Lucio Fulci's Sette Note in Nero

NOTE: This is the uncharacteristically short, spoiler-free review. For the long, spoiler-filled review, go here.
In 1976, Lucio Fulci was approached by producer Dino deLaurentiis about making a giallo, or an Italian-style mystery thriller. Fulci convinced deLaurentiis to secure the rights to a novel about a psychiatrist whose methods of therapy turned his patients into killers. Together with his frequent collaborator Roberto Gianviti, Fulci set out to write a script.

Six months passed, and the script still hadn't got off the ground. The source novel was proving very difficult to adapt. Fulci would return to the story many years later when he made A Cat in the Brain, but at the time he was at a creative impasse. Things weren't helped by the fact that he and deLaurentiis couldn't stand each other. According to Fulci, deLaurentiis wanted more humor in the screenplay, trading on Fulci's reputation both as a director of gialli (like A Lizard in a Woman's Skin and Don't Torture a Duckling and as a master of comedy (How We Robbed the Bank of Italy, Dracula in Brianza). But Fulci had a totally different idea about the film he wanted to make. The personal and creative differences between the two men might have resulted in no movie at all... but fortunately, deLaurentiis had a different Monkey on his back in 1976. So rather than scrap the project entirely, he threw another writer into the mix: a young man named Dardano Sacchetti.

Sacchetti had recently established a name for himself writing Cat o' Nine Tails with Dario Argento. Though he felt a little out of sympathy with Argento's interpretation of his screenplay, and Argento himself saw Cat as a stylistic dead end, the movie had done well enough at the box office to make Sacchetti seem like a good bet to help finish the project. Even with Sacchetti's involvement, the script struggled to emerge. Then one day, after a conversation about Fate, Sacchetti came up with an idea that pleased Fulci very much: a thriller about a woman trapped between the past and the present, trying to escape from what seems like certain death. From that point, the writing went very smoothly, and in September of 1976 filming began on one of the most harmonious projects Fulci was ever involved with.

The resulting movie, Sette Note in Nero, is a stylish and moody horror film — amazingly bloodless for an Italian film of that era, let alone one directed by Lucio Fulci — in which past and present are so relentlessly intertwined that it's almost impossible to tell them apart.

Virginia (Jennifer O'Neill) is a woman with a history of "psychic" premonitions. As a child, she saw the suicide of her mother as it happened — except that her mother threw herself off the cliffs of Dover, while young Virginia was a schoolgirl in Italy.

Years later, newly married to a wealthy businessman named Francesco Ducci (Gianni Garko), experiences some more sinister visions while driving to her husband's villa. She "sees" a woman being walled up, dying, in a room with a red lamp and a broken mirror; a magazine cover with a woman's face on it; a taxi; a man with a limp; and a painting; and other disconnected images. Along with the visions, Virginia hears a simple seven-note melody, as though it were being played on a music box or a chime.

Once she arrives at the villa, she begins to connect the house with the disturbing images in her visions. She soon discovers a corpse walled up in one of the rooms. Naturally, the police immediately arrest her husband, and Virginia tries to follow the other clues of her vision to find the real killer.

At first, luck seems to be on her side, as the pieces of the puzzle begin to fit together. With the help of her psychiatrist (and failed suitor) Luca (Marc Porel), Virginia discovers an inner strength she didn't realize she had. Unfortunately, her attempts to uncover the truth just seem to get Francesco in more and more trouble. Then, just as she seems to stumble across the key to the mystery, everything begins to fall apart. Things begin to go very bad when she receives a gift from her sister-in-law: a watch whose chime plays the same seven notes she heard in her vision. Soon she is no longer sure if the murder she saw in her vision is the one she discovered... or if it is her own.

In later life, Fulci claimed that Sette Note in Nero was his favorite of all his thrillers. It's not difficult to see why: stylistically it's very much different from his other work, and it creates its own otherworldly atmosphere. There's a sort of glow to the photography that matches the dream-like unfolding of the plot, and which suits the background of wealth and high fashion the movie's characters inhabit. Jennifer O'Neill is perfectly cast as the heroine, exhibiting a combination of frailty and unexpected resolve. It woud be easy to lose sympathy with a heroine who's a weak-willed rich girl, but O'Neill (who knew this character all too well from the example of her own life) turns Virginia into one of the best-drawn female characters in Fulci's oeuvre.

Fulci is often connected with H.P. Lovecraft, mostly because of the Lovecraft references in City of the Living Dead, but in interviews Fulci claimed to be much more inspired by Poe. Sette Note... is probably Fulci's most Poe-like film, not only because it borrows a large part of its conclusion from Poe's "The Black Cat", but also in its theme of the past overwhelming the present. Like Poe's work, Fulci's film has supernatural overtones which are neither ghostly nor religious in nature. Like Poe's work (and in stark contract to Lovecraft's), the story of Sette Note... relies on an eerily poetic inner sense of horror, rather than on ghastly images or events.

Although it fared poorly at the box office when it was first released, Sette Note in Nero it was also one of the few Fulci films that got favorable reviews from contemporary critics. It was one of three movies chosen for a Fulci retrospective after the director's death in March, 1996 (along with the early musical Urlatore alla Sbarra and Fulci's first major success, Una sull'Altra). Quentin Tarantino, who has often claimed Fulci as an influence, tried to secure the rights to Sette Note in Nero for re-release in 1997 as part of his video line, Rolling Thunder. He was ultimately unable to do this, and instead he re-released the better-known L'Aldilà/The Beyond.

Sette Note in Nero has sometimes been referred to by American critics as a rip-off of Eyes of Laura Mars. Fulci's film came first, though it wasn't released in the U.S. until 1979, after Laura Mars had enjoyed some success. Actually, John Carpenter (who write the original screenplay for Laura Mars) was probably working on it at the same time Dardano Sacchetti was writing Sette Note...; both films had a slightly complicated history. Should we be surprised that two contemporaneous films about psychics should have a certain feeling of déjà vu?

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