles) in The 100 Days (1991), which was a huge hit in India. It’s also cited as an uncredited influence on the US thriller, The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) and does, indeed, share the same central theme of a strong, independent woman with extrasensory perception solving a complicated set of cryptic clues to uncover a killer.
ITALY | 1977 | 98 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ITALIAN
Shameless missed an opportunity to produce a nice little collector’s booklet, something that any boutique physical media release really needs to have… otherwise, why have a material thing nowadays? But the otherwise excellent disc release breaks down thus in terms of bonus material…
director: Lucio Fulci.
writers: Roberto Gianviti & Dardano Sacchetti.
starring: Jennifer O’Neill, Gabriele Ferzetti, Marc Porel, Gianni Garko & Ida Galli.