It’s been a while since I’ve taken a Fulci out for a spin; frankly the latter part of his career (say, post New York Ripper) has generally been met with the indifference (and occasional disdain) afforded his fellow countryman Dario Argento (say, post Opera). Fair? Well, art is subjective, but even strict apologists have a hard time defending some late in the game efforts. Which brings us to Aenigma (1987), Fulci’s take on Argento, and a fine last gasp of electric madness.
Distributed by Filman International late December in France, Aenigma didn’t see release in Fulci’s homeland until August of ’88; by this point his films weren’t even making it stateside anymore, and it didn’t show up in North America until late October the following year for a limited run. When DVDs started making noise in the early ‘00s, Aenigma was finally brought to a wider audience who promptly gave it the awkward smile of a disappointed parent. This includes yours truly, who was more in line with the absentee dad who never came back after he went out for smokes.
Yes, I was one of the ignorant ones who never saw it until recently, because I believed everyone about the content therein, and I’m happy to report that most of it isn’t true; or at least the stuff I need for a film like this to work: atmosphere, style, and a welcome remove from the norm.
Which is to say it’s steeped in that very particular Italian cinemaspace where the simple string of reality nearly unravels holding the weight of insanity from scene to scene; this is the way of all the upper echelon – Bava, Argento, and our enfant terrible du jour, Lucio – as structure is almost never as important as sensation. To wit:
Kathy (Milijana Zirojevic) is being made up for a big date by her “friends” at the prestigious all-girls school she attends in Boston (okay, it’s really Sarajevo); the problem is, her date is with the gym teacher who is in cahoots with the other students to humiliate her, resulting in Kathy ending up in a coma after a freak automobile accident. As she lay in hospital in between worlds, new student Eva (Lara Lamberti – A Blade in the Dark) arrives at the school, and is immediately inhabited by Kathy’s spirit (even though she’s still kicking).
It would appear that Kathy has unfinished business to attend to; before class bells can ring and liquid paper can dry, she uses Eva as a vessel for her vengeance against those who have done her wrong. Only an extremely sympathetic doctor (Jared Martin – Westworld) – at least to the females – stands between Kathy, her domination of Eva, and the diminishment of the student populace. Will he be able to sign off on Kathy’s do not resuscitate order?
Aenigma. Even the title conjures up Dario; sitting comfortably next to the fantastical Suspiria, Inferno, and Phenomena on video store shelves, the word promises the allure of the unknown and a dance with the macabre. That the film somewhat manages to evoke the ethereal this late in Fulci’s career with a steelier resolve than expected is more than enough to consider it an under the radar success.
The ethereal is where many of Fulci’s later day triumphs lay; his Gates of Hell trilogy City of the Living Dead (’80), The Beyond, and The House by the Cemetery (both ’81) are considered by many fans the apex of surreal Italian horror. (I’d swap out House for ‘79s Zombie but I’m a sucker for straight up gut munching.) And Aenigma taps back into that particular vein; the disjointedness seems intentional, and after the straightforward seediness and squalor of The New York Ripper (’82), it comes as a relief to see fantasy injected into his work again.
As for that resolve, Fulci was quite ill in the mid ‘80s, suffering a string of bad fortune with hepatitis, then cirrhosis, on top of his diabetes; most of his work bore this out at the time – not a big Murder Rock guy, sorry – resulting in tired efforts. But Aenigma has a surprising amount of energy to it, a swiftness often lacking even in his best work; not that this compares, but it never lumbers or lets you wallow in the shallowness of the inspiration.
So this is Fulci borrowing then; a cup of Carrie here, a pinch of Patrick there, sprinkled with some Jennifer to sweeten the pot. And while the glory gory days are not revisited, he does go in for a decapitation, self-strangulation, and in a weird move that could only come from his mind, death by snail (not the $5 a pop kind in a restaurant, fancy pants; these are your, well, garden variety). But probably the biggest nods are towards Argento’s Phenomena (’85) and cinematographer Luigi Ciccarese makes sure you know it; swooping shots, bizarre POVs and primary colors splashed across the screen not only invite comparisons, they nearly rob Fulci of his entire identity.
I said nearly. The film is plenty strange; even when he filters his sensibilities through another’s eyes, the result is still bloodshot and hell-bent on making the viewer uneasy. And within these borrowed fevers he finds his own moments of inspiration; a scene set in a museum where the statues come to life should be as celebrated as any of his other set pieces from his more revered works.
Aenigma will never be lauded as prime Fulci; the truth is it’s amazing he was able to make films at all in his disarrayed state. It does however, show an artist using the language of film – his own, and others he admired – to yell into the cinematic abyss one more glorious time; I just hope the echo returns soon for others to hear.
Aenigma is available on Blu-ray from 88 Films.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (1960)