The work of Italian director Lucio Fulci is mainly associated with aching cinematic nihilism, early-eighties gore, and crumbling, bloodthirsty zombies, not to mention an obsession with ocular violence! but in recent years, the director’s giallo output has also received some degree of attention and many plaudits from enthusiasts. Most of these films were made in the wake of the enormous giallo craze that followed the release of Dario Argento’s The Bird with Crystal Plumage.
Fulci’s work in the genre -- from Lizard in a Woman’s Skin to The New York Ripper -- often outwardly conforms to the conventions codified in Argento’s work, while incorporating Fulci’s trademark misanthropy (some would say misogyny) into the mechanics of the material, producing an often unremittingly bleak picture of human interrelationships.
Perversion Story (released in English-speaking territories as One on Top of the Other) was released six months before Bird with the Crystal Plumage and seems more influenced by Hitchcock, or more specifically the work of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac -- the writing team responsible for Vertigo and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques -- than it is by the black-gloved stalkers and garish melodramas that made up the content of most examples of the giallo before this period. The screenplay is co-written by Fulci himself, with Roberto Gianviti, a writer who would continue to work on the later Fulci thrillers that fitted more comfortably into the established giallo format.
The film plays out in more of a dynamic and stylish mode than is the norm for Fulci, whose work is usually associated with a looser, cheaper style of cinema; occasionally, the film anticipates the aesthetics of early Brian de Palma thrillers such as Dressed to Kill and Sisters, with not just split-screen techniques, but multiple screens being utilised to create a colourful patchwork of split images within the widescreen frame. But, despite its colourful psychedelic style, the film still portrays the cold world of human misunderstandings and isolation which would soon become a familiar fixture in the thrillers of Lucio Fulci.
The plot is a dense web of intrigues that can't really be summarised too explicitly without giving away much of the joy of watching this kind of red-herring-strew production. Suffice to say it involves Jean Sorel as Dr George Dumurrier, a nattily-dressed playboy surgeon who owns a private practice in San Francisco, along with his tight-laced brother Henry (Alberto de Mendoza). George is pushing the practice into areas his brother is uneasy about, and seems to have something of an eye for a quick scam; but behind the bright exterior lurks a private life of fraught tensions and clammy deceptions. George is practically estranged from his asthma-prone wife, Susan (Marisa Mell) and is conducting a secret affair with his secretary, Jane (Elsa Martinelli), which itself appears hardly a nest of happiness.
Tragedy strikes when Susan dies from a particularly heavy bout of asthma, but the attention of the police is aroused by the fact that George seems likely to gain from a life insurance policy recently taken out on his wife. A mysterious phone call leads George away from Jane while they are out at a posh restaurant; Jane follows him and finds him in a gaudy strip club on the seedy side of town! Both are apparently surprised to see one of the female performers on stage looks exactly like the dead Susan!
Monica Weston (one again played by Marisa Mell) is a feisty, sexy platinum-blonde-haired siren -- nothing like the dowdy Susan in personality, but facially the spitting image! The only difference in their looks (besides hair colour) is that Susan had brown eyes and Monica has green. George is naturally intrigued, but is haunted by the possibility that Monica might actually be Susan! this despite the fact that he has witnessed his wife's lifeless body being stretchered out of his house! He takes the trouble to seduce Monica, hoping to discover the truth in their lovemaking; but Jane, his lover, is also intrigued and convinced that some foul plot is being worked.
For the police, it is all very simple though: they have been following George and are convinced that Monica and Susan are one and the same person, and that they are both involved in an insurance scam. The web of confusion and deception grows; who is lying and why -- if there is a plot, who is behind it and who is the real victim?
Despite the outrageous fashion crimes committed by the entire cast, and in spite of the druggy, psychedelic colour-splash aesthetics and frenzied jazz score by Ritz Ortolani that tie the film down in time to its late-sixties origins, Fulci still manages to endow the film with some of the gritty realism and sense of place that embellishes later films such as New York Ripper. There is more of a sense of the reality of late-sixties San Francisco here than there is in Hitchcock’s smooth, painterly rendering of the city in Vertigo, for instance. Whether it's neon-lit sidewalks in the city's seedy strip-club areas, the San Franciscan harbour district, even the San Quentin gas chamber -- the film always looks like it's happening in real, living locations, no matter how contorted or unlikely the actual plot may be.
Chief among an impressive cast is the startling beautiful Marisa Mell. Fans of the Italian actress will doubtless enjoy her several nude scenes here, but she also impresses with a double role that requires her to, simultaneously, convince us that she is two different people while holding out the possibility that both her incarnations are actually the same person after all. The role is a play on Kim Novak’s in Vertigo of course, and rather than repeat the same trick, the film actually works better if the viewer has come preconditioned by a knowledge of the plot of that film.
If anything lets the film down it is a strangely throwaway ending which, after killing off two of the lead characters unexpectedly, dampens down the suspense of the final scenes by having a news reporter simply tell us what happens with exposition rather than showing us onscreen. Maybe it's an experiment in detachment, echoing the estranged relationships of just about all the characters in the film, but it comes across as a misstep that weakens the movie unnecessarily, in its final moments.
The DVD from Severin films offers a very acceptable transfer of a flawed print. Colours are often bursting off the screen but there is sporadic print damage throughout. The disc comes with no extras, but there is a second disc that offers Ritz Ortolani's exuberant music cues for the film.
There is a lot of traffic on the net concerning the version of the film included on this disc, which is different from the English-speaking version most fans are familiar with. Severin have included both Italian and English soundtracks, and English subtitles, but this is actually a French cut of the film which adds some nudity but cuts about ten minutes of footage concerning plot. I won't add much to the debate, but interested parties can find no better guide to the variant versions than that which is provided by the exhaustive researches of Michael Mackenzie HERE .