NOTE: This is the long, spoiler-filled review. For the uncharacteristically short, spoiler-free review, go here.
Let me explain: in the early 90's, I was a big fan of Dario Argento. In the summer of 1990 I had seen Deep Red and Creepers (the U.S. cuts of Profondo Rosso and Phenomena) on successive nights, and I could not believe what I'd just seen. Afterwards I set about tracking down The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Suspiria and the desperately cut versions of Cat o' Nine Tails and Tenebre ("Unsane") — which represented pretty much everything of his you could get on the legitimate market at that time. Well, OK: Opera had just received a major release on VHS in America... but the tape cost $90, which was way more than I could spend on a movie. Having come to a dead end with Argento, I decided to take a look at other examples of the post-Gothic era in Italian horror film.
By this time, Argento's reputation among genre fans was at a high point. He had yet to put out a movie that was really embarrassing (OK, Phenomena was wildly uneven, but at least it was compelling — unlike, say, Phantom of the Opera. Any movie that uses a heroic chimp with a straight razor as its deus ex machina is all right with me). At the other end of the critical spectrum I ran into another name: a horror director named Lucio Fulci. It seemed that nobody had anything good to say about Fulci. He was known for making some of the bloodiest, most spectacularly grisly movies ever made, but if you wiped the gore off the screen (according to the prevailing opinion) there was nothing left underneath. He was derivative... tasteless... talentless... a hack; and with the likes of Bruno ("Vincent Dawn") Mattei still unworthy of notice, Fulci was considered just about as bad as you could get.
My first instinct was to avoid anything by Fulci. But then I found out he had directed 1979's infamous Zombie (aka Zombi 2), a movie I had missed when it first came out... (by virtue of the fact that I was 13 at the time, and there was no way my parents were taking me to see a movie that had been rated R for spectacularly over-the-top violence). I had vivid memories of the ads for Zombie, and of the 1980 Fangoria cover featuring Ol' Worm-Eye, the movie's famous spokes-zombie; as disgusting as the film was reputed to be, it still held a peculiar fascination for me. So, to prepare for the ordeal of Zombie, I decided to ease my way into the world of Lucio Fulci by watching The Black Cat, which had just been released on VHS by Rhino video.
The Black Cat turned out to be a good-news / bad-news type of movie. It's atmospheric, but stupid. There's very little of Fulci's trademark gore in it, which surprised me. What little plot there was combined Poe's original tale with some creepy ghost-story enhancements featuring Patrick Magee, and wrapped it all in a dumb pseudo-giallo framework featuring David Warbeck as a police inspector. The VHS pan-and-scan transfer didn't help me appreciate the film: as I was to learn later, Fulci usually made good use of the 2.40:1 aspect ratio in his screen compositions — but at certain points in the cropped version, two people would be talking to each other, yet neither would be visible on-screen. Another of Fulci's trademarks is his Sergio Leone-inspired closeups of the actors' eyes... but reduced to full-screen, all you end up seeing is the bridge of the actor's nose. Still, for all the shortcomings of both the movie and the VHS print, I thought it was a competent flick, and much better than I'd expected it to be.
Thus emboldened, I went on to Zombie and City of the Living Dead.
I hated them.
Zombie, I thought, was disjointed and dull. City of the Living Dead (or as it was known on VHS, Gates of Hell), on the other hand, I didn't even consider a movie. After watching these three films, I sat down and wrote my very first review (on paper, of course — I'd never even heard of the Internet at this point). It was entitled "Too Much Is Not Enough: Reflections on the way back to the video store", and in it I expressed a desire for Fulci to spend more time putting his characters together before tearing them apart. Even then, repelled as I was by City/Gates (more for its narrative shortcomings than its repulsive gore), I was still intrigued enough to sit down with pen and paper and try to analyze my response to it. And having done that initial analysis, I immediately started to question it. I remembered seeing a VHS copy of another Fulci film, called The Psychic, at a video store in a mall about an hour from my house. One Saturday, having nothing else to do, I jumped in my car and drove all the way down, in the off-chance the movie was still there.
It was. And it was The Psychic (original title, Sette Note in Nero) that completely changed my mind about Lucio Fulci, and made me go back to his gore films for a fresh look. It was The Psychic that convinced me the critics had been wrong. At first, I thought the movie was just another weak copy of Argento's Deep Red — the body in the wall, the clues seen yet not understood, the wrong suspect getting clobbered before the reveal, etc. — but then I sat down again to write out my thoughts, and in doing so I realized that my deeply prejudiced first impressions did not match the content of the film.
In fact, Sette Note... is a slowly-paced, atmospheric nightmare, in which everything — from the production design to the cast to the music to the photography — comes together perfectly. It may not be the most important or ground-breaking of Fulci's pre-Zombie thrillers (that title probably goes to 1972's Don't Torture a Duckling, which is brilliant), but it occupies a unique place both in Fulci's output and in the history of the giallo.
(There's some disagreement as to whether or not the movie really is a giallo, mostly based on the fact that Fulci's film doesn't feature the typical black-gloved maniac, and is almost entirely bloodless. In spite of the lack of Argento-style characteristics, Sette Note... is certainly a giallo: reduced to its bare essentials, the giallo takes the Edgar Wallace-style mystery and replaces its internal English-type logic with something irrational and strange pulled straight from the Italian subconscious. We're still left with an investigator piecing together clues and motives, but those clues and motives need not have any grounding in reason or common sense. When you look at it from the point of view of construction rather than style, Sette Note... clearly belongs in the same category as Deep Red, in spite of its significant difference in tone.)
When she was a little girl, Virginia (Jennifer O'Neill) witnessed the suicide of her mother. This would be traumatic enough under normal circumstances. But little Virginia saw her mother throw herself off the cliffs of Dover while she was attending school in Florence, Italy (Actually, we can't be certain if Virginia had her psychic vision at the very moment her mother fell [scraping off large portions of her face, in a special effect re-used from Don't Torture a Duckling] or an hour before: the titles inform us both events happen at 11:45 AM on October 12, 1959, but Florence is a Time Zone away from Dover; in any case, time is fluid in the typical Fulci film).
It doesn't look any more convincing in motion, I'm afraid.
Naturally, this event has had a terrible effect on the girl, and she's spent many years in therapy with her psychiatrist Luca (Marc Porel) trying to make sense of her paranormal experience. Still, as the story proper begins, Virginia seems to have finally put her nightmares behind her. She's become a successful designer; she's met and married the love of her life, Francesco Ducci — who just happens to be an immensely wealthy man. She's like the princess in a fairy-tale, rescued by her handsome prince and taken to a palazzo nestled in the staggeringly beautiful landscape of Tuscany. She's happy. She's in love. It seems as though she'll never have to worry about anything again for the rest of her life, as she goes in Francesco's Rolls Royce to see him off in his private plane.
But something troubling happens to Virginia as she drives home alone. The gorgeous Tuscan landscape suddenly seems lonely and surreal. She drives through a series of tunnels, which seem to stretch as she drives through them — their darkness seems impossibly deep. All at once, Virginia can no longer see the tunnel or the road ahead of her. Instead, what she sees is this:
Virginia comes to her senses pulled over at the side of the road. Looking behind her, she sees the tunnel — the very, very short tunnel that in no way resembles the black pit she thought she was disappearing into. Beside her is a policeman, looking terribly concerned (one does not simply breathalyze a woman in luxurious furs, driving a Rolls Royce).
Virginia immediately goes to see Luca. She hasn't seen much of him since her marriage six months ago, and not just because her happy marriage had given her a new sense of stability and peace. Luca, it seems, had formed a wholly-unprofessional attachment to his patient, and Virginia didn't feel the same way at all. Luca is clearly bitter about this, and Virginia knows it. Still, Luca's scientific interest in the paranormal makes him the only person she can turn to for real advice.
Luca is quick to point out that Virginia's had many "visions" over the years, some of which might have been mildly prophetic, but many of which clearly weren't. Nevertheless, he records her account of the episode on tape while it's still fresh in her mind, so that if something does happen they'll have a definite statement to refer to. Virginia's interpretation is that she's seen an older woman murdered, and walled up in a room by a man with a limp...
Some days later, with Francesco still away, Virginia occupies herself by starting a renovation project on one of Francesco's unused properties. There's an old villa Francesco had used long ago to entertain his many, many girlfriends; but it's been abandoned for several years. As Virginia begins taking the covers off the furniture of the main bedroom, she's horrified to discover an ornate, one-of-a-kind mirror identical to the one in her vision — except this one is unbroken. Stepping back to look at the room as a whole, she's equally taken aback to find that it's the same one she saw — the same furniture, the same stuffed birds, the same lamp with the red shade. And if this really is the room from her vision, then there should have been a hole in the wall, just where a cabinet now stands.
Sure enough, when she pushes aside the cabinet, Virginia is just able to make out the faint line where newer plaster has been applied.
Finding bricks and tools in the basement — the camera finds this more significant than Virginia does — she grabs a pick and begins to break down the wall.
This turns out to be much more arduous work than Virginia expected, or is used to; after her initial burst of adrenalin fades, common sense takes over, and Virginia sinks back onto a chair, exhausted. Her hands are raw and blistered; she's made a mess of the wall... and for what? Just because she thought she had a dream about this very room? Is she going crazy?
At this point, Virginia looks up from her sore hands... and catches sight of a human finger bone sticking out from the exposed brickwork.
This time the police are a little less polite. Are they expected to believe that Virginia, who'd never been in this villa before, had gone straight to the wall and pulled out a body? "Either the walls here are full of skeletons..." begins the policeman; but Virginia insists on her story about ghostly premonitions.
Francesco cuts short his business trip to London and comes back — not just to comfort his wife, but to answer some pointed questions about how, exactly, a corpse has managed to turn up in his house. As he points out to Virginia, Italian justice is much different from English-style justice, with its presumption of innocence. If no better suspect can be found, it's enough for the police that the body was found on his property. At the moment, Francesco Ducci is the closest thing to a suspect they have.
Things get worse for Virginia when the skeleton in the wall turns out to be the remains of a 25-year-old girl. Virginia insists this can't possibly be true: the woman in her vision was much older than that. But that's not the only shock in store for Virginia. Once she goes back to the villa, she looks out the window and catches sight of the woman she thought was dead, looking up at her from the street. If the body in the wall isn't that of the woman Virginia thought she saw, then who is she? And how did she know she was there? Francesco pleads with her to stop driving both of them crazy, and just let the police do their jobs.
Well, the police do do their jobs, and that's the worst news yet. The body is identified as Agnese Bignardi, reporting missing in August five years ago. She's also the girl Virginia saw on the cover of the magazine in her vision. Now, it just so happens that Francesco knew Agnese Bignardi. Years before he met Virginia, Francesco had had a brief fling with her ("Anything but serious," he assures her). That connection, and Francesco's ownership of the villa, is enough to incriminate him in the girl's murder. Bignardi's death is estimated to have taken place between January and June five years ago, and Francesco has no alibi for most of that period.
Virginia is frantic. But the only way she can help free her husband is to find evidence that Agnese Bignardi was still alive when Francesco left Italy for a business trip in April of that year. In order to find that evidence, she's going to have to work with her still-infatuated friend Luca and his staff, to try to piece together more of the fragments of her vision. Te trouble is, the things she saw remain maddeningly vague. It seems she's already been wrong about the dead woman's age. What if she's wrong about the rest?
(Francesco, in the meantime, begs her from prison to STOP. HELPING. HIM. Really; she's done enough already...)
Clue Number One: cigarettes with yellow paper. If Virginia's vision is to be believed, these are somehow connected with the murderer. Virginia knows that Francesco has never been a smoker, so this just proves he must be innocent. But Francesco's sister does smoke, and Virginia is surprised to find her lighting up a yellow cigarette — Gitanes, from a friend in the French embassy. Her sister-in-law gladly gives her the whole pack.
Clue Number Two: the room. Francesco's sister had also thought about re-doing the villa, at exactly the same time that Agnese Bignardi was walled up in it. She'd wanted to do it for the same reason as Virginia: Francesco was away on business, and she was bored. She'd gone so far as to put the bricks in the cellar (!!), and she'd even planned on knocking out that same wall. But she'd got distracted and never finished. But wait — the one thing she did manage to do was to replace all the furniture. Virginia clings to that bit of news like a lifeline: if the furniture in her vision didn't get put in the villa until after Francesco left, that's further proof that the murder was committed in June... after Francesco had gone to America (well, either that, or Virginia's sister-in-law is the murderer... which is always a possibility).
Clue Number Three: the taxi. It seems that the murder of Agnese Bignardi was committed elsewhere, and the body was moved to the villa so that Francesco would be incriminated if her remains were ever found. It's possible the murderer could have used a taxi at some point in the plan — but how could they trace a single yellow cab after five years?
Luca's seemingly-scatterbrained secretary has the answer to that. She's looked it up: there were no official yellow taxis in Siena until 1972, at which point only 16 of them were put into service. Eventually they do manage to find a driver who remembers Agnese Bignardi: his taxi hadn't been yellow, but he'd painted it himself when the new cabs were put into service. He remembers the girl, because she's been wearing a miniskirt with nothing underneath ("My eyes saw everything!"). She'd been with someone: a distinguished-looking man with a beard, who walked with a limp. The couple had exited the cab outside an art gallery.
Meanwhile, a woman leaves a message on Virginia's answering machine, telling her she's heard what's happened and wants to help. She has "the winning card" that will free Francesco, if Virginia will only call her back at — and then the message ends; she's spoken longer than 30 seconds, and the tape has cut her off.
While they wait for the woman to call back, Virginia and Luca go to the gallery where the taxi driver had seen Agnese Bignardi. The gallery makes no impression on Virginia — it's not one of the places she saw in her vision. Just as they are about to leave, Virginia catches sight of a black-and-white image on the wall. It's a placeholder for a painting, a priceless Vermeer that was stolen 5 years ago, in March of 1973. Virginia recognizes the painting: she'd seen a similar black-and-white postcard of the same paining with the words "Lombrone 6" written across it. When Virginia and Luca investigate the story of the robbery, they come across a photograph of Professor Rospini, the director of the museum. He's a distinguished looking man with the beard... and except for the beard, he looks exactly like the sinister man Virginia saw in her vision.
Virginia discovers that Rospini had had an equestrian accident around the time of the robbery, which would account for his limp. But when she confronts Rospini about his relationship with Agnese, he angrily orders her to leave. As Virginia leaves, Rospini rushes to the telephone. He tells someone not to play games — that he needs to protect himself. "You're in this, too," he warns the other person.
Clearly Virginia is on the right track, but the pieces still don't quite add up. She's sure Agnese was killed by a man with a limp. Rospini had a limp five years ago — but in her vision, it wasn't Rospini, but another man who was limping. Also, Rospini had a beard at that time, but in the vision he only had a moustache — the way he is today. It's all very confusing... but before Virginia can start making sense of what's becoming increasingly clear to the viewers, she stumbles upon the next important clue: a magazine with a photo of Agnese Bignardi on the cover, just like the magazine Virginia thought she'd seen. Luca anxiously tries to trace the photo; clearly the magazine had used it once before five years ago, and recycled it from stock. What nobody seems to notice is the publication information under the magazine title: this particular magazine is still in its first year. There's no way it could have published the photograph at the time of Agnese Bignardi's murder.
The photo was sold to the magazine by a horse trainer, who'd found it in the archives of the local riding club. In the full picture, Agnese is holding the reins of the horse belonging to... wait for it... Professor Rospini. The banner behind Agnese's head clearly identifies the event as the Tenth Annual Horse Show, which the trainer remembers was held in June of 1973. That's right: the photograph proves beyond question that Agnese was still alive in June, when Francesco was in America. Virginia has finally found the proof of her husband's innocence!
The police are satisfied (for the moment) with the photograph that seems to prove Francesco's innocence. As Virginia prepares for his return from prison, she gets a message on her answering machine: it's the same woman from before, wondering why Virginia hasn't come to see her. She gives her address this time: it's Via del Lombrone number 6. She's about to rush off when her sister-in-law stops her. She's brought Virginia a little present, for everything she's done for her poor brother. It's a watch — a unique Bulgari timepiece, with a very distinctive chime: a delicate little melody, seven notes long. The same seven notes that Virginia heard at the end of her vision...
Poor Virginia is too wrapped up in her interpretation of what she's seen to understand what this implies. But for us in the audience, this moment is the fulcrum on which the plot balances. We now see clearly that the events Virginia witnessed in her psychic flash aren't glimpses of the past at all: they represent the future — and specifically, Virginia's future. Virginia now has the watch with the Seven Notes. She's also carrying a pack of yellow cigarettes. Rospini wears a moustache these days, and is no longer walking with a limp. Agnese Bignardi's picture is on the cover of a magazine which didn't exist in 1973. And now Virginia is on her way to Lombrone 6 — an address she scrawls absent-mindedly on a photograph of the stolen Vermeer — in a yellow radio taxi.
When she arrives at the Via del Lombrone, the door to the house is open. Music is playing somewhere upstairs, but nobody seems to be home. Virginia creeps silently up the stairs... only to run into the bleeding corpse of a woman in late middle-age. It's the woman she'd seen in her vision — the woman she'd thought was walled up in her husband's villa.
Virginia's screams reveal her presence to a man upstairs, who's busy ransacking the house. She is barely able to hide herself before the man comes charging downstairs. It's Rospini, looking exactly as he did in the premonition. Virginia discovers that she's hiding in the ornately-decorated red room, which means that the letter she'd also seen — which is probably what Rospini is looking for — is right here in the room with her. She turns over the bust of a woman and finds the letter underneath. Now the room is exactly as she saw it. Virginia runs out just as Rospini breaks down the door behind her...
Rospini pursues her through the night, to a church which is closed for repairs. Behind the altar, she sees the Madonna and Child artwork. She climbs up on a scaffold and crouches in the darkness. Rospini bursts into the church,but is unable to find Virginia. Just as he seems about to give up, the seven-note chime of Virginia's watch start to sound. Rospini turns, and follows the sound of the Seven Notes in Black...
This is by no means the end, and you've probably guessed the gigantic plot twist that's yet to come. Chances are you've spotted the inconsistency in the story of Rospini's riding accident, which happened before the gallery robbery. Perhaps you're still wondering where the man with the limp comes in. Or perhaps you've remembered something interesting about Roman numerals, which are frequently used on official occasions. Or, most likely, you remember the principle of the Least Likely Suspect, which is usually modified in the giallo to become the suspect whose guilt is cruelest to the protagonist.
It was always intended (by Fulci and screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti) that Virginia should survive her encounter with Fate. That was the aspect that had attracted Fulci to Sacchetti's idea in the first place — a woman could be driven to a seemingly inescapable doom, yet still be rescued at the last minute. Even the title of the incidental music composed for the final scene — "Rescued" — points to that conclusion. But the actual ending of Sette Note... leaves her fate very much in doubt. We never get to see if she's still alive when help finally arrives. In fact, until I researched the genesis of the film, it was always my impression that her rescuers arrived too late. At the end of the movie, Virginia is Schroedinger's Corpse, neither certainly alive nor certainly dead... and this ending, with the fate of the heroine undecided and unrevealed, is perfect for the story. Neither interpretation is correct, because both are.
There are a number of elements that combine to make Sette Note in Nero such a successful and memorable film. The cast, for example, is very well chosen. Gianni Garko had never played a character like Francesco Ducci before, though he went on to make this sort of character a trademark of his in his later career. As for Jennifer O'Neill, it's hard to imagine a better choice for the role of Virginia. Like Virginia, O'Neill was a curious mixture of frailty and resilience. Born into a wealthy family, she'd got herself into a string of abusive relationships, until many years later (and well after Fulci's film) the supernatural intervened and allowed her to find her hidden strength (of course, in O'Neill's case it was simply finding Jesus, but the parallel is still pretty amazing). Virginia is Fulci's best heroine — a woman who's doubted herself and who's relied on others, particularly men, to establish her sense of self-worth. When she's confronted with a paranormal incident that threatens everything and everyone she loves, she discovers her core of iron. Ultimately, though, she's not very good at bringing her determination out in a useful way, and she makes a lot of mistakes... which is completely understandable, and realistic in a way these kinds of stories rarely are. However, when she finally manages to break through to the solution of the mystery, it turns out she's undermined everything she thought she was working to save. Faced with the ultimate betrayal, Virginia's new-found resolve deserts her completely. This is a complicated character to bring to life in a convincing way, and O'Neill seems to do it effortlessly.
The technical aspects of the production are impeccable. Dardano Sacchetti, working with Fulci for the first time in what would become a legendary (if troubled) partnership, delivered one of the strongest scripts of his career. Sergio Salvati and Franco Bruni did an amazing job with the photography, giving everything a soft, dream-like glow that's appropriate for the story, yet totally unlike the look of any of the other films Salvati made with Fulci (Fulci would try again years later to get this sort of effect on a ridiculously small budget, in the television film House of Clocks... and would fail). The sound design, production design and editing are all first-rate.
But if there's one particular component of the film that should be singled out for its contribution to the success of the whole, it's the music by Franco Bixio, Fabio Frizzi and Vince Tempera.
The Bixio-Frizzi-Tempera trio had already worked with Fulci on The Four of the Apocalypse (someday I may even forgive them for the theme song). Their music for Sette Note... is on a completely different level. Like Virginia's psychic flashes, the musical score is made up of repeating fragments that may or may not have a specific meaning in and of themselves.
There are too many examples to list them all, but the most obvious musical element is the Seven Black Notes themselves. (There are only 5 "black notes" on the standard piano keyboard, and even though there are only five individual notes [pitch classes] in the seven-note melody, they cannot be played only on the black keys. They might be sinister notes, or notes heard in darkness, but they're not "black notes" in the conventional sense.)
These are the Seven Notes:
Fabio Frizzi came up with this musical figure by experimenting. In these days, before the advent of sequencers, musicians needed to create tape loops in order to repeat a musical figure over and over again, and this is precisely what Frizzi did. This particular pattern seemed to offer all sorts of possibilities... so much so that you can see its outline in the famous theme Frizzi composed a couple of years later for Fulci's Zombi 2:
The first five of the Seven Notes...
... are also the first notes of 'Zombi 2'
Having come up with an ideal Seven Notes, the trio actually considered having a watch made specially to play the tune — all in the name of authenticity. According to Fabio Frizzi, Franco Bixio made inquiries with a Swiss watchmaker... but when they found out how much such a watch would cost to build, they immediately dropped the idea and used a celesta instead.
In the incidental music, the Seven Notes fit very nicely over a chord progression that seems to represent the force of destiny:
This chord progression is heard at several points in the film. The very first time we hear it is the moment when Virginia notices the mismatched plaster in the wall. When Virginia discovers the body beneath, we hear it again, briefly — only the first two chords. Later on, the progression is reduced only to the bass line; but toward the end of the movie, when Virginia's watch goes off and betrays her hiding place to Rospini, the progression comes back for full orchestra, with the Seven Notes on top as an ostinato. The music just before the end credits seems to hark back to this: as the Seven Notes play (in sympathy with the sound of Virginia's watch, behind the wall where she's been buried alive), the Fate progression is once again reduced only to the bass line... and it stops, with a dissonance, on the second note. The ambiguity of the final image is reflected by the soundtrack.
To further illustrate the intelligent craftsmanship of the score, I'd like to point out a moment that occurs late in the film, when Virginia goes to Via Lombrone and finds the old woman's body. As she enters the house, a piece of ersatz classical music (a fake piano concerto) is playing on the radio. As she moves through the house and gets closer to the secret within, she also gets closer to the radio, so the music gets gradually louder and more insistent. This pseudo-concerto just happens to resemble suspense movie music. In fact, it's so much like suspense movie music that it comes as a real shock when a hand reaches into the frame and turns the music off. This gesture is brilliant in itself, but it gets better: at the dénouement, when the killer reveals the meaning of the letter Virginia found in the red room, the "suspense movie music" creeps back into the score, this time as real incidental music. That's still not the final surprise — if you take a close look at the main theme of this music, you may notice something interesting:
Compare the bass line with the "Fate" progression above. It turns out the "Fate" chord progression (speeded up a bit) fits very easily into the first two measures! Just as the individual fragments of Virginia's vision seem to point to both the past and the future, the musical elements that make up the score all feed into each other in subtle ways.
Subtlety even intrudes on the cloying opening-title song, "With You" (a Frizzi composition). By 70's Euro-pop standards, it's really not bad; as I learned after watching the movie several times in succession to write this review, it has definite ear-worm potential. The odd thing about it is its performance by a singer named "Linda Lee" (not her real name). Frizzi knew that her weak, breathy voice was all wrong for the song... yet he hired her anyway, because he knew the resulting effect would be perfect for the tone of the movie. He was right.