Its somewhat humorous that there is a fairly common opinion that the works of both Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, two of the most well known and highly regarded directors of Italian horror cinema began to go downhill at certain points in both their respective careers. While many feel that Argento began to lose his touch in the 90’s with Trauma (1993) and with each new film continues to polarize to this day, in Fulci’s case, The New York Ripper (1982) is the film that several fans point to has his last masterpiece, yet that film also has the distinction of having more than its fair share of detractors. With the exception of the mental Cat in the Brain (1990), largely considered one of the very first “postmodern” horror films, the majority if of Fulci’s films made after The New York Ripper have been swept to the side and essentially thrown under the bus. Following the ultra gritty Ripper, Manhattan Baby saw Fulci take a completely opposite direction, returning to the realm of the supernatural where Fulci found himself on a roll with masterpieces like City of the Living Dead, (1980) The Beyond (1981) and House By The Cemetery (1981) and out of all of Fulci’s post-Ripper films, Manhattan Baby is one that seems to take the most amount of grief which is too bad as its an underrated film that deserves better.
While vacationing with her family in Egypt, Susie Hacker, the young daughter of an archeologist is approached by a local blind woman and handed a jewel along with an ominous warning, “Tombs are for the dead”. Not long after, her father George is blinded by a mysterious blue light while exploring an ancient tomb. Upon returning to their home in New York City, George miraculously gains his eyesight back but Susie beings to exhibit some odd behavior and several strange events begin to plague Susie as well as her brother Tommy, and Susie’s health and psyche soon take a turn for the worse. Desperate, George turns to an antiques expert informing him Susie is at the mercy of an ancient, malevolent curse housed in the jewel given to her in Egypt, a curse that is wreaking havoc on her family and anyone that comes in contact with them.
Manhattan Baby (a title which has nothing to do with anything) is a curious entry in Fulci’s filmography in that it defiantly sees Fulci returning to some familiar territories just on a slightly smaller scale than before and there are some tips of the hat to other genre films as well, the most obvious being The Exorcist (1973) but with a Fulci touch of course. If there’s one thing that really sets Manhattan Baby apart from Fulci’s other films of a similar nature its that the tone of the film isn’t as overtly apocalyptic as say The Beyond or City of the Living Dead which is why the film isn’t nearly as derivative of Fulci’s other works as many detractors claim and despite Fulci’s use of several tropes from his past films it never feels as if he’s spinning his wheels, always throwing some unique little twist in the mix. Another common complaint leveled at the film is that its nonsensical which is quite odd considering Fulci was never really regarded as a master of the cohesive narrative, especially when discussing his 80’s supernatural horror films. Its a bizarre film to be sure, one that employs dream logic in every sense of the meaning and yes, there are times when the film doesn’t really seem that interested in telling a “story” so to speak, yet given the curse angle, the randomness of many of the events in the film actually work in its favor leading to some really surreal, imaginative and memorable moments.
One of the things that sticks out the most about Manhattan Baby is that unlike Fulci’s more well regarded horror works from the early 80’s is the lack of gore, something that will no doubt disappoint fans that have yet to see the film that have come to expect extreme violence from Fulci but the lack of bloodshed isn’t really a detriment to the film, mostly because the majority of the happenings in the film don’t really call for any, although there is one fairly bloody moment towards the end of the film. Its important to note that the producer of the film cut ¾ of the budget resulting in some serious downscaling on several of the films major visual effects. Even with the lack of sufficient funds Fulci’s command of the visual is in full force and economical as the film might be its actually the visuals that are one of the main selling points of the film with Fulci taking full advantage of the metaphysical nature of the story. Naturally the opening moments of the film in Egypt are stunning with Fulci’s camerawork immediately conjuring up a feeling on menace with Fulci also making nifty use of sand which also comes into play later on the film during a mesmerizing scene where a bedroom floor becomes a desert. Also aiding the film is the main theme by longtime Fulci collaborator Fabio Frizzi along with older pieces from past Fulci films so yes, on that front the film is a bit recycled.
Manhattan Baby has the distinction of being the last Fulci film to receive an American theatrical release as Eye of the Evil Dead. Not an entirely inappropriate re-title, although the poster featuring a scantily clad woman about to be ravaged by creatures to bare a strong resemblance to the Templar Knights from Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead films couldn’t have been more misleading. Some random tidbits, the Blue Underground DVD of the film contains an interview with co-screenwriter and Fulci collaborator Dardano Sacchetti which may be a bit brief running only 9 minutes is rather fascinating particularly due to the man’s views on a variety of topics including the horror genre in general, the budget issues the film faced, working with Fulci and perhaps most interesting is his explanation of the religious influences behind the films finale, IE the differing of opinions between the English and Italians regarding good and evil. He also addresses the charges of misogyny that have been directed at Fulci over the years. Also, Fabio Frizzi’s theme for the film was brilliantly covered by Finnish death/doom metal band Hooded Menace on their 2010 debut album Fulfill The Curse. Ultimately, it isn’t likely that Manhattan Baby will be considered “essential” Fulci anytime soon. It is however a film that Fulci fanatics should give a chance. While not Fulci’s best, its far from his worst and is deserving of a reassessment.