No one could have more admiration for the great Lucio Fulci than me. Many times I have found that a great deal of the films he has made which have been critically dismissed as substandard or 'boring', have really been full of powerful ideas and great direction. On the one hand, Fulci gets a lot of grief from those who remember his classy seventies movies like "Don't Torture A Duckling" and see his gore-soaked horror period as full of trashy commercial rubbish; and on the other hand, there are those 'gore-hounds' out there who have little time to engage with anything more than the brief thrill engendered by the prospect of heads being drilled and eyes being gouged. Consequently, they tend to judge the quality of his films by the amount of red stuff that gets splattered across the screen. "Manhattan Baby" is one of those films that has always caught it in the neck from both sides in this divide. It is derided by the 'connoisseurs' as mindless, derivative rubbish and dismissed by the 'thrill seekers' as boring, anaemic twaddle. Unfortunately, this time, both these verdicts seem largely justified; this film is a mess -- poorly written, sloppily conceived and indifferently acted by a nondescript cast.
The 'action' starts on an archaeological dig in Egypt. Professor George Hacker (played by granite-faced Christopher Connelly) is supervising the excavation of an ancient stela which is inscribed with mysterious hieroglyphs and a symbol in the shape of an eye. Believing it to be an important aid in unlocking the secrets buried in a newly discovered tomb, Hacker takes a local guide with him on an exploration of this site. Meanwhile, Hacker's young daughter, Susie (Brigitta Boccoli) and his wife, Emily (Martha Taylor) are site-seeing around Cairo. While Emily is busy taking photographs, Susie encounters a strange woman with cataracts over her eyes. The woman grasps Susie's hand intoning: "Tombs are for the dead", and the young girl finds an amulet — with the same 'eye' symbol on it as her father found on the stela — has materialised in her hand. Back at the tomb, Professor Hacker and his guide find more symbols, reminiscent of the ones on the stela, but before they can stop to interpret them, a trapdoor opens and the guide gets impaled on a bed of spikes below (in one of the film's rare 'Fulci-esque' moments, one of the spikes goes straight through the middle of his face and out the back of his head!). Hacker escapes this fate, but two beams of 'energy' shoot out of one of the symbols on the wall, into his eyes and blind him.
This opening segment was not part of the original script but was added with the hope of giving the film some international appeal, according to Dardano Sacchetti (the film's main writer). It actually makes for quite a promising start; you would be hard pushed not to be able to create some sort of ambience when you have the beguiling enigma of some of ancient Egypt's most famous monuments as your backdrop. Fulci gets to film around The Sphinx on the Giza plateau, and the tomb that Professor Hacker investigates is filmed near the Step Pyramid of King Djoser and its surrounding funerary complex. Fulci's compositions take full advantage of the film's 2.35:1 aspect ratio and the whole of this sequence is beautifully filmed (by Cinematographer Gugliemo Mancori) and skilfully edited. My hopes were high at this stage that this would turn out to be another of those films of Fulci's that has been unfairly maligned.
Those hopes were soon to be dashed, however. The film now switches location; the Hacker family are back in New York, where George is having his eyes examined. His blindness is probably temporary, but he will have to keep away from bright lights for some time. he spends a great deal of the next part of the film with thick gauze pads over his eyes, but, comically, continues to wear his spectacles over the top of them -- what a nutter! Meanwhile, Susie still has the amulet and wears it around her neck in place of her crucifix.
Next up we come to the biggest shock of the film. It turns out that young Susie Hacker has a younger brother, and this younger brother is played by one Giovanni Frezza! Those of you familiar with the Italian horror genre will now be recoiling in disgust. Yes! This is the same horrible runt who played 'Bob' in "The House by the Cemetery" -- as well as making numerous appearances in such films as "Demons" and "A Blade in the Dark" -- and, guess what... he's even more irritating here! There is no adequate way to describe the sinking feeling experienced inside when one witnesses that familiar mop of blonde hair with it's bizarre centre-parting, loom into view once more. Once again we must endure that peculiar glint of smug self-satisfaction emanating from his baby-blue eyes; along with his freckle-laced button-nose and his leering smile full of crooked tombstone teeth. Here, he is playing little Tommy Hacker, and the film is surely doomed from this moment on! At one point, after he has accused her of being a lesbian (what a wag!), his sister Susie tells their baby-sitter (Cinzia de Ponti) that he is "an incorrigible little brat". Well, whatever faults this film may have, at least no one can say that it is not well cast!
Any attempt to describe the plot from this point on will inevitably suffer from a slight vagueness, not to say complete incoherence. Of course, few fans of Italian horror look to the genre for logical or linear plot development; but it soon becomes apparent that, in this instance, rather than a device for representing the unnamable horrors of the human imagination, this film's incomprehensibility is the result of a complete failure by the writers to clarify what kind of a movie they are trying to make. At first it seems to be a haunted house movie -- with creaking doors, strange voices appearing on recorded tape and horrible nightmares suffered by Susie; then it seems to turn into a rip-off of "Poltergeist" with the amulet somehow acting as a gateway to another dimension. People start disappearing and piles of Egyptian sand and the occasional snake and scorpion start turning up in the Hackers' Manhattan apartment.
Then the film turns into "The Exorcist" (the Egyptian opening is probably meant to invoke that film as well), as Susie sinks into an inexplicable torpor which the medical establishment cannot treat or account for. Eventually, the Hackers turn to an antique dealer named Adrian Mercato (Cosimo Cinieri) — who practices parapsychology on the side — to help them. Apparently Susie is absorbing 'negative energy' from the amulet and has become possessed (or something like that, who knows?) by some kind of ancient power. Mercato effects a 'transference' to free Susie of the power of the amulet, but them gets attacked and killed by a load of his stuffed birds which come to life! The Hackers meanwhile, presumably live happily ever after. The end!
In the end, the film is curiously muted in approach, reigning back on the gore that was common in most of Lucio Fulci's other films from this period but offering little in its place but bland, watered down and derivative fair. Only at the very end of the film, with a bizarre stuffed bird attack (don't ask!) does the red stuff flow (a throat gets ripped out but curiously for Fulci, no eyes). Whether this scene was intended as a homage to Hitchcock is hard to say. Maybe the stuffed birds are meant to recall "Psycho" and their attack, 'Tippi' Hedren getting pecked into catatonia at the end of "The Birds". But while that film achieved the effect through a skillfully constructed scene involving hundreds of edits, "Manhattan Baby" attempts it with a load of bedraggled, stuffed birds dangling on clearly visible strings. When script writer, Dardano Sacchetti was interviewed for Anchor Bay's DVD some time ago, his explanation for the film's faults was particularly telling: The film was originally intended as a move away from the 'classical' horror of previous screenplays he had written into more 'metaphysical' realms, but the original budget was cut by two-thirds and the special-effects which had originally been envisioned had to be abandoned, with the script hastily rewritten! In fact the film is nothing but a catalogue of half-baked ideas ineffectively realised. One can almost feel Fulci straining every sinew trying to inject some sort of life into the project; but no matter how many interesting angles he finds to shoot from, or how many expertly crafted scenes he composes, all the polishing in the world is not going to make this turd shine! One thing worth noting is that the score by Fabio Frizzi is quite fabulous. It was also fabulous when it appeared in "The Beyond" and "The City of the Living Dead"! Presumably the budget cuts the film suffered are to blame for the music from Fulci's other (and better) films being recycled, but the result is simply to make you wish you were watching one of those films instead of this one!
If you want to convince people that Fulci is more than just an opportunist hack then don't show them this film! And if anyone knows the whereabouts of Giovanni Frezza, give him a good kicking for me!